Milltown Cemetery attack
|Part of the Troubles|
The funerals, minutes before the attack
|Location||Milltown Cemetery, Belfast,
|Date||16 March 1988|
|Weapons||RGD-5 hand grenades; Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol; Ruger .357 magnum revolver|
The Milltown Cemetery attack (also known as the Milltown Cemetery killings or Milltown Massacre) took place on 16 March 1988 in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery. During the funeral of three Provisional IRA volunteers killed in Gibraltar, an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) volunteer, Michael Stone, attacked the mourners with hand grenades and pistols. As Stone then ran towards the nearby motorway, a large crowd began chasing him and he continued shooting and throwing grenades. Some of them caught him and began beating him, but he was rescued by the police and arrested. Three people had been killed and more than 60 wounded. The "unprecedented, one-man attack" was filmed by television news crews and caused shock around the world.
Three days later, at the funeral of one of Stone's victims, two non-uniformed British soldiers drove into the funeral procession. Bystanders, who reportedly thought it was a replay of an attack like that carried out by Stone, dragged the soldiers from their car; the two corporals were later shot dead by the IRA.
On 6 March 1988, Provisional IRA members Daniel McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell were shot dead by the Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar. This caused outrage among Irish republicans and their supporters as the three were unarmed and allegedly shot without warning. They were due to be buried in the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery on 16 March. For years, republicans had complained about heavy-handed policing of IRA funerals, which had led to violence. In a change from normal procedure, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) decided they would pull back from the funerals of the "Gibraltar Three" and keep watch from the sidelines. This followed negotiations with Catholic church leaders.
Michael Stone's self-professed mission was "to take out the Sinn Féin and IRA leadership at the graveside". He told journalist Peter Taylor that his attack was retaliation for the IRA's Remembrance Day bombing four months earlier. Taylor wrote, "He said it was symbolic: the IRA had attacked a British cenotaph and he was taking revenge by attacking the IRA equivalent". Stone claimed a "senior member of the UDA" had given him the organisation's "official" clearance for the attack and claimed he was given a Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol, a Ruger .357 Magnum revolver and seven RGD-5 grenades the night before the funeral.
The funeral service and requiem mass went ahead as planned, and the cortege made its way to Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road. Present were thousands of mourners and top members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, including Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Two RUC helicopters hovered overhead. Stone claimed that he entered the graveyard through the front gate with the mourners. Some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Stone enter the graveyard from the M1 motorway with three other people (two men and a woman). The others walked across the graveyard and later left on the Falls Road side. As the third coffin was about to be lowered into the ground, Stone threw two grenades—which had a seven-second delay—toward the republican plot and began shooting.
The first grenade exploded near the crowd and about 20 yards (18 m) from the grave. Amid the panic and confusion, people took cover behind gravestones. Stone began jogging toward the motorway, several hundred yards away, chased by dozens of men and youths. He continued shooting and throwing grenades at his pursuers. Three people were killed while pursuing Stone: two Catholic civilians Thomas McErlean (20) and John Murray (26), and a Provisional IRA volunteer, Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh (30). During the attack about 60 people were wounded by bullets, grenade shrapnel and fragments of marble and stone from gravestones. Among those wounded was a pregnant mother of four, a 72-year-old grandmother and a ten-year-old boy.
In the 19 March edition of the Irish Times, columnist Kevin Myers, an opponent of republican paramilitary violence, wrote: "Unarmed young men charged against the man hurling grenades and firing an automatic pistol [...] The young men stalking their quarry repeatedly came under fire; they were repeatedly bombed; they repeatedly advanced. Indeed this was not simply bravery; this was a heroism which in other circumstances, I have no doubt, would have won the highest military decorations".
A white van that had been parked by the motorway suddenly drove off as Stone fled from the angry crowd. The RUC said the van was part of an uninvolved police patrol. Stone later claimed that a getaway vehicle, driven by a UDA member, was waiting for him on the motorway but the driver "panicked" and left. By the time Stone reached the motorway, he had seemingly ran out of ammunition. He ran out onto the road and tried to stop cars, but was caught by the crowd and beaten unconscious. RUC officers quickly arrived, "almost certainly saving his life". They arrested him and took him to Musgrave Park Hospital for treatment of his injuries. The whole event had been recorded by television news cameras.
That evening, angry youths in republican districts burnt hijacked vehicles and attacked the RUC. Immediately after the attack, the two main loyalist paramilitary groups—the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)—denied responsibility. The leader of the UDA West Belfast Brigade, Tommy Lyttle, said that Stone was a rogue loyalist acting without orders from the UDA, although he did not condemn the attack. Lyttle told other UDA leaders to keep to this line. UDA member Sammy Duddy said: "After Milltown, two UDA brigadiers from two Belfast battalions telephoned the IRA to say they didn't know Michael Stone [...] But Michael was UDA, he was a travelling gunman who went after the IRA and Republicans and he needed no authority for that because that was his job. Those two brigadiers were scared in case the IRA would retaliate against them [...] so they disclaimed Michael, one of our best operators".
Sinn Féin and others "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". Stone later claimed he had assurances that British soldiers and RUC officers would not be deployed in the graveyard. He also claimed to have had detailed information about British Army and RUC movements. Stone wrote that, the night before the attack, he was "given his pick of weapons from an Ulster Resistance cache at a secret location outside Belfast" and was "driven back into the city by a member of the RUC". According to journalist Martin Dillon, the weapons he used were given to him on the orders of UDA intelligence chief Brian Nelson, who was later revealed to be an undercover agent of the British Army's Force Research Unit (FRU).
Three days after the Milltown killings, one of Stone's victims, Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, was being buried when two plain-clothes British Army Corporals (Derek Wood and David Howes) in an unmarked car drove into the path of the funeral cortège, apparently by mistake. Some of those present, believing the soldiers to be loyalist gunmen, surrounded and attacked their car. Corporal Wood drew his service pistol and fired a shot in the air. The two men were then dragged from the car before being taken away, beaten and shot dead by republicans. The incident is often referred to as the corporals killings and, like the attack at Milltown, much of it was filmed by television news cameras. The Browning pistol Stone used was seized on the day of the attack and was eventually used by an IRA unit to ambush a combined RUC/British Army patrol in Belfast on 13 October 1990. A constable was shot dead and another badly injured.
Many hardline loyalists saw Stone as a hero and he became a loyalist icon. In March 1989, he was convicted for the three murders at Milltown, for three paramilitary murders before, and for other offences. He received sentences totaling 682 years, but was released after serving 13 years as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from time on remand spent in Crumlin Road Prison, Stone spent all of his sentence in HM Prison Maze. Stone later published an autobiography, None Shall Divide Us, which included an account of the attack, in which he wrote that he deeply regretted the hurt he had caused the families of those he killed, and paid tribute to the bravery of two of the men killed while pursuing him at the cemetery (Murray, Mac Brádaigh). Stone wrote "I didn't choose killing as a career, killing chose me".
- McKittrick, David. Lost Lives. Mainstream Publishing, 1999. p. 1117.
- "Michael Stone: Loyalist icon". CNN. 24 November 2006. Retrieved 6 March 2008.
- "MY WAR'S OVER; Cemetery killer freed from the Maze". Daily Mirror, 25 July 2000; retrieved 13 March 2013.
- History – Troubles – Michael Stone kills three at IRA funerals. BBC; retrieved 12 March 2013.
- Dillon, Martin. The Trigger Men: Assassins and Terror Bosses in the Ireland Conflict. Random House, 2011. Chapter 10: Stone Cold Assassin.
- Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War against the IRA. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001. p. 284.
- Wood, Ian S. Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp. 138–41
- "3 Killed by Grenades at Belfast Funeral". The New York Times, 17 March 1988. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
- McKittrick, David. Lost Lives. Mainstream Publishing, 1999. pp. 1211–12; ISBN 1-84018-227-X