Belfast Telegraph

The Gibraltar Three, Michael Stone, the corporals’ murders ... when all a reporter could do was watch helplessly as the horror unfolded, and do their job afterwards

 

By Jim McDowell

They say time never stands still. It does. Not only for the people who died in Ulster's so-called Troubles. Or the families who remember the exact date, time and place of their murders.

Or the knock on the door that brought the worst of bad news amid the worst of terror times and crimes.

But there's another sector of society for whom time stands still, too.

It embraces the members of the emergency services - police, soldiers, medics, firemen and women, ambulance personnel.

What the jargon calls 'first responders'.

In other words, often the first folk on the scene of death and destruction.

That was, and is, their job.

Into that category, too, fall journalists.

They had to be there, too. Almost instantly. Their duty: to report, impartially and objectively, the slaughter, most of it nakedly and obscenely sectarian, on our blood-soaked streets.

The two principles - impartiality and objectivity - were often more than hard to observe. Especially since it was our own people, our fellow citizens, of whatever faith or none, and sometimes people we knew, or even our own kith and kin, who were being murdered or mutilated.

So for many journalists - well, those of us who are left - this month 30 years ago was not so much about the Ides of March as being the scribes of that murderous March month of 1988 - the same month Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44BC.

His 'Et tu Brute' killing sparked a brutal civil war in the Roman Republic.

The SAS ambush of the Gibraltar Three - Mairead Farrell, Danny McCann and Sean Savage - the Milltown funeral massacre which was perpetrated by Michael Stone, and the subsequent IRA execution of corporals Derek Wood and David Howes came as close to plunging Northern Ireland (and perhaps all of Ireland) into a sectarian, if not civil, war as any other series of lethal events.

And not least because the trio of terror-related shootings were all intrinsically linked, and telescoped into a terrifying span of just 13 days.

Of course, there are the well-known, icicles in the veins, images literally framed for ever for the archives. The late Fr Alec Reid kneeling, anointing and praying over the prostrate, pummelled and only partly clothed body of Corporal Howes.

Not-so-crazed, but cool and calculating Michael Stone standing defiantly in front of the wire fence, his duncher cap, which had helped his disguise, now discarded, his distinctive mane of jet black hair flying in the wind, still pumping the last of his bullets at his outraged pursuers.

The at times cantankerous triple inquest into the Gibraltar SAS 'Operation Flavius' - again, perhaps a play on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Ides of March - where the accusations of an SAS/'British State' shoot-to-kill policy hung like the stinging scent of cordite in the legal cauldron of the Coroner's Court.

And the barbed-wire-in-the blood tension and sheer sense of terror that clawed at the very air both at the crushed and crowded gates outside, and in the shadows of the Celtic crosses inside Milltown Cemetery the day of the Gibraltar Three funerals, when Stone smuggled himself in unnoticed and made his solo sortie, shooting three more people dead.

And the consequence: three days later the two corporals encroach on the funeral of one of Stone's victims, Kevin Brady, himself an IRA volunteer, are hauled out of their unmarked car, stripped almost naked, hammered, and shot in the head. Time stood still then. The sheer helplessness of being a reporter and ordered, at gunpoint, to stand still and silent outside the high spiked fence of Casement Park as the soldiers were savagely manhandled inside.

And then the searing sight of their bloodied bodies being whisked away, gnawingly knowing what was to be their fate.

And being able to do nothing about it - because if you tried, you knew yours would be the same.

Shamefully, perhaps, it was no time for heroes.

But then, our job was not to react but to report.

Similarly with Stone at Milltown. A grenade-tossing gunman running amok among a mass of people just out of a Requiem Mass.

And, at his behest and at my elbow, an English rookie reporter from a national newspaper on his first assignment in Ulster exclaiming "someone's letting off fireworks!".

I buried his head behind a marble headstone and told him to keep it there.

And therein, like at the corporals' kidnap and killings, lies the journalist's and the photographer's perpetual, and sometimes haunting, dilemma.

Whether to interfere and perhaps be killed yourself.

Or to survive, and inform.

That applies especially to journalists and photographers who work in war zones: and, even more especially, to journalists and photographers who work in terror war zones reporting a conflict which raged for over 30 years, and on our own doorsteps, too.

Which harks back to another iconic picture taken in a war zone.

It is a picture which haunted the American psyche and helped, undeniably and undoubtedly, to write the epitaph for the Vietnam War.

It was taken by photographer Nick Ut for the Associated Press in Vietnam in 1972.

It shows a small, scattering bunch of kids running screaming up a road after their village has been (mistakenly) bombed with napalm.

The fire and the smoke rise and rage in the background.

One little girl is running naked.

Her skin is blotched white with napalm burns. Photographer Ut keeps clicking the shutter on his lens.

It is only when the wee girl runs past him that he sees the napalm burn marks.

He runs to throw water over her, but she cries: "Too hot… too hot."

He eventually gets her to hospital. Aged just nine years, she survives.

Just.

But time stood still for Nick Ut when he had that flesh-scorched and very frightened child focused in his camera lens.

He was doing his job.

He was opening a window to the world of what war, any kind of war, is really about.

That's what journalists did here.

Whether it was during the Ides of March in 1988.

Or at any other time when, for us, time stood still during what is now labelled 'the Troubles'.

Finally, I once asked Michael Stone what it was like to shoot someone.

He said it was "like watching a coat fall off a hanger".

Which just goes to show, even for the terrorist, time stands still.

Although, after all this time, and even after those terrifying 13 days 30 years ago this month, I doubt if it haunts any of them.

The rest of us are left to wrestle with our demons.

The demons themselves don't.

Light among the darkness

Permit me one light caveat from those dark, cavernous days 30 years ago.

I ran out of Milltown Cemetery searching for a phone. There were no mobile phones then.

The late boss of Citybus and Ulsterbus Werner Heubeck was standing behind the padlocked gates of the Falls bus depot directly opposite the gates of the graveyard. I knew him. I ran over, said I needed to use a phone, and he prised open the gates to let me through.

I told him I needed to file copy, urgently, quickly summing up what had happened at the funeral.

He pointed me to the inspector's office. I dialled the number for the first newspaper I was working for - I was a freelance reporter then - and had started dictating, off the top of the head, to the copytaker on the other end of the phone when there was a tap on my shoulder.

It was Mr Heubeck. I stopped talking.

"Mr McDowell", he said in the Austrian-born businessman's heavily-accented English. "I hope that is a transfer charge call you are making..."

That was Werner. In for a pound, in for a penny when he was risking his life carrying bombs off his beloved buses.

But certainly counting the pennies when it came to paying his company phone bills: no matter what the circumstances.

Belfast Telegraph

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