Fight or Flight

Posted on: 8th May, 2018

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Shane Daly

An emotion is an instantaneous impulse or reaction to an event that has occurred. An emotion is our brain triggering pleasant or unpleasant physical responses to abstract stimulations. If the person that you love decides that the feeling is not reciprocated and voices that opinion to you, a pain in your chest or your stomach develops in an instant as well as a myriad of other feelings, that is pure undiluted emotion. The person that you love rejecting you is not physical, that is abstract and your brain has taken that abstract information and via emotion it has communicated this abstract information into a physical sensation of discomfort. There are various types of emotion. Interestingly all of these emotions have an evolutionary root. All of our emotions give us an evolutionary advantage, going back to when we were cave men. We are homo sapiens, we have been around roughly 50,000 years, even before us, Homo erectus, Homo habilus and Neanderthal man benefitted from these emotions. Let’s use anger as an emotion for example. What does anger do? Anger causes blood to flow to your hands, which in turn makes you clinch your fists. The evolutionary benefit to this is that it is a survival mechanism. Your fists are clinched so you can hold a weapon or throw a punch. You also get a rush of adrenaline that allows you to supersede your usual strength. With fear, your blood rushes to your legs. The purpose of this is so you can run away. Your face goes cold and white because all the blood is in your legs. Therefore, anger is fight and fear is flight.

In last month’s column, I touched on how the shooting of three republicans in Gibraltar set in motion a series of reprisals that represented the darkest 14 days of the entire 30-year war. One reprisal consisted of Michael Stone firing grenades into an unsuspecting group of mourners. He killed three people. The funeral of those three people, Thomas McErlean, John Murray and Kevin Brady culminated in what was possibly the most striking and remarkable event of the Troubles. The perfect example of Fight or Flight taking place. As Brady’s funeral cortège made its way down the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast, a car drove towards it. The driver was directed by a Sinn Féin steward to turn. In an attempt to find an exit, the car mounted the pavement and then reversed at speed, scattering mourners.

In the car were two British soldiers, Corporal Derek Wood and Corporal David Howes. Both were dressed in civilian clothing and the car was unmarked. The chilling horror of what immediately followed was recorded by television cameras and broadcast around the world. Emotions were high in the republican community of Belfast after the at Milltown Cemetery killings just three days before. Sinn Féin stewards, fearful of another loyalist attack, were checking cars and frisking mourners. When the corporals inadvertently drove towards funeral procession, the crowd closed in on the vehicle and black taxis were used to block its exit. The car was attacked and some of the windows broken with a wheel brace. A stepladder was snatched from a photographer in an attempt to break in and get at the two men inside.

Corporal Wood drew his pistol and fired a shot in the air. The crowd momentarily dispersed, but quickly regrouped and both he and Corporal Howes were pulled from the vehicle, disarmed and beaten. They were then taken to the grounds of the nearby Casement Park where they were subjected to further beatings, stripped to their socks and underpants, and searched.

Here, the IRA took control of the situation. The corporals were mistakenly identified as members of the SAS – the British Special Forces unit that had killed three IRA members in Gibraltar two weeks earlier. The corporals were subjected to further beatings, before being thrown over a wall and driven in a black taxi to waste ground less than 200 metres away. Once there, the two men were killed by members of the IRA. Corporal Derek Wood was shot six times and stabbed four times in the back of the neck. Corporal David Howes was shot five times.

The shocking pictures of the attack on the corporals’ car were shown on the television news that evening. The full, brutal sequence of events was observed and recorded by an army surveillance helicopter. The film, which included harrowing footage of the soldiers being killed, was later produced in evidence at a series of trials related to the day’s events. There had been a large number of photographers, reporters and TV cameras at the funeral, and many members of the media were subject to intimidation by the IRA prior to the trials. Two IRA men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, received life sentences for the murders, with others convicted later on lesser charges.

On March 21, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King condemned the killings in Parliament and paid tribute to the two corporals:

“The whole House will join me in extending the utmost sympathy to their families, and even more so in view of the awful television pictures of the occasion. Nor has it gone unnoticed, and rightly so, that, although they both had loaded personal protection pistols, they showed incredible restraint in using them only to fire a warning shot in the air.”

Father Alec Reid, a Catholic priest at St Agnes church on the Falls Road, near the scene of the murders, gave the soldiers the last rites as they lay spread-eagled and nearly naked on the ground. He had also unsuccessfully attempted to prevent them being taken to their deaths from Casement Park. Father Reid had been secretly acting as a conduit between the leaders of the republican and nationalist movements in Northern Ireland. On the day the corporals were murdered, he was carrying documents from Gerry Adams, the president of the republican Sinn Féin party. They detailed Sinn Féin’s position on a democratic resolution of the Troubles. The intended recipient was John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Father Reid still managed to deliver the documents to John Hume later that afternoon, the envelope stained with the blood of the dead corporals. It had been one of the darkest days of the Troubles, and marked the end of 14 days that had shown the world how devastatingly destructive the conflict had become. But Reid’s delivery would help the peace process take some of its crucial first steps.


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