Priest reveals details of soldiers’ murders
Fr Alex Reid gives the last rites to corporal David Howes, one of two British army soldiers who were killed in West Belfast on the 19th March 19th, 1988. Photograph: Trevor McBride
The Clonard priest Fr Alec Reid has provided moving detail of how he tried to save two British army corporals who were caught up in the funeral of an IRA member during a grim period of violence and death in Northern Ireland 25 years ago this month.
Corporals David Howes and Derek Wood, in plain clothes, strayed into the funeral of Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, one of three people murdered three days earlier by loyalist Michael Stone. That attack by Stone happened during the funerals of the so-called Gibraltar Three – three unarmed members of the IRA who were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar less than two weeks earlier.
The attack on the corporals, who had driven into the funeral cortege, happened at a time of great fear and trepidation in Northern Ireland. The crowd initially thought it was another loyalist attack. The corporals’ apprehension and beating by dozens of men was captured on television, making their deaths two of the most shocking and harrowing of the Troubles.
Images of one of the corporals lying dead and stretched out in crucified form as Fr Reid lay over him remains one of the saddest and most striking of the conflict.
The normally reticent Fr Reid, who was a significant figure in the peace process, speaks about their deaths in a programme, 14 Days , which is broadcast tonight at 9pm on BBC One Northern Ireland.
Fr Reid described how he followed the crowd who forced corporals Howes and Wood into Casement Park.
“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,” he recalled.
“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 why they didn’t do something, radio to the police or soldiers to come up, because there were these two of their own soldiers,” he added.
“When I was lying between the two soldiers, I remember saying to myself ‘this shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society’. That motivated me or encouraged me to keep trying to get away from this kind of society where this kind of thing could happen.”
He said he kept asking people at the scene to call an ambulance. “I was lying there and I saw someone came in. [He] picked me up and said, ‘Get up or I will f***ing well shoot you as well’.
“And then he said, ‘take him away’ and they kind of arrested me. Two of them came on either shoulder and kind of manoeuvred me off . . . then I got around and came back . . . I can still remember the atmosphere. When I came back in, you could feel it; I knew they were going to be shot . . . I remember saying to myself I am going to try and stop them doing that if I can.”
The corporals were then driven to waste ground near Casement Park. Fr Reid said he decided to follow them and as he was getting into his car he heard two shots. He then went on to the waste ground where the soldiers lay.
“There was nobody else, there just the two bodies. I went up to the one on the right. He was still breathing so I tried to give him the kiss of life.Then after a while a man came in and stood behind me and said, ‘Look, Father, that man is dead’.
“I anointed him and went over to anoint the man who was lying three yards away. Then two women came along with a coat and put it over his head and said, ‘he was somebody’s son’.
“I felt I had done my best to save them. I was very shocked and I felt bad – I had failed to save them and that was the bottom line.”
The programme 14 Days , made by DoubleBand Films, directed by Dermot Lavery and produced by Jonathan Golden, points out that even amid the despair there was some hope, as at the time Fr Reid was carrying correspondence between the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume. This was part of the initial exchanges between the SDLP and Sinn Féin leaders that led to the Hume-Adams talks and the subsequent IRA ceasefire of 1994.