Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.
“The path to peace is never easy. They have chosen hope over hate,
the promise of the future over the poison of the past.”
– Bill Clinton on the Good Friday Agreement
The Troubles spanned four decades. Ireland was undeniably altered by the conflict but so too was the rest of the World. Despite the war claiming thousands of lives from its beginning in 1968 and its conclusion in 1998 a total sum of 10,950 days, there were 14 days that were like no other. The darkest and bleakest two weeks of the 30-year war began in 1988 like the start of an Olympic race, with a gun shot. It came from a British SAS pistol and was aimed at three unarmed republicans. Ironically, the gunshot that was to change the Troubles irrevocably was not fired in Ireland. It was fired in Gibraltar. The next 14 days were the blackest and shocking of them all.
Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann were the republicans shot. All three were part of an ‘active service unit’ of the IRA, which planned to bomb a parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment in the centre of Gibraltar two days later. The three killings were carried out by a Special Air Service (SAS) unit, which had been in place on the island for over a week. Both British and Spanish security forces had been aware of the IRA operation for several months and were working closely together in an attempt to thwart it. ‘Operation Flavius’ had been weeks in the planning, as had the bombing it was intended to prevent.
Nearly four months before, in November 1987, the IRA had killed eleven people when they bombed a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. There was widespread revulsion around the world, losing the IRA much international sympathy and with it some of their supply lines for weapons and explosives. In an attempt to regain the initiative, the IRA chose to target British military personnel overseas. On the day of the shootings, the IRA unit in Gibraltar parked a rented Renault car close to the point at which the Royal Anglian Regiment band were to assemble for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a popular tourist attraction which took place every Tuesday. The Renault was intended to hold the parking space for a car bomb that was to be prepared elsewhere. Once the car was parked, the three IRA members, Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, made their way on foot towards the Spanish border where they were intercepted and killed by the SAS.
The British government initially said that a bomb had been planted. Within 24 hours, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe admitted that there had been no bomb in the car and that the three killed were unarmed. Shortly after the shootings, a Ford Escort used by the IRA unit was found over the Spanish border. It contained a timing device, screwdrivers, false passports and wire. Two days later, a Ford Fiesta rented by Mairead Farrell was discovered by Spanish police in Marbella. It contained 132 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive and several rounds of ammunition for a Kalashnikov rifle, sufficient to make a large and deadly bomb.
For many, the fact that the victims were unarmed confirmed that the British government was pursuing a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy against the IRA. An inquiry into the shootings heard evidence from eyewitnesses that Farrell and McCann had their hands in the air when shot, but concluded that all those who died were lawfully killed. In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights found that the killings constituted the use of excessive force, but that there was no evidence of a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.
The bodies of Farrell, Savage and McCann lay in a Royal Navy morgue in Gibraltar for a week before they could be flown to Dublin, due to difficulties finding an air carrier and the refusal of civilian airport staff in Gibraltar to handle the coffins. Thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortège from Dublin to Belfast.
It was at their funerals that the first reprisal took place. As the coffins were being lowered into the ground, a lone loyalist gunman named Michael Stone began his attack on those gathered by the gravesides. The first shot had been mistaken for an IRA salute, as was common at such funerals, but a second shot soon followed, along with a grenade.
Amid the chaos that ensued, Stone was chased by many of the large crowd in attendance. As Gerry Adams, president of the republican Sinn Féin party, appealed for calm over a loudhailer, Stone threw more grenades and fired shots at his pursuers. He killed three and injured more than fifty. Michael Stone was a member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a loyalist paramilitary group. The UFF and the closely-related Ulster Defence Association (UDA) both denied sanctioning Stone’s actions at Milltown, but they stopped short of condemning them. Stone himself said he acted alone. Sinn Féin claimed that there must have been collusion with the security forces, because only a small number of people knew in advance of the reduced police presence at the funerals.
The policing of IRA funerals had long been a controversial issue in Northern Ireland, but was deemed necessary by the authorities to prevent the firing of salutes and other overt paramilitary displays. The presence of large numbers of security force personnel in riot gear at previous services had provoked strong complaints from republicans. Following negotiations with Catholic church leaders, the police and the army had agreed to scale back. Instead of flanking the funeral cortège, they kept a low profile while watching proceedings from the sidelines.
Whether Michael Stone knew about the level of security or not, he took the decision to infiltrate the mourners. He attended the funeral service at St Agnes church in west Belfast, taking his seat near Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison – the Sinn Féin hierarchy he claimed were the targets of his attack. Reasoning that initiating the attack here would have made his escape almost impossible, Stone instead joined the mourners in the procession to the burial site at the republican plot of the nearby Milltown Cemetery.
As the last of the three coffins was lowered into the joint grave, Michael Stone fired shots and threw a grenade towards the crowd. Some mourners took cover behind gravestones. Others chased Stone as he retreated while continuing to fire shots and hurl grenades. All three of his victims died during the pursuit. Stone’s pursuers caught up with him just beyond the cemetery’s perimeter fence, on the M1 motorway. He was disarmed and beaten before the police arrived on the scene and arrested him. One of the handguns he had been carrying was later used by the IRA to kill two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
With many members of the media in attendance, the attack at Milltown Cemetery was captured by TV cameras, as it happened, and the footage went out in that evening’s news bulletins. There was widespread shock. Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King strongly condemned Stone’s attack and appealed for calm. Two of the men killed by Michael Stone were civilians. Thomas McErlean was 20-years-old, married with two children. John Murray, 26, was also a married father-of-two. The third, Kevin Brady, was a member of the IRA.