A month of madness
The first three weeks of March 1988 left an indelible impression on the political landscape of the North and its reverberations are still felt today, writes An Phoblacht’s ÁINE Ní BHRIAN
Over 32 years ago this month – in March 1988 – was a period of intense upheaval in the Six Counties.
It began with the killing of three IRA Volunteers by the SAS in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988.
Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann were unarmed when they were gunned down in broad daylight before the terrified gaze of onlookers. The three Volunteers became the latest victims of the unofficial British policy of the time – shoot to kill. They never had a chance.
The state-sponsored media immediately launched into a now familiar refrain. The IRA had just planted a 500-pound bomb, the world was told, and were killed in a fierce gun battle. There were whisperings of an alleged “Basque connection” and British forces proudly trumpeted that the surveillance operation that had monitored the Volunteers’ movements had been ongoing for months.
But the day after the killings, the story suddenly changed.
The British admitted there had been no bomb at all, and grudgingly acknowledged the Volunteers had been unarmed when they were shot.
When the bodies of the three landed in Dublin to begin the long journey home, their families were there to claim them. And although it was now night, thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortege – all the way to Belfast.
As the procession crossed the border, the RUC tried several times to delay it. They ordered that the National flags that draped the coffins be removed. RUC Land Rovers then closed in on each hearse, following close behind the vehicles. At several points they actually struck the hearses.
Unionist mobs had also lined the route, ready to shout abuse and throw whatever was handy at the bereaved. On arrival in Belfast, a senior RUC man was seen spitting on the hearse carrying the body of Volunteer Dan McCann to his Cavendish Street home.
There had been constant harassment by state forces at the funerals of nationalist and particularly republican dead for some time prior to this. Mourners were regularly attacked by riot gear-clad RUC men and British soldiers. Families were threatened, abused, insulted. Graves were trampled on. Republicans could not bury their dead with dignity.
On 3 March, just prior to the funerals of the Gibraltar Three, there had been funerals for two other IRA Volunteers.
Brendan Moley and Brendan Burns were buried in Crossmaglen, South Armagh. The family of Brendan Moley actually had to fight to have his body released and when the funeral processions finally took place, the mourners were again attacked by the RUC.
So, when the bodies of the Gibraltar Three were returned to their respective homes in Belfast prior to burial, no one was too surprised that the RUC and British Army maintained a presence around their family homes and harrassed mourners who were attending their wakes. It was like rubbing salt into an open wound.
In response, the IRA took to the streets, and on 14 March, as he was preparing to launch an attack on crown forces intimidating mourners outside the Turf Lodge home of Sean Savage, Volunteer Kevin McCracken was shot in the back by a British soldier.
McCracken had been an H Block blanketman, and was a dedicated republican. He died before an ambulance arrived.
Two other nationalists died at the hands of unionist paramilitaries in the following two days.
Charles McGrillen, a 25-year-old father from the Ormeau Road in Belfast, was shot at close range by a lone loyalist gunman on 15 March as he helped a workmate unload goods in a yard on the Annadale embankment. The attack came only 24 hours after the UDA issued a statement saying that “innocent Catholics had nothing to fear” from their campaign against republicans.
Then Kevin Mulligan, who had been shot by a UDA gunman while working in a garage a year earlier, succumbed to his injuries and died in hospital.
Due to the ongoing threat of sectarian violence and the constant presence of British state forces and their continuing harassment of nationalist mourners, tensions were high as the funerals of the Gibraltar Three began on 16 March. But strangely enough, as events commenced there were few RUC or British Army units lurking nearby.
By the time the funeral cortege reached Milltown cemetery in West Belfast, there seemed to be no crown forces about at all – with the exception of two British Army helicopters overhead.
When the coffins of McCann, Farrell and Savage were lowered into the ground, a respectful hush descended on the assembled crowd. That was when unionist paramilitary Michael Stone began his attack.
Stone later claimed his original intention was to kill Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and/or Danny Morrison. He stated he had even been near the three men during and after the funeral Mass, but had for one reason or another, chosen to wait.
In Milltown he decided to act.
Wearing a cap, dark jacket and jeans, Stone stood up from behind a headstone some 50 yards away from the gravesites and lobbed a grenade into the mourners. It landed just 20 yards from the republican plot and exploded, injuring several people.
The crowd was unsure what was happening at first. There was confusion and screams as the injured fell. People scattered in panic and dropped to the ground for cover as stewards desperately appealed for calm. Some lay over others, using their bodies to offer protection from the onslaught. Everyone was looking around, trying to ascertain where the attack was coming from, what was happening, and who was behind it.
Stone reached into the pouch he had around his waist and pulled out more grenades. As he continued to throw the devices, many in the crowd began to pursue him in a selfless attempt to disarm him. Stone was undoubtedly surprised by this. He pulled out a pistol and opened fire, while still throwing the grenades, but those rushing to confront him pulled back only momentarily and then surged forward again.
Stone continued to retreat towards the M1 motorway at the bottom of Milltown, throwing grenades and firing shots as he went. Those who were chasing him gave no thought for their own safety. They simply wanted to stop him before he hurt anyone else. Their courage was exceptional.
As the crowd followed Stone towards the motorway, many then noticed a white van parked on the hard shoulder. Stone made his way towards it, but it suddenly sped away.
Stone then tried to stop several vehicles at gunpoint to make his escape, but he was unsuccessful and republicans finally reached him. He was knocked to the ground and apprehended as he tossed his final grenade. It was only then that the RUC arrived and intervened, threatening the crowd with plastic bullet guns in order to pull Stone away from them.
Later, Stone would claim that his gun had jammed and his mates had “fucked off and left me”. He then decided to retract that remark, and instead claimed he had acted alone.
Had it not been for the courageous actions of those who pursued Michael Stone at Milltown, the death toll would have been much higher. A reporter from the Irish Times said of their actions: “This was not simply bravery; this was a heroism which in other circumstances I have no doubt would have won the highest military decorations.”
In the end, three people died, and a further 60 were injured by shrapnel or gunshot wounds. Among them was a 10-year-old boy who had been shot in the back as he tried to take cover, a grandmother with wounds to her stomach, and a pregnant mother of four.
But had it not been for the courageous actions of those who pursued Stone that day, the toll would have been much higher.
The three men killed by Stone were Thomas McErlean, John Murray and IRA Volunteer Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh.
A reporter from the Irish Times, who had been in attendance that day, said of their actions: “This was not simply bravery; this was a heroism which in other circumstances I have no doubt would have won the highest military decorations.”
There was never any inquest into the deaths of McErlean, Murray or Mac Brádaigh. In fact, the mother of 20-year-old Thomas McErlean was told quite bluntly that there wouldn’t be one. She was told this not by the coroner, but by an RUC man.
Fifteen years later, Sally McErlean still feels her son’s absence profoundly. Speaking on a Belfast-based community radio show last week, she was clearly still affected deeply by his loss. But with a trembling voice she remarked: “In the end I raised a hero, and no matter what, I’m proud of him.”
If there had been an inquest into the deaths, it would have revealed that they had been killed with weapons that were part of a shipment of arms from South Africa organised by British agent Brian Nelson.
State forces had allowed most of the shipment to be delivered into the hands of unionist paramilitaries unhindered, and were well aware they were being used to target nationalists.
The day of his attack in Milltown, Stone had used a Belgian manufactured Browning 9mm pistol of the same type as those brought in from South Africa. He also had a US manufactured .357 Ruger Magnum revolver, the same type as those acquired by the RUC in the early 1980s. Both weapons had had their serial numbers removed.
Stone had also cut the tip of the trigger finger off one of the gloves he wore, allowing for more accurate control of the weapon, and witnesses said he was wearing a plaster around his finger to prevent leaving fingerprints. Clearly, he had thought he would make good his escape.
Questions still remain about the suspicious white van that sat on the motorway hard shoulder. Were the RUC using it? Or were those inside part of Stone’s back up who fled when they saw the crowd chasing Stone?
There had been roadblocks in place all day within yards of the M1 exits at Kennedy Way and Broadway. The graveside oration and burials had taken place within sight of cameras mounted atop the RUC Andersontown barracks and the Broadway tower block, but no crown forces emerged to protect the crowd or apprehend the gunman.
The RUC did not move to apprehend Stone until he had already been caught by the pursuing crowd. The two guns used in the attack were recovered not by the RUC or British Army but by the IRA, who put them on display on the front page of An Phoblacht.
“It is no coincidence that the first funeral to be unaccompanied by crown forces in 18 years was the occasion for a carefully planned loyalist attack,” read a statement issued by the Belfast Brigade of the IRA. “Clearly, the attackers were informed by someone or some people in the crown forces about the strategy which was to be adopted by the RUC and British Army. There was collusion.”
Stone was charged with the killings of the three men he had killed in Milltown, and the additional deaths of three other nationalists as well – Paddy Brady, Kevin McPolin and Dermott Hackett.
When charged with these killings, Stone stated: “I saw his file. He was a legitimate target.” To what file was he referring? Who had compiled it?
The day after the Milltown attack, Volunteer Kevin McCracken was laid to rest. In spite of the danger and tension, there was a massive turnout for his funeral. Security was tight, but his burial passed off peacefully.
The month was now only half over.
On 19 March, the funerals of those who had confronted Stone in Milltown took place. IRA Volunteer Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh’s funeral began quietly enough. Republican stewards with two-way radios monitored the funeral cortege as it inched along the Andersonstown Road.
But when the procession reached Casement Park, a grey Volkswagen Passat with two male occupants drove directly towards the crowd.
The car had ignored the warnings of the stewards, and although the driver saw the cortege up ahead of him, he did not take the opportunity to turn off onto a side street or do a U-turn and go back the way he had come. Instead, he accelerated at high speed and mounted a footpath, narrowly missing several of those who had gathered to line the route.
The car then quickly reversed but was cut off by several Black taxis, who were at the head of the cortege.
Believing they were again under attack by unionist paramilitaries, men began to surround the vehicle. One of the occupants produced a handgun and fired. The crowd pulled back for a second before fearlessly attacking the car again. Both occupants were dragged out of the vehicle and beaten. The IRA arrived on the scene and took custody of both men.
The IRA determining that the two were British soldiers in civilian clothing and subsequently executed them.
The first three weeks of March 1988 left an indelible impression on the political landscape of the North and its reverberations are still felt today.
Michael Stone is now a free man and spends his time painting and selling prison stories about Johnny Adair to tabloid scandal sheets. The Gibraltar Three lie in the Republican Plot of Milltown cemetery, alongside Volunteers Kevin McCracken and Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh.
The RUC has changed its name to the PSNI but little else about the force has changed, and the spy cameras mounted atop Andersontown barracks still watch mourners as they come and go from Milltown.
“The horrendous catalogue of events in the first three weeks of March 1988, from the Gibraltar killings to the corporals’ executions, each incident more unexpected, bizarre and shocking than its precursor, marked for many people the lowest point of the troubles,” writes author Brian Feeney in his book, Sinn Féin – A Hundred Turbulent Years.
“There had been incidents which were worse either in terms of the number of casualties or in the tragedy visited on individuals, but taken together the series of horrors that disfigured that month made many people despair.”
Bringing our heroes home
“Outside the sun was shining. Tourists were busying themselves as tourists do when on holiday.
Hours earlier, I could easily have been mistaken for a tourist myself. I had stepped off the plane at Malaga airport into a hot Spanish sun and the world’s media, camped out, waiting to get a glimpse of me and my companion or to hear us speak.
Despite the heat, I was freezing. There are many memories of that time 15 years ago; most are horrendous but the cold in my bones I can still remember all these years later.
I was standing on my own. A British Naval Officer, a captain, dressed immaculately in a white uniform and hat, joined me.
He had earlier said: ‘Prepare yourselves, the injuries are horrific.’
Nothing would have prepared me.
The door opened. I stood in a small room eight feet by twelve. I looked down. There on a low-level trolley wrapped in heavy see through plastic was the blood stained uncleaned body of Dan. He was naked. The plastic sheet was opened. It was the one they wrapped him in when they lifted him off the street. I nodded my head. It was Dan.
I lifted my eyes to the right as the officer opened a huge drawer from a huge filing cabinet. Inside that drawer was Sean. He was on his back looking up. His body naked, like Dan’s, was covered in blood. His injuries were horrific. I nodded my head. It was Sean.
I entered another small room down the corridor. There on a bed covered in a white sheet to her chin was Mairéad. Her dark hair contrasted sharply but softly against the white pillowcase and sheet. Her face was clean. Her nose was broken. I nodded my head. It was Mairéad. I asked and was told her nose was broken in the fall when she was shot.
I excused myself to regain my composure. I went to my companion, Mairéad’s brother. I took him to her. He lifted her in his arms and hugged her tightly and then gently rested her head back on the pillow.”
Former Belfast City Councillor and Ard Chomhairle member Joe Austin recalled the harrowing tale of his journey to Gibraltar to recover the bodies of IRA volunteers Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage, who were summarily executed by the SAS on 6 March 1988.
This is the first time in 15 years Joe has spoken publicly about one of the most traumatic episodes in the history of the modern IRA, indeed in the history of the struggle for freedom for this generation of republicans.
He explained his reticence: “It was so close, so personal, so painful. It was private, between me, Dan, Sean, Mairéad and their families.”
Sitting with Joe in his parlour, enjoying the warmth from the rays of a spring sunshine through the window, it was hard to take in his account.
Joe’s words took us back to another era, when death and tragedy was commonplace, when there was no peace process, when there was no prospect of peace talks.
“I was going to Gibraltar to bring home friends, not strangers, people I knew, comrades who had shared my home and a pot of tea with me on many an occasion.” – Joe Austin
“Thirty-six hours previous, these harrowing scenes were unthinkable.
“At that point in time my Iris Drive home (on Belfast’s Falls Road) seemed a million miles away.
“We had left the north of Ireland, territory claimed as British. We stood on other territory claimed as British, the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’.
“My journey to this concrete bunker gouged out of granite started unknown to me as I listened to the 4pm news the previous Sunday.
“First news reports said there had been a shooting in Gibraltar and that three men were dead.
“In those days, I was a news addict. I had to be; I was working in the republican press centre.
“My phone never stopped over the next five hours, as journalists and republicans rang to find out what I knew about the killings, which of course was nothing.
“Between the first news breaking and 11pm that night, when the names of those killed were released, the story went through many changes, which added to the rumours across Belfast of who was killed.
“At one point, the news was that the three were killed during a gun battle. Another was that a huge bomb had been discovered and defused. This confusion was deliberate and typical of how the British military and their sympathetic news agencies handled killings of this nature, which were known as ‘shoot to kill’ operations.
“They always covered up the truth in an attempt to shift responsibility from themselves onto the people they killed.
“There wasn’t a republican in Ireland not asking themselves ‘I wonder who they are? I wonder do I know them?’
“That’s the way life was then. Invariably, the answers to both questions were ‘Yes’.
“My journey to Gibraltar began, in my head, that night at 9pm, when a senior Belfast republican called to my house. He told me the names of those killed and also told me that I was “going to Gibraltar” with members of the families to bring the bodies home.
“I didn’t hesitate in my mind for one second but what would ‘going to Gibraltar mean?’ I hadn’t a clue.”
Joe personally knew Dan and Sean very well and he got to know Mairéad after she was released from Armagh prison. Dan and Sean were constant visitors to his Iris Drive home.
“Sean was in the house several times a week. He was a young lad, growing up, constantly on active service, constantly looking for a debate, a place to get a mug of tea or to put his head down for a while.
“He was intense and argumentative. He questioned everything. He was hungry for news about the world. We talked endlessly about other liberation struggles and in particular about Palestine.
“He was direct and open and matter of fact. He challenged the perceived wisdom on a given issue. I remember we had this heated and very long debate about who was really behind the international drug trade.
“He was a fiddler, always fiddling with clocks, radios, anything complicated he’d dismantle. He would have taken your lighter apart if you had let him.
“For his young age, he was stable and concentrated on what he was doing. At the time he was learning French and did so in a single-minded way. He was also a keen cyclist.
“Dan was a neighbour. He lived with his young family around the corner. He was older than Sean and had been to gaol. He was old beyond his years and was tough. He knew the politics of the situation and was cautious.
“I knew of Mairéad when she was in gaol and on the hunger strike. When she got out she was on the Belfast Comhairle Ceantair. At the time I was the chairperson.
“So we worked together. What struck me was that Mairéad Farrell the person was entirely different from the legend. She was very sharp but was fun loving and had a mischievous sense of humour. She didn’t take herself too seriously.
“So I was going to Gibraltar to bring home friends, not strangers, people I knew, comrades who had shared my home and a pot of tea with me on many an occasion.
“Phone calls brought new challenges and one of the most difficult was to meet with the families to make arrangements for the journey to Gibraltar. At 11am the following day, we met Dan and Sean’s fathers and Mairéad’s parents.
“It was almost too much to bear. I was burdened with sadness for the families and yet I had to organise my mind to deal with routine matters: airports, plane times, solicitors and undertakers. I had to get to Gibraltar and we had to get the bodies home for burial.
“Dan and Sean’s family asked me to represent them and Mairéad’s brother accompanied me.
“At 1pm that day I signed forms in PJ McGrory’s solicitor’s office which gave me ‘power of attorney’, the authority to secure the release of the bodies – authority I neither wanted nor relished.
“At 5pm that afternoon, we met in Mairéad’s family home to make final arrangements to fly out of Dublin to Gibraltar the following morning at 7am.
“Although we avoided the media at Malaga airport, we couldn’t avoid the Spanish police. They joined us in a convoy, which was also quickly joined by a huge media presence. We snaked our way along the Spanish coast for over two hours before we arrived at La Linea, the border crossing to Gibraltar.
“An early sign of hostility was evident from the refusal of any Spanish solicitor, despite PJ Mc Groy’s best efforts, to help us.
“At 6pm Spanish time we crossed into Gibraltar. We were held by military personnel seeking our intentions, which they knew but we had to confirm.
“They tried to force us to wear blankets over our heads for the next leg of the journey but we refused. We were taken in another convoy with sirens blazing to where the captain, dressed in white, tried to force us to sign the British official secrets act before he would allow us onto the naval base where the bodies were held.
“We refused. They refused to release the bodies. There was a stand off, one I was determined to win. They huddled together, tried again to force us to sign papers but we again refused.
“It was like that the whole time. Almost everything was a battle, a battle we had to win. They had killed Dan, Mairéad and Sean. What more did they want? We had no more to give. I was determined to act with dignity and determination at all times.
“I was on a mission to bring home those who fought and died on foreign lands for our freedom. I felt deeply about that and still do. There was something in my head that was saying to me: ‘Remember who you are and what you represent.’
“I felt as if I was being tested. I had to hold onto myself. I had to keep control at all times. I needed to be in control. I had to fight inside myself to get the strength to carry on in the face of what was in front of me and Mairéad’s brother.
“I had to dig deep, very deep.
“There were moments of sympathy. The captain in white told me that none of the naval personnel were involved in the killings: ‘They came from London. They killed and went back to London.’
“A monk, the chaplain of the naval base, asked permission to say a few prayers at Mairéad’s bed side with her brother and myself beside him. This was appreciated. At 10pm that night we signed the papers which allowed the undertaker to do his job.
“Other thoughts came into our heads. We had nowhere to stay. We were advised not to stay in Gibraltar because there were a lot of ‘squaddies and hotheads, we wouldn’t be safe’.
“We drove over the border and about until we lost the press, who were still following us. We selected a hotel at random.
“The owner knew who we were and said we wouldn’t be safe in his place but he would speak to his family. It was midnight by this stage. His family said they would treat us as we were, grieving relatives, and we were welcome to stay for the night.
“At 1am the hotel received a death threat to our lives. They informed the Spanish police, who then provided a protection service for us in the hotel.
“We went to bed exhausted at 3am. An hour or so later there was this loud non-stop pounding on our door. It was the Spanish police. They put Mairéad’s brother under arrest, accusing him of entering Spain illegally sometime before.
“I went with him to the local police station, where they put us into a ‘drunk tank’.
“Half an hour later there was a noisy commotion outside, people were screaming and shouting. We didn’t know what to expect. Suddenly the cell door was opened and these five transvestites were thrown into our cell. They were guys with moustaches and high heels. No harm to them but they didn’t strike a pretty picture.
“Because we spoke English they thought we were and kept their distance. When they found out we were Irish they couldn’t do enough for us. They became our legal advisers, our translators and supplied us with cigarettes.
“We appeared in court that morning at 10am but the magistrate dismissed the case out of hand, describing it as ‘nonsense’.
“By early afternoon we were facing another huge problem. We couldn’t get a flight home. Airlines and workers in Gibraltar and Spain were refusing to handle the bodies. They organised a boycott.
“The undertaker asked for permission to embalm the bodies. He said we could be facing a 20-day delay. Over the next 36 hours we tried to fly to Morocco, to Malaga, to Dublin, to anywhere in Europe.
“The Sinn Féin team in Belfast were working flat out to get us home but the boycott was effective.
“The British airfield on Gibraltar was available if we could hire a plane but we would have to handle the bodies ourselves, as the workers were refusing.
“The British military offered to fly us home through England but this was to be a ‘last resort’ option.
“At 8pm on the fourth day of the stand-off, I got a call from home to say that a plane from Luton would land at the British base at 10am the following morning.
“We arrived at the military base at 9am the following day. It was like a winter’s day in Ireland, with wind, rain and sleet falling.
“They tried again to get us to sign the official secrets act but we refused. They put us in the guardroom. We heard a plane landing and taking off. We thought that’s it, we’re back to square one. We’ve missed the plane.
“But we hadn’t. We were taken to the airfield. It was a sad, desolate scene. Dan, Mairéad and Sean were in three separate hearses alongside each other. We stood beside them. Across the way from us inside a huge hanger were the workers. They were howling unspeakable abuse at us.
“The planed landed and taxied to a halt in front of us. We suddenly discovered the plane was too high for us to lift the coffins onto it. There was another delay while we searched for a forklift.
“A rope ladder had to be lowered from the door so that I could board the plane. I was to travel home to Ireland with my comrades.
“All the seats but one had been removed. The coffins were strapped down in a row. My seat was beside them. The plane took off for Ireland eight days after the killings.
“The captain was Romanian, the co-pilot was Greek and the navigator was Pakistani. Foreign nationals broke the boycott. Midway through the four-hour flight the co-pilot very kindly brought me a flask of tea and sandwiches.
“There were massive crowds at Dublin airport to greet us. But there was an amazing experience when we first arrived with the coffins inside a hanger. There must have been about 200 workers hammering away, making all sorts of noises. Then suddenly, silence broke out and someone began to murmur the ‘Hail Mary’ in Irish and within seconds the prayer was echoing around this huge space. It was eerie.
“But we were home and that was the main thing.”
Tens of thousands of people came out along the route from Dublin airport to the border to show their respect and to protest the executions. When the cortege crossed into the Six Counties the RUC attacked it and disrupted it as often as they could until it got to Belfast.
There was a huge military blockade on Kennedy Way in Belfast, which threatened to prevent the bodies making the final leg of the journey home.
Gerry Adams tried to reason with the military but they refused to let them past. Gerry addressed the crowd that was waiting and told them they were being blocked. The angry crowd ran at the military, who scattered.
The coffins reached their homes in the early hours of the morning. As they did so they were greeted with the news that another IRA Volunteer, Kevin McCracken, had been shot dead on active service by the British Army.
As Joe recounted his story, I was reminded of the last time I saw Mairéad. She was at my coming home function in Tullymore. It was the end of the evening. She was leaving with her boyfriend, Seamy Finucane.
She waved over to me and smiled broadly. I never saw her again alive. She was shot dead a few days later.
BY JIM GIBNEY
44 Parnell Sq.
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