I must admit I groaned at the prospect of shock treatment in a Troubles anniversary documentary by a lone film maker about terrible events thirty years ago. Although we were spared nothing, I was quickly reassured. Vanessa Engle’s clear sighted inquiry without an agenda was rewarded with authentic and sometimes chilling candour from the relatives of IRA dead and loyalists alike. What the film contributed in particular, was insight into how two aspects of the peculiar ethics or etiquette of the Troubles played out : the controversial circumstances of killing and respect for the dead. There were limits which were dangerously exceeded but in the end respect for the limits may have contributed to containing the response.
In The Funeral Murders, Engle follows the horrific sequence of events in March 1988, from the funeral of Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, the three IRA shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar; the attack on the funeral crowd inside Milltown Cemetery by the loyalist Michael Stone who killed three mourners and injured sixty; and ending with the lynching of two soldiers in plain clothes at the consequential funeral of the one of Stone’s victims who was a member of the IRA.
On the Gibraltar killings no attempt was made to pass judgment between the official inquest verdict that the three were lawfully killed and the belief held by many more than the IRA and their loved ones, that they were executed in cold blood. Their operation to detonate a bomb in a car park full of soldiers rehearsing for a parade had been tracked by British and Spanish intelligence for months and the car with the bomb equipment in it was miles away.
Funeral Murders gave us vivid examples of a basic disconnect of the Troubles, over how the IRA community still believe it was perfectly legitimate to shoot to kill unsuspecting police officers or soldiers but was an absolute outrage when police officers or soldiers replied in anything like kind. They are absolutely right of course: security forces are supposed to operate within the law. IRA supporters recognise no such constraints. It’s not so much the belief itself that’s particularly worth considering – it’s either a monstrous hypocrisy or from a different ethic – but how the memory and the emotions with it have changed over 30 years.
At the time these events were particularly incendiary because so much of the gruesome action was captured on video, either by journalists or by the army’s heli-tele in the air. In his powerful witness account Gerry Moriarty writes that he feared civil war. In that he’s supported by the highly experienced veteran of Troubles investigative journalism John Ware, a consultant to the film who writes that “the North drew back from the brink”.
Perhaps they’re right. I had left Belfast and am in no position to make an independent judgment. But I thought at the time – and the film didn’t disabuse me – that the fact that the horror unfolded before everyone’s eyes may have forestalled something much worse.
To begin with, outrage at the Gibraltar killings was heightened by the police’s close order escort of the cortege from the border. This procedure always seemed to me wholly counterproductive. Intended to frustrate illegal paramilitary display, it only ramped up tension and hatred of the RUC. And yet the sudden withdrawal of the police just before the funeral of the Gibraltar three fueled post hoc suspicions that the police were clearing the path for Michael Stone to mount his murderous attack on the crowd. Even in the midst of the IRA campaign Stone’s assault on a funeral was felt to be a basic violation of civilisation.
After the second funeral, was people’s fury checked later at the sight of an angry crowd seizing two men who turned to be soldiers in plain clothes and delivering them to be shot by the IRA behind a wall in Casement Park? Shaky newsfilm and even more, still photographs, captured the horror. The army’s heli tele made available to Engle but not to news outlets at the time, captured it all.
Correction Two men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, were found guilty of the murder of the corporals. They were jailed for life in 1989, with a recommendation of a minimum 25 years. Murphy received a further 83 years, and Maguire 79 years, for bodily harm, falsely imprisoning the soldiers, and possessing a gun and ammunition. Maguire became a member of the IRA’s “camp staff” in the Maze, one of the senior IRA men effectively in control of the republican wings, and met Northern Ireland SecretaryMo Mowlam when she visited the jail to negotiate with prisoners. In November 1998, Murphy and Maguire were released from the Maze prison as part of the early prisoner release scheme under the Good Friday Agreement. Maguire became chairman of the Belfast office of Community Restorative Justice Ireland, a police-supported group aimed at dealing with low-level crime through mediation and intended to replace the practice of “punishment beatings” and kneecappings by paramilitaries.
After Stone, the crowd’s rage and fear of another attack was understandable. But was it not shameful in retrospect? Even here a grim etiquette was violated in the searing heat of the moment. Pressed by Engle an IRA veteran said: “they should have shot them clean… That would have been ok.” The still photograph not shown in the film, of Father Alec Reid praying over the body of one of the soldiers he tried to save, is the signature image of a martyr’s ultimate vulnerability that every Catholic will recognise.
Engle and Ware remind us that to this day, people – including the former IRA publicist Danny Morrison – believe there was collusion between the police and Stone and that the soldiers were “ up to no good.” While this is understandable from the relatives, I doubt if the leaders or the other hard men really believe that. The claim serves Sinn Fein’s campaign to try to prove wider collusion than has been so far established. There were more effective ways of killing Adams and McGuinness than firing a hand gun and throwing grenades well out of range. As for the soldiers, the story I heard was that they were a couple of support soldiers one of whom was showing a newcomer the sight of a big IRA funeral. Tragically foolish but hardly threatening. As Gerry Adams himself said in the film: ”if they ‘d pulled into the side when asked, nothing would have happened”
There is a media sub plot. This was a fairly rare occasion in the Troubles when credible death threats were made against journalists after the authorities went to court to obtain untransmitted film. The government made several attempts to delay the broadcast of Thames TV’s forensically investigative documentary Death on the Rock and attempts were made to discredit witnesses. Director of programmes David Elstein’s account shows the lengths the government were prepared to go to try to suppress it and then discredit its uncomfortable conclusions. Not long afterwards the company lost its ITV franchise. It is not clear that the state’s basic position has changed much in thirty years.
“The battle of the narratives” continues. But perhaps some people have changed and gained valuable perspective. The veteran republican Sean Murray told Engle: “You don’t believe anyone. You listen to all perspectives, and try and understand them. None of them are right in their own merits, and they’re all right in their own merits. “
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London