The Funeral Murders
I have just seen the BBC documentary The Funeral Murders by Vanessa Engle (Here). Ms Engle’s makes no attempt to understand or investigate events of 1988 nor to be balanced. Instead the film-maker seems to take the opportunity to re-affirm, 30 years later, the depiction of the people of west Belfast as savages or hyenas; and in case you missed her emphasis the first time the footage of the hyenas was played a second time for good measure. Ms Engle’s does not make any pretence that she is trying to understand or investigate the events of 1988. She offers nothing new but has studiously left undisturbed the contradictions to the official accounts, which remain to be answered.
I was involved in the events that occurred at both funerals. I was not a member of the IRA nor had I any training on how to respond to armed gunmen attacking civilians. All the contributors, including the 3 IRA/Republican spokespersons seem to overlook that the majority of those who pursued Michael Stone or disarmed the 2 Corporals were ordinary members of the public and not members of the IRA.
I was one of the civilian majority on both occasions; at Milltown we could say there was at least a 2:1 ratio of civilian/IRA involvement (based on those killed); and in Andersonstown the civilian ratio is even higher if we consider the number of civilians who received convictions ranging from suspended sentences up to life imprisonment. To this day I remain confident that I acted impeccably on both occasions and at no time did I act like a hyena nor did I witness anyone else behave that way.
There are 2 important comparisons to be made: after Stone had been caught and disarmed the Security Forces moved in to rescue him. Whereas, they deserted the 2 Corporals knowing that they could have intervened. In both cases the members of the public who apprehended these armed attackers did no more than rough them up a bit in order to disarm them. For example, both Corporals were able to walk unassisted to Casement Park where members of the IRA awaited them.
In Milltown, myself and Thomas McErlean (I did not know him at the time) were at the front of the chase after Michael Stone. We were running after him along the fence. The angle of the footage from the graveyard gives a false sense of the pursuing crowd being more tightly grouped than we actually were. In reality, there was a notable gap between us and those behind us. When Stone reached the end of the fence close to the motorway Thomas McErlean told me that he had been hit. I caught hold of him while he was still on his feet. As I kneeled beside him I could not see what was wrong with him and did not know what to do. When someone arrived, that seemed to know what to do Thomas turned his face toward me and told me that he was ok and for me to keep chasing Stone: “Don’t let him get away.” he insisted. I continued to chase after Stone. I was again at the head of the chase and each time I tried to get ahead of Stone he would shoot at me to stop me encircling him. A container lorry was stopped on the road ahead of us and when I reached it I used it for cover to sprint ahead. Another man from Nansen Street in Iveagh was with me. We managed to get ahead of Stone and cut off his route. While Stone fired shots at us this afforded another man the chance to come up behind him. This man initially had a large traffic cone to hit Stone with but it was too unwieldy and as Stone realised he was there the man quickly dropped the cone and wrapped an arm around Stone’s neck pulling him backwards. As Stone stumbled he threw his last grenade among his pursuers, a boy (from Beechmount), in his early or mid-teens quickly kicked the grenade down the embankment where it exploded harmlessly. A number of us descended onto Stone from every direction. I managed to get his gun. I had never handled a revolver before and by the time I realised the gun was empty a larger crowd had descended on Stone that only his legs remained visible to me. I later learned that a second gun had fallen out of his pocket –apparently, this gun had jammed because the wrong size bullets were in it.
At the funeral 3 days later, I was near the back when I heard the commotion and screeching of car wheels. I sprinted forward. I arrived as one suspected loyalist was being brought to the ground. For a moment I saw his gun lying on the road. As I went to reach for it someone else lifted it. I then noticed 2 men wrestling with each other. One was a steward and the other I knew to see from the Davis area. I initially thought he had the gun and the steward had mistaken him for another loyalist attacker. I broke them up and when I turned around again the suspected loyalist was standing up and someone began to lead him toward Casement Park. I was standing by the front door of the attacker’s car when someone told me to search the front while he searched the back of the car. This man opened a holdall and made a sharp intake of air at whatever he saw. As we looked at each other between the front seats he told me to drive. I did not know how to drive and he then told me to clear the road for him. I thought it might have been explosives in the bag and shouted for everyone to clear the road because there was a bomb in the car. A space opened up and the car revved away.
Afterwards the BBC broadcast a blatantly false report; the claim was (and still is) that after leaving North Howard Street Mill the soldiers should have turned left instead of right on the Falls Road –one route would have afforded them safety along the M1 the other provided only danger on the Andersonstown Road. It was such a false claim I figured it was only for the benefit of anyone who did not know Belfast, (the Soldiers Families for example) because everyone here knows the Grosvenor, Broadway and Donegal Roads are all direct access roads onto the motorway, as is Kennedy Way also. Ms Engle’s did not try to correct the record but repeated the inaccurate historical BBC narrative. Nor did Ms Engle’s make any attempt to challenge or question the official account from the MoD.
There is persuasive evidence that these 2 soldiers did not leave North Howard Street Barracks as alleged but where in fact based in in the Andersonstown area that day. For example, the documentary unwittingly reveals that the Soldiers were initially identified by a commanding RUC officer in Andersonstown because they were driving one of his unmarked patrol cars from Woodbourne Barracks.
Senior Republican, Danny Morrison gave his personal view about something he obviously had no first-hand knowledge about. No one involved in the initial disarming of both suspected loyalists had any idea both attackers were Military personnel. In addition, an anonymous IRA spokesperson berated how the public responded under attack. The IRA took control of the situation at a later stage, ultimately shooting both soldiers. I don’t think the Country IRA apply a higher standard when they shoot their semi naked victims and dump their bodies along the border. I also assume, that this man’s closest experience, if any, of contact with his enemy might be no more than through a pair of binoculars on a command-wire half a mile away from any attack. It certainly, is not as a civilian up close and personal as in Milltown or Andersonstown.
In reply to Mr Morrison and the anonymous IRA man with regard to the initially suspected loyalists: 1) the IRA only took control of the situation once the 2 were inside Casement Park. Only then were the soldiers stripped and searched and that is the earliest stage when the 2 assumed loyalist attacker’s true identities could have become known.
Regardless of their identities, panicked and frightened civilians acted in unison in self-defence to prevent a deadly attack. It was the quick reaction of those closest to the car that day that prevented any civilian deaths had these men not been stopped. I would even say that there are probably people in France, London, Germany and the US wishing they could have reacted as quickly as unarmed civilians in Belfast did when faced with the same unknown dangers from gunmen driving at deadly speed into members of the public.
If the 2 Soldiers were, as contributors claim, so restrained and professional in the face of danger then they did not mount the footpath and drive at mourners out of panic as has been suggested, because they were the threat and not the mourners attending a funeral. One former Security Force contributor on the documentary was doing more to bemoan his disdain for the restrictions placed on the security forces from shooting Nationalists at random.
It has been said that, as professionals, the 2 Corporals tried to do what an amateur failed to do in Milltown Cemetery. From looking at a map that portion of the funeral route was probably the best location to spring an attack and still allow for the attackers to escape safely. However, they did not have the benefit of Google street view –an overhead map would not have shown the steel barrier between the road and the shops where their possible plan appears to have gone wrong. They drew level with where Adams & McGuinness where and only then realised there was a steel barrier between them. They could have kept driving forward to safety; the road ahead was clearing for them. Instead they reversed back the way they had come; they could have continued to reverse down the Andersons Road from where they came but they didn’t. Alternatively, they could have turned up Slemish Way but they choose not to. Instead they turned the wheels of the car to attempt to make another run at the cortege but this time without the barrier obstructing them. Their way was blocked this time by the quick thinking of a taxi driver. Even then they could still have reversed to safety further along the Andersonstown Road in the direction they had come.
Just like one of the contributors, I too was an ordinary Catholic from west Belfast and these attacks made their mark on me. There is no dispute that these 2 soldiers died an awful death: what needn’t have happened did.
The 2 attacking soldiers were not as restrained as they are posthumously being credited with. The soldier in the passenger seat attempted to shoot at the crowd but his gun jammed. The driver could not get a clear shot at those tackling his partner. He fired a shot and then attempted to get out of the car to get a clear shot at those grappling with his partner. He was prevented from killing anyone by the quick thinking of those close by.
However, they were prevented from killing anyone and none of the critics in the documentary, suggest how members of the public should react when under violent attack from gun, grenade or high speed car? The Loyalist contributor was unshaking for his pragmatic opinion that his community would have reacted the same way under similar circumstances.
I, and those who acted with me, acted with the best intention to bring 2 deadly situations to a stop and to prevent innocent civilians from being killed. It was not our fault these 2 soldiers recklessly put their own lives, and the lives of others, at risk. They could have withdrawn but choose not to but instead decided to attack at speed in their car.
As mostly civilians, we acted as best we could, our attackers were armed and we were not, we had no training and we were unprepared. I dare say that that there are people wishing they had been able to act sooner on the Promenade des Anglais on Bastile Day in 2016 to stop or limit the number of innocent people killed that day. It was only by luck and not design that the 2 Corporals did not kill anyone when they mounted foot paths and drove at deadly speed at mourners or because one of their guns jammed and the other soldier was quickly disarmed before getting a clear shot.
Equally, the Security Forces held back from rescuing their own men because they thought Nationalists/ Republicans were on the receiving end and not their own. It is not our fault they made a bad judgment call. Ms Engle’s further displays her own bias when being told by a senior RUC officer in charge that he was being ordered to act contrary to his own best judgment; Ms Engle’s did not try to discover who gave him his orders in March 1988 or why? What was her point?
Nor did she question how Michael Stone came to use an RUC issue revolver in his attack? The Official line is that the RUC officer who may have aided and abetted in the Milltown Attack could not be identified because the serial number on his gun had been filed off. That is baloney, it is well established forensic science that the indentation of a serial number on metal cannot be fully removed because it is still discernible at molecular level. Nor was she concerned that MI5 armed Loyalists with the very grenades that Stone used in his deadly attack in Milltown Cemetery.
The Security Forces had an arsenal of camera’s trained on Milltown Cemetery, not least from Broadway Towers or several helicopters: it is inconceivable that they did not track where the white van went or get a picture of the number plate.
Some years ago within British Military circles questions were being asked about the mysterious death of a member of the Military Police in Afghanistan. Members of the British Army for some reason related this man’s mysterious death to something he discovered when tasked to investigate Michael Stone’s attack on mourners in Milltown Cemetery.
Ms Engle’s has made no attempt to understand or investigate the outstanding questions that remain from those attacks and the security Forces role in either attack. Instead she made a documentary to re-demonise Nationalist’s/Republican’s for acting in self-defence 30 years ago. I am not only proud of how I responded and conducted myself but with every Islamic attack in Europe or elsewhere I only wish other civilians could follow our example; whether their attackers are armed with guns, knives or cars.