Forty-seven year old Séamus Ludlow, a quiet, unassuming life-long bachelor, was something of a man of habit. On the afternoon of Saturday the 1st of May 1976, he left his place of work, a timbers’ merchants in Ravensdale, County Louth, where he was employed with his brother-in-law, Tommy Fox, and headed to his family home at Thistlecross, just outside the town of Dundalk. He lived there with his widowed mother, his sister Nan and her husband John Sharkey, and as was his custom of a weekend, following a quick lunch, a wash and a change of clothes, he set out for the town to meet up with some friends for a few pints and the odd game of darts. The day was warm and sunny, and acquaintances reported later that Séamus was in good form, happy that his strenuous week as a forestry worker was over and that he could sit back and relax. Around 11.30 pm he decided to head home and as was usual at that period and in such a close-knit rural community, he was last seen thumbing a lift from passing neighbours on a stretch of the Newry Road.
On Sunday morning, around 11.30 am, the bachelor’s family contacted the Garda Síochána, worried that their brother and son had uncharacteristically failed to come home from his night out. Search parties were quickly organised by relatives and friends, led by the local Gardaí, checking out likely spots where the missing man may have been. Around 3.00 pm, near the Ballymascanlon House Hotel and less than two kilometres from Ludlow’s home, two walkers came across the body of a male lying face down in a ditch. Gardaí arrived within ten minutes of a phone call alerting them to the discovery and they were horrified to find a corpse with clear signs of having suffered a violent death. Within an hour or two Kevin Ludlow, the brother of Séamus, along with brothers-in-law Tommy and John, arrived on the scene and made a positive identification. The Garda Síochána launched an immediate murder investigation in the county, though the grief-stricken family were to be shocked by the hostility shown to them by the Special Branch detectives visiting the area from Dublin and Dundalk whose job it was to solve the case. Far from pursuing it in a professional manner the officers spent much of their time interrogating and harrassing the Ludlow, Sharkey and Fox families instead of seeking the real killers of their loved one. Several of Séamus’ siblings and in-laws suffered violent verbal attacks from the detectives, aggravating their trauma and grief, though the reasons for the officers aggression were soon to become apparent.
Four weeks later the murder investigation was halted with no explanation to the family or local community. The Gardaí, the Special Branch detectives, and the Department of Justice, under the control of the notoriously authoritarian 1973-77 coalition government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, refused to provide any reasons for the case being shelved and the victim’s relatives were dismayed when previously friendly local Gardaí began to ignore their pleas for help. A coroner’s report later judged that Séamus Ludlow had died after being shot three times at point-blank-range, while in a seated position, suffering wounds to the lungs, liver and the heart. The killing had almost certainly taken place in the back of a car on the night of May the 1st 1976. Eventually the Garda Síochána began to leak a story to the press claiming that Séamus had been seized and executed by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army on the charge of being an “informer”. These allegations were greeted with incredulity by those who knew the slain man, a feeling which was heightened by the furious rejection of any part in the murder by (P)IRA activists in the Louth region.
In fact from the beginning of the case the Gardaí knew that (P)IRA had no involvement in the events that led to the death of Séamus. Within weeks of the murder the evidence gathered by the investigating detectives indicated that the killers were British terrorists from across the “border”, and by 1979 they knew beyond all shadow of doubt that three unionist extremists and a fourth man from the Dundonald area of County Down were the perpetrators of the crime, thanks to information passed on to them by sympathetic members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC, the United Kingdom’s paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland. Though three of the suspects were members of the Red Hand Commando, a UK terror faction, two were also serving soldiers with the Ulster Defence Regiment, a British Army militia, while at least one was an agent for UK military intelligence.
For the then “partitionist” Fine Gael – Labour coalition, which was focused on pursuing a vigorous campaign against (P)IRA through the use of draconian anti-insurgency legislation, as well as seeking closer relations between Dublin and London, the murder could not have come at a worse time. Just three days after Séamus Ludlow’s death, eight troopers of the Special Air Service or SAS, a British special forces unit, had been captured by Gardaí and soldiers of the Defence Forces in a series of armed confrontations in nearby Omeath, also in County Louth. Subsequent investigations by the Garda Síochána, local politicians, human rights’ groups and the press revealed that the SAS had been carrying out numerous covert cross-border raids in the months leading up to the killing of Séamus, resulting in several abductions and assassinations of suspected volunteers of (P)IRA, some of which were blamed on pro-UK extremists. The leaderships of the coalition and the Garda Síochána, whose rogue Special Branch unit was mired in allegations of illegal detentions and beatings of suspects, seemingly took the decision that détente between Ireland and Britain was more important than the life – or reputation – of one Irish citizen, or seeing his murderers brought to justice.
What took place in 1976 was a massive cover-up of a crime by the counter-insurgency proxies of the United Kingdom on this island nation, a cover-up that was authorised at the highest levels of the Irish political, policing and judicial establishments. It was a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the 1970s, ’80s and 1990s.
You can read more at “The Murder of Seamus Ludlow in County Louth, May 1976” and “The Pat Finucane Centre: Séamus Ludlow“.