Corporals killings

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Corporals killings
Part of the Troubles and
Operation Banner
Father Alec Reid administers the last rites to Corporal David Howes.
Location Andersonstown, Belfast,
Northern Ireland
Coordinates 54°34′27.45″N 5°59′7.87″W / 54.5742917°N 5.9855194°W / 54.5742917; -5.9855194Coordinates: 54°34′27.45″N 5°59′7.87″W / 54.5742917°N 5.9855194°W / 54.5742917; -5.9855194
Date 19 March 1988
Target British Army personnel
Attack type
Shooting, stabbing
Deaths 2
Perpetrator Provisional Irish Republican Army

British Army corporals Derek Wood and David Howes[1] were killed by the Provisional IRA on 19 March 1988 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in what became known as the corporals killings. The undercover soldiers—wearing civilian clothes and in a civilian car—drove into the funeral procession of an IRA member, allegedly by mistake.[2][3] Three days before, loyalist Michael Stone had attacked an IRA funeral and killed three people. Believing the soldiers were loyalists intent on repeating Stone's attack,[4] 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 and taken to a nearby sports ground where they were beaten, stripped and searched. They were then driven to nearby waste ground where they were shot dead.[4]

The incident was filmed by television news cameras and the images have been described as some of the "most dramatic and harrowing" of the conflict in Northern Ireland.[1]

Two men were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, but were released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Several other men received lesser sentences for their part in the corporals killings.


The killings took place against a backdrop of violence at high-profile Irish republican funerals. The presence of large numbers of riot police and soldiers at IRA funerals was criticized for sparking unrest.[5] On 6 March 1988, three unarmed IRA members preparing for a bomb attack on British military personnel[6] were killed by the Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar during Operation Flavius. Their joint funeral was due to be held in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery on 16 March. The security forces agreed to stay away from the funeral in exchange for guarantees that there would be no three-volley salute by IRA gunmen.[7] A member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Michael Stone, learned of this agreement. He attacked the funeral with pistols and grenades, killing three people and wounding more than sixty.

One of those killed was IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh (Kevin Brady). Mac Brádaigh's funeral, just three days after Stone's attack, took place amid an extremely tense atmosphere, and those attending feared another loyalist attack.[8] Those attending the funeral included IRA members who acted as stewards.

Derek Tony Wood (24) and David Robert Howes (23) were corporals in the British Army's Royal Corps of Signals. According to the British Army, Wood and Howes ignored general orders to stay away from the area where the funeral was being held.[9] It has been presumed that the two men drove into the procession by mistake.[5][10] Howes had arrived in Northern Ireland one week before. Soldiers and police officers suggested that the corporals had gone "wandering", and that Wood was showing his newly arrived colleague the republican districts of Belfast.[11] Former British soldier Seán Hartnett claims the corporals were members of a military surveillance unit known as the Joint Communications Unit (JCU).[12]


Corporal Derek Wood produces a weapon as he tries to hold back the crowd.

Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes 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 corporals' car appeared from the opposite direction. The car drove straight towards the front of the funeral, which was headed by several black taxis. It drove past a Sinn Féin steward who had signalled it to turn. Mourners at the funeral said they believed they were under attack from Ulster loyalists.[13] 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 procession. Corporal Wood attempted to drive the car out of the procession but his exit route was blocked by a black taxi.

An angry crowd surrounded the car, smashed the windows and attempted to drag the soldiers out. Wood produced a Browning Hi-Power 9mm handgun,[14] which each of the soldiers were armed with. Wood climbed partly out of a window and fired a shot in the air, which briefly scattered the crowd. The crowd then surged back, with some of them attacking the car 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.[15]

The barbaric nature of the attack was witnessed by the the media and passers by going about their daily business. 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".[16]

They were taken to nearby Casement Park sports ground, just opposite. Here they were beaten, stripped to their underpants and socks, and searched by a small group of men. The BBC and The Independent wrote that the men were "tortured".[2][13][10] An ordeal that lasted over five and a half minutes. [17]. A search revealed that the men were British soldiers. Their captors found a military ID on Howes which was marked "Herford", the site of a British military base in Germany, but it is believed they misread it as "Hereford", the headquarters of the SAS.[11]

Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid, who played a significant part in the peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, intervened and attempted to save the soldiers.

I got down between the two of them and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one up by the shoulder....They were so disciplined, they just lay there totally still and I decided to myself they were soldiers. There was a helicopter circling overhead and I don't know whay thy didn't do something, radio to the police or soldiers to come up, because there were these two of their own soldiers.[18]

After repeatedly asking for people to call an ambulance, Father Reid, still lying on the ground, remembered a man saying, "Get up or I will f***ing shoot you as well."[19] Two men then grabbed the Father Reid by either shoulder after the man ordered them to take him away.[20]

In March 2018, BBC Two aired the Vanessa Engle documentary,The Funeral Murders, which included eyewitness testimonies of the events of that day.[21] One Catholic woman who happened to be walking along the Andersontown Road at that particular time and had got caught up in the funeral procession recalled what she had seen to her daughter.

She said what stood out in her mind most of all, there was someone who seemed to be giving the orders. First of all he gave the orders for them to be stripped and everything that went on throughout. He raised his right foot up and ground his heel down into the side of the soldier's head. It was like he was stomping on this soldier, like he was trying to crush his head. All of a sudden its over....... The men were dropped over the wall like a sack of spuds.[22]

The soldiers were then dropped over a wall, nine feet to the floor below. A male republican who had travelled from Glasgow to attend the funeral also remembered the moment the soldiers were dropped over the wall. "They brought one over the railings and... his leg was caught... if I remember right... his leg was caught in the railings." On the ground below, another group of men quickly bundled the two soldiers into the back seat of a black taxi, at 9:12am[23][24]. Camera crews filmed the taxi driving off at speed and captured a male, later identified as Harry Maguire, his left arm gesticulating wildly out the window from the passenger seat of the taxi.[25] It has been speculated that Maguire is seen waving his fist triumphantly to the onlooking crowds, however, as the taxi passes the camera Maguire can be clearly seen pointing at the camera and heard shouting to the crowd at the side of the road to "get the f****** camera."[26] It was this particular piece of footage that was to gain a successful conviction of Maguire when he was tried for the murder of the two Corporals.[27]

The two men were driven less than 200 yards to a waste ground near Penny Lane (South Link), just off the main Andersonstown Road. There they were taken out of the taxi and shot dead. Previously unseen footage from the security forces helicopter of the moment the Corporals were executed was shown in Vanessa Engle BBC Two documentary, The Funeral Murders which aired in March 2018. In the helicopter footage the taxi containing Corporals Wood and Howe can be seen pulling up on the waste ground. The same Republican who had earlier witnessed the one of the Corporals catching his leg on the metal spiked fence witnessed the shooting of the two soldiers, "One guy came out of the left side and sort of crawled a wee bit that way. The door opened and there was a guy came out..... the drivers side and tried taking a run and stumble....and I just seen yer man....basically, the senior guy shooting him."[28]

The statement corroborates the grainy video footage which shows Corporal Derek Wood, stripped to his underpants, exit the taxi and attempt to run from his captors before being brought down by two to three men within feet of the taxi.[29] A man wearing a balaclava then shoots Corporal Wood and again as he is lying on the ground. Corporal David Howes can be seen on the right hand side where he is shot dead, his body lying at the rear left wheel of the taxi.[30] Corporal Wood was shot six times: twice in the head and four times in the chest. He had also been stabbed four times in the back of the neck. Howes was shot five times: once in the head and four times in the body. Each also had multiple injuries to other parts of their bodies.[4] The perpetrators quickly left the scene. Reid heard the shots and rushed to the waste ground. He believed one of the soldiers was still breathing and attempted to give him the kiss of life. Upon realizing that the soldiers were dead, he gave them the last rites.[31][32] 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 later named one of the best pictures of the past 50 years by Life magazine.

The whole incident was filmed by a British Army helicopter hovering overhead.[15] An unnamed soldier of the Royal Scots said his eight-man patrol was nearby and saw the attack on the corporals' car, but were told not to intervene. Soldiers and police arrived on the scene three minutes after the corporals had been shot. Cyril Donnan, a former Chief Superintendent of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who attended the scene, recalled that steam was still rising from the bodies of the two unidentified men and that initially, the Security Forces were not sure that the men were deceased, it was only after checking for a pulse that it was established that the two men were in fact dead.[33] According to Donnan, it was only realised that the two men belonged to the security forces after an Inspector deployed by Donnan from Woodburn RUC station pointed out that the Volksawgen Passat the two men had been travelling in, had been set alight. When Donnan inspected the car it was immediately clear to him, despite being burnt out, that there was armour plating in the backrest of the seats, which also gave a serial number.[34] At this point it became known that the men were British soldiers in an unmarked car.[35] A British Army spokesman said the army did not respond immediately because they needed time to assess the situation and were wary of being ambushed by the IRA. The large funeral procession also prevented them getting to the scene quickly.[36]

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.[37]


Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King acknowledged that the Milltown Cemetery attack and the killing of Wood and Howes were "wholly unacceptable and do require immediate review in regard to policing to be followed at any future funeral."[5] 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.'"[9] 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".

On 2 August 1988, Lance-Corporal Roy Butler of the Ulster Defence Regiment was shot and killed in Belfast with one of the guns taken from the corporals.[38][39]

Two men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, were found guilty of the murder of the corporals.[2][13] 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."[40]

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.[41] 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.[13] 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.[42]

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.[43] Kane's conviction was quashed on appeal due to the unreliability of his confession.[44] Ó Ceallaigh was released in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement.[45]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Taylor, p.284.
  2. ^ a b c IRA funeral killers freed. The Independent, 27 November 1998.
  3. ^ Ingrao, Charles (2009). Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholar's Initiative (Central European Studies). Purdue University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1557535337. 
  4. ^ a b c McKittrick, David. Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Mainstream Publishing, 2007. pp.1121-1124. ISBN 978-1-84018-504-1
  5. ^ a b c Tyler Marshall, "5 Slayings Prompt Review of Policy on IRA Funerals", Los Angeles Times, 22 March 1988.
  6. ^ "British Commandos Testify on Gibraltar", The New York Times, 18 September 1988.
  7. ^ Eckert, Nicholas (1999). Fatal Encounter: The Story of the Gibraltar Killings. Dublin: Poolbeg. p. 94. ISBN 9781853718373. 
  8. ^ Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War against the IRA. London: Bloomsbury, 2001. p.284. ISBN 0-7475-5007-7
  9. ^ a b "IRA claims killing of policeman". Associated Press. 21 March 1988.
  10. ^ a b David McKittrick, "Northern Ireland: The longest tour of duty is over". The Independent. 31 July 2007.
  11. ^ a b Ware, John. "Guns, grenades and lynchings: Revisiting the funeral murders". The Irish Times. 19 March 2018. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  12. ^ "The inside story of the brutal killing of Wood and Howes". Sunday Independent (Ireland). 18 September 2016. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  13. ^ a b c d More prisoners released. BBC News, 26 November 1998. Retrieved on 1 August 2008.
  14. ^ O'Brien 1999, p. 164.
  15. ^ a b "Army corporals killed at IRA funeral". BBC History. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  16. ^ "Obituary: Mary Holland". The Independent. 10 June 2004. Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  17. ^ "Sickening IRA Murder of Two Off Duty British Army Corporals Belfast 1988". 30 April 2014. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  18. ^ "Priest reveals details of soldiers' murders". The Irish Times. Retrieved 16 August 2018. 
  19. ^ "Priest reveals details of soldiers' murders". The Irish Times. Retrieved 16 August 2018. 
  20. ^ "Priest reveals details of soldiers' murders". The Irish Times. Retrieved 16 August 2018. 
  21. ^ Nicholson, Rebecca (19 March 2018). "The Funeral Murders review – masterful handling of a combustible narrative". the Guardian. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  22. ^ "The Funeral Murders Belfast 1988". 22 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  23. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  24. ^ "Sickening IRA Murder of Two Off Duty British Army Corporals Belfast 1988". 30 April 2014. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  25. ^ Retrieved 15 August 2018.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ "Sickening IRA Murder of Two Off Duty British Army Corporals Belfast 1988". 30 April 2014. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  27. ^ "Sickening IRA Murder of Two Off Duty British Army Corporals Belfast 1988". 30 April 2014. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  28. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  29. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  30. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  31. ^ "Priest reveals details of soldiers’ murders". The Irish Times. 11 March 2013. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  32. ^ "Priest recalls death of British soldiers". The Irish News. 1 August 2005. Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  33. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  34. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  35. ^ "The Funeral Murders - Belfast 1988". 20 March 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018. 
  36. ^ Sanders, Andrew. Times of Trouble: Britain's War in Northern Ireland. Edinburgh University Press, 2012. p.93
  37. ^ Feeney, Brian. Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. p. 353
  38. ^ Ryder 1991, p. 217.
  39. ^ "Sutton Index of Deaths". Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  40. ^ Linklater, Magnus. "Fair, firm and unclubbable. The judge who could bring about the fall of Tony Blair". The Times, 24 January 2004
  41. ^ Corporals' killers are released from Maze By Toby Harnden and Robert Shrimsley Electronic Telegraph, 27 November 1998.
  42. ^ Commons, The Committee Office, House of. "House of Commons - Northern Ireland Affairs - First Report". Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  43. ^ O'Broin, Eoin (26 June 1997). "Freedom for one of Casement Three". An Phoblacht. Retrieved 10 December 2010. 
  44. ^ Randall, Colin. "Judges free man jailed over IRA funeral murders" The Daily Telegraph, 21 June 1997. Retrieved 4 August 2008.
  45. ^ Corporals killings man stays in US. Sunday Mirror, 25 April 2004. Retrieved on 9 August 2008.