Belfast Telegraph

March 1988, two shocking weeks in Northern Ireland Troubles - Gibraltar, Milltown massacre and Corporals' murders


By Ivan Little

The west Belfast man who sipped his cooling pint in the July sunshine outside the Pier Head Hotel in Mullaghmore suddenly swung the conversation away from Lord Mountbatten to those frenzied 14 days in March 1988.

He'd been talking about the IRA murders of Prince Philip's uncle and his companions only yards away in the beautiful Co Sligo seaside village in 1979, and he clearly had no difficulty rationalising the terrorist killings.

But my new-found drinking companion did regret the murderous mayhem of that March madness - 30 years ago this month - that wrote never-to-be-forgotten new phrases into the lexicon of terror.

Gibraltar, the Milltown massacre, and the Corporals' murders are so seared into the consciousness of people over 45 that they barely need explanation.

The three incidents are inextricably linked and created a deadly domino effect of bloodshed in a fortnight that shook Northern Ireland to the core.

The cycle of killings started on Sunday, March 6, with the SAS killing of an IRA bomb team in Gibraltar: Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Danny McCann.

The controversy over what republicans saw as cold and calculated murders still rages, with the Government defending the SAS and denying their actions were part of a shoot-to-kill policy.

But within days a loyalist who unquestionably did have murder in mind used the funerals of the Gibraltar Three to launch his one-man grenade and gun attack on mourners at Milltown cemetery on Wednesday, March 16.

Michael Stone had calmly boarded a number 24 bus from his Braniel home into town before getting into a black taxi to Andersonstown where he attended Requiem Mass at St Agnes' Church.

His plan, he said, was to kill Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness but when he couldn't get near them he walked to the cemetery instead.

With the cameras of TV crews from around the world rolling, Stone hurled grenades and fired a gun at mourners, three of whom were killed: John Murray, Thomas McErlean and Caoimhin MacBradaigh, an IRA member.

Mourners who gave chase caught up with Stone at the M1 motorway and bundled him into a commandeered car, but the police saved the killer.

The man I met at Mullaghmore said he was one of the people who grabbed Stone and there was no reason to doubt him.

I asked him what would have happened to Stone if police hadn't intervened. His reply was "behave yourself" and that said it all.

Stone was later to tell me he had resigned himself to death as his captors drove him away.

For years Stone clearly enjoyed his hero's status among loyalists who put up murals to him, but he did later talk to me of the "courage" of the men he killed at Milltown.

Stone, who was freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, is back in jail after his manic attempt to get into Stormont to kill Messrs Adams and McGuinness in November 2006.

But what Stone had done at Milltown wasn't the last chapter of carnage that had begun in Gibraltar three decades ago.

For on Saturday, March 19, as the world's media again looked on, there were even more killings.

Thousands of mourners were following the cortege of Milltown victim Caoimhin MacBradaigh when two soldiers in plain clothes inexplicably drove up the Andersonstown Road.

As they reversed away from the cortege at speed, dozens of mourners surrounded their vehicle.

Their fear was the men in the car were loyalists, planning a Michael Stone-style attack.

Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes didn't stand a chance.

Cpl Wood drew his standard-issue weapon but didn't fire directly at the baying crowd who ordered TV crews to hand over their tapes, little realising that quick-thinking cameramen were giving them blank ones instead.

The images of the initial attack stunned the world but in court even more harrowing pictures from a camera on an Army helicopter showed the hapless corporals being attacked in Casement Park before IRA gunmen shot them on waste ground.

A chilling picture taken by English photographer David Cairns then emerged of the Redemptorist priest Fr Alec Reid kneeling over the body of Cpl Howes, giving him the last rites.

Earlier in the day Fr Reid had been involved in secret peace talks with republicans. He later found bloodstains on his papers from the negotiations.

Few people would have given him any hope of success if they'd known what the late cleric had been doing. And little wonder.

For even aside from Gibraltar, Milltown and the Corporals it was a bleak, black time in the Troubles. The previous month had come to an end with troops shooting Aidan McAnespie, an unarmed civilian in Tyrone; the IRA had murdered two UDR soldiers, Frederick Starrett and James Cummings, in a booby-trap attack in the centre of Belfast; and two top Provos, Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley, died after their own bomb had blown up near Crossmaglen.

Three more Catholic men - Kevin McCracken, Charles McGrillen and Kevin Mulligan - died in the days between Gibraltar and Milltown.

The first of the trio was shot by troops and Republican News said he was preparing an ambush on the Army.

Mr McGrillen and Mr Mulligan were described as innocent victims of the UDA, which had just given me a statement saying ordinary Catholics had nothing to fear from them.

The day before the corporals' murders, Protestant shop worker Gillian Johnston was shot dead by the IRA outside her family home near Belleek in Co Fermanagh.

The Provos said her killing was a mistake.

Yet two days after the corporals were killed they shot dead policeman Clive Graham in Londonderry - the 18th person to die violently between February 21 and March 21, 1988.

A man convicted of the policeman's murder told detectives he'd joined the IRA for "a bit of craic".

Belfast Telegraph

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