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30 years ago a trio of killings sparked one of the darkest, most bizarre, fortnights of The Troubles

The shooting dead of three IRA members on the British territory of Gibraltar sent the North into a frenzy.

IRA Terrorists Shot Dead The three IRA members shot in Gibraltar: (l to r) Sean Savage, Mairéad Farrell, Daniel McCann PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

ON 6 MARCH 1988, three unarmed members of the IRA were shot dead on the territory of Gibraltar by British Special Air Service (SAS) troops.

The killings of Sean Savage, Daniel McCann, and Mairéad Farrell sparked two weeks of increasingly macabre happenings in the trio’s native Belfast.

All three were killed as part of the controversial Operation Flavius, the British military operation targeted at preventing a planned bombing by the IRA in the territory.

Despite the fact the three were unarmed, a subsequent inquest in September 1988 into the deaths returned a verdict of ‘lawful killing’, a decision that was subsequently appealed by the deceased’s families to the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that the operation had been in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Less than 14 days after the killings in Gibraltar, a further five people had died in Belfast in truly bizarre circumstances.

shutterstock_714739852 The Rock of Gibraltar Shutterstock / PhotoFires Shutterstock / PhotoFires / PhotoFires

On 16 March 1988, the three funerals of Savage, McCann, and Farrell took place in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery.

“The whole idea around that kind of funeral at the time was that the state couldn’t police them too heavily for fear of riots,” says Dr Conor Mulvagh, professor of Irish history at UCD. “That gave Michael Stone the opportunity he was looking for.”

UDA volunteer Stone stormed the funeral, with both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in attendance, and attacked the mourners with both an automatic pistol and hand grenades. His actions left a further three people dead – Thomas McErlean and John Murray (both civilians), and Kevin Brady, a Provisional IRA volunteer, while more than 60 people were wounded.

When Stone had run out of ammunition making his running escape, he jogged out onto a nearby motorway and tried to stop a car. He was caught by the funeral crowd and beaten unconscious, before the arrival of RUC officers who brought him to hospital.

TVArchivesNI / YouTube

The entire incident was captured by television cameras which had been on hand to cover the high-profile funerals.

Cameras were also present three days later at the final funeral of the three people killed by Stone, that of Kevin Brady. The atmosphere on that occasion on 19 March was one of heightened tension in the whole community.

Crime - Loyalist Bomb Attack - Milltown Cemetery Panic at the Milltown Cemetery in Belfast on 16 March 1988. Sinn Féin vice president Martin McGuinness is pictured on the left PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

As the cortége made its way along the Andersonstown Road, a grey Volkswagen Passat somehow, inexplicably, drove straight at the head of the procession. The car mounted a pavement, scattering mourners, before finding its exit blocked. It then reversed at full speed away from the crowd only to find its escape blocked once more.

The car was set upon by the crowd, which briefly pulled back when it became clear the driver was carrying a handgun, from which he fired a single shot.

The two men in the car were off-duty British Army corporals David Howes and Derek Wood. The two were eventually dragged from the car and beaten and stripped, before being driven to nearby waste ground where they were shot dead.

No satisfactory reason has ever been given as to why the two men drove at the funeral in the first place.

TVArchivesNI / YouTube

The bloody fortnight, together with the IRA’s bombing of Enniskillen just four months prior, lead to an escalation in The Troubles after the violence had calmed to an extent in the mid-80s.

The various incidents also may have been the catalyst that finally brought the IRA to the negotiations table and kickstarted the peace process in the North.

People Smashing Cars A silver Volkswagen Passat is attacked by funeral attendees at the cortége for Kevin Brady Getty Images Getty Images

“It was a seminal moment in the Troubles,” says Mulvagh, “particularly the Michael Stone attack – for nationalist, Catholic, and republican communities it’s one that really resonates.”

Up until then the idea of attacking a funeral, or desecrating a grave, was largely not seen in Irish political violence.
The three incidents were played out with the immediacy of the media, and the reality of what was happening was as such really brought home to the public at large.

He suggests that the fortnight of violence “did have an impact”, particularly coming so soon on the heels of the Enniskillen bombing and the negative public reaction to same.

“After the hunger strikes (in 1981) there was a long period of detente, particularly with Sinn Féin choosing to contest Dáil elections in the south from 1986,” he says.

All these incidents led to an escalation of violence when it was least expected, one which provoked public revulsion. That together with the instigation of the British broadcasting ban on republican figureheads chimed with the first probes by Sinn Féin regarding peace talks.
It brought Gerry Adams to talk to John Hume, and it brought the paramilitaries in from the cold.

Read: 11 people arrested in Limerick on suspicion of sexually exploiting children

Read: Charles Haughey asked Britain not to fly three IRA bodies through Dublin in 1988

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