|Part of the Troubles and
Father Alec Reid administers the last rites to Corporal David Howes.
|Date||19 March 1988|
|Target||British Army personnel|
British Army corporals David Howes and Derek Wood were killed by the Provisional IRA on 19 March 1988 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in an event which became known as the corporals killings. The off-duty soldiers were wearing plain-clothes when they were killed by the IRA after encountering the funeral procession of an IRA member whilst returning from Belfast to Lisburn. Three days before, loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone had attacked an IRA funeral and killed three people. Believing the soldiers were loyalists intent on repeating Stone's attack, dozens of people surrounded and attacked their car. During this, Corporal Wood drew his service pistol and fired a shot in the air. The soldiers were then dragged from the car, beaten, and taken to nearby waste ground where they were stripped and shot dead.
The killings took place against a backdrop of violence at high-profile Irish republican funerals. A heavy security presence was criticized as instigating unrest, leading authorities to adopt a "hands off" policy with respect to policing IRA funerals. On 6 March 1988, three unarmed IRA members preparing for a bomb attack on the band of the Royal Anglian Regiment were killed by members of the Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar during Operation Flavius. Their unpoliced funerals in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery on 16 March were attacked by Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member Michael Stone with pistols and hand grenades, in what became known as the Milltown Cemetery attack. Three people were killed and more than 60 wounded, one of the dead being IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh (Kevin Brady). Mac Brádaigh's funeral, just three days after Stone's attack, took place amid an extremely fearful and tense atmosphere, those attending being in trepidation of another loyalist attack. The attendance at the funeral included large numbers of IRA members who acted as stewards.
David Robert Howes (23) and Derek Tony Wood (24) were corporals in the British Army's Royal Corps of Signals. According to the British Army, Howes and Wood ignored general orders to stay away from IRA funeral processions. It has been presumed that the two men drove into the procession by accident.
David Howes and Derek Wood were wearing civilian clothes and driving in a silver Volkswagen Passat hatchback. The Mac Brádaigh funeral was making its way along the Andersonstown Road towards Milltown Cemetery when the car containing the two corporals appeared. The car headed straight towards the front of the funeral, which was headed by several black taxis. It drove past a Sinn Féin steward who signalled it to turn. Mourners at the funeral said they believed they were under attack from Ulster loyalists. The car then mounted a pavement, scattering mourners, and turned into a small side road. When this road was blocked, it then reversed at speed, ending up within the funeral cortege. When the driver attempted to extricate the car from the cortege his exit route was blocked by a black taxi.
When the car was surrounded and the windows smashed, those surrounding attempted to drag the soldiers out. Wood produced a handgun, which certain off-duty members of the security forces were permitted to carry at the time. Wood climbed part of the way out of a window, firing a shot in the air which briefly scattered the crowd. Television pictures showed the crowd surging back, with some of them attacking the vehicle with a wheel-brace and a stepladder snatched from a photographer. The corporals were eventually pulled from the car and punched and kicked to the ground.
Journalist Mary Holland recalled seeing one of the men being dragged past a group of journalists: "He didn't cry out, just looked at us with terrified eyes, as though we were all enemies in a foreign country who wouldn't have understood what language he was speaking if he called out for help." They were dragged to the nearby Casement Park sports ground. Here they were again beaten and stripped to their underpants and socks by a small group of men. According to the BBC and The Independent the men were also tortured. A search revealed that the men were British Army soldiers. Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid, who later played a significant part in the peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, intervened and attempted to get someone to call for an ambulance, but was dragged away and threatened with shooting if he didn't stand up; he was then pulled away from the men. The corporals were further beaten and thrown over a high wall to be put into a waiting black taxi. It was driven off at speed, while camera crews captured one of its passengers waving a fist in the air.
The two men were driven less than 200 yards to waste ground near Penny Lane (South Link), just off the main Andersonstown Road. There they were shot several times. Wood was shot six times, twice in the head and four times in the chest. He was also stabbed four times in the back of the neck and had multiple injuries to other parts of his body. Reid had been following the perpetrators in an attempt to intervene and save Howes and Wood; when he arrived at the scene he gave the last rites to the two men.
According to photographer David Cairns, although photographers were having their films taken by the IRA, he was able to keep his by quickly leaving the area after taking a photograph of Reid kneeling beside the almost naked body of Howes, administering the last rites. Cairns' photograph was subsequently designated one of the best pictures of the past 50 years by Life magazine.
Shortly after, the IRA released a statement:
The Belfast brigade, IRA, claims responsibility for the execution of two SAS members who launched an attack on the funeral cortege of our comrade volunteer Kevin Brady. The SAS unit was initially apprehended by the people lining the route in the belief that armed loyalists were attacking them and they were removed from the immediate vicinity. Our volunteers forcibly removed the two men from the crowd and, after clearly ascertaining their identities from equipment and documentation, we executed them.
Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King acknowledged that the Milltown Cemetery attack and the killing of Howes and Wood were "wholly unacceptable and do require immediate review in regard to policing to be followed at any future funeral." Conservative MP Michael Mates nonetheless defended the "hands off" policy, saying "A return to heavy-handed policing could provoke riots, which is what the IRA want so they can say to the world 'They won't even let us bury our dead in peace.'" Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, Labour leader Dick Spring and Taoiseach Charlie Haughey all condemned the killings. The British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher called the killings "an act of appalling savagery".
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. Sir Brian Hutton, sentencing, said
"All murders are brutal, but the murders of Corporal Howes and Corporal Wood were particularly savage and vicious . . . They were stripped of most of their clothing and they lay in their own blood in the back of the taxi when you took them to the waste ground to be killed, and in that pitiable and defenceless state you brought about their murders as they lay on the ground."
Both men had been listed as senior members of the IRA's Belfast Brigade. In 1973, at the age of 15, Murphy had been the youngest republican internee in Long Kesh prison, which later became known as the Maze. 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 Secretary Mo 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 is now 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.
A further three men were in 1990 found guilty by common purpose of aiding and abetting the murder. The men (Pat Kane, Mickey Timmons, and Seán Ó Ceallaigh) were dubbed the "Casement Three" by republicans who disputed the validity of their convictions. Kane's conviction was quashed on appeal due to the unreliability of his confession. Ó Ceallaigh was released in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement.
Terence Clarke, the chief steward on the day, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for assaulting Corporal Wood. Clarke had served as Gerry Adams' bodyguard; he died of cancer in 2000.
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