The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
Northern Ireland Time Line

  Attacker Kills 3, Wounds 50 At IRA Funeral in Belfast

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 17, 1988; Page A01

BELFAST, MARCH 16 -- Troubled Northern Ireland descended to a new level of terror today as a man threw hand grenades and fired shots into a crowd of thousands of mourners packed inside a cemetery here for an Irish Republican Army funeral, killing three people and wounding more than 50, several critically.

The attack occurred as the second of three coffins, containing the bodies of an IRA bombing unit shot dead by British forces 10 days ago in Gibraltar, was being lowered into a joint grave in a reserved IRA plot at the vast Milltown Cemetery in Catholic west Belfast.

Mourners, small children, journalists and hardened republican militants alike fell to the ground in panic as the assailant, standing at the edge of the crowd, lobbed at least four grenades toward the gravesite. When hundreds of youths in the gathering jumped up in pursuit, he began to run through the maze of tightly packed gravestones, tossing more grenades over his shoulder and firing a handgun as the crowd closed in on him.

He was eventually captured by the youths, who began beating him but turned him over to police who arrived at the scene about 15 minutes after the attack began.

The man, identified by police as Michael Stone, was said to be in "comfortable" condition at a military hospital. Sources said Stone was a known Protestant extremist with a lengthy criminal, although nonterrorist, record.

Police said a second man, whom they did not identify, had also been arrested in connection with the attack, although not at the cemetery.

The two leading Protestant paramilitary groups denied any involvement. But a possible connection was indicated by the weapons used in the attack, believed to have been fragmentation grenades and a Browning automatic pistol identical to those in large Protestant arms caches seized by police in January.

Today's attack, which British Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King condemned as "insane and depraved," comes at a time of high tension in Anglo-Irish relations. The assault was the latest in an escalating pattern of Ulster-related violence over the past several months that some fear will become outright warfare between sectarian paramilitary groups.

This afternoon, Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, accused the police of "collusion" in the attack, a charge the Royal Ulster Constabulary called an "outright lie."

But the somewhat sketchy version of the incident offered by police differed in some respects from that of a number of witnesses.

Whatever the truth, today's events, unprecedented even for violence-torn Northern Ireland, are sure to be seen as a major propaganda coup by the IRA, whose supporters had behaved with notably peaceful discretion during the funeral only to end up as victims of a terrorist attack.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he did not believe in reprisals and appealed for calm, noting that Irish republicans were still in mourning for the Gibraltar dead. Another IRA funeral, for a gunmen shot by troops early yesterday, already had been scheduled for Thursday, when large St. Patrick's Day crowds are expected.

But repercussions from today's attack already were being felt tonight, as buses, trucks and cars were set on fire in several Belfast Catholic neighborhoods by rampaging youths tossing molotov cocktails at passing vehicles.

Sympathy for the IRA among republicans on both sides of the Northern Irish border had seriously eroded last November, after an IRA bomb killed 11 people at a Remembrance Day ceremony for war dead in the small town of Enniskillen. Police later discovered a number of major IRA weapons caches and shipments, allegedly supplied by Libya.

But the Anglo-Irish difficulties over law enforcement that began early this year had started to revive IRA status. Sympathy for the IRA, and criticism of the British, increased 10 days ago when the three IRA operatives were shot dead in Gibraltar.

The IRA acknowledged their "active duty status" and said that the three -- Mairead Farrell, 31, Dan McCann, 30, and Sean Savage, 23 -- were in charge of 140 pounds of plastic explosives to be used against an undisclosed target.

British officials said the target had been a coming military ceremony in the central square of the British colony. The fact that the three were unarmed when they were shot, however, and that no bomb was found in Gibraltar -- although one was discovered three days later in Marbella -- led to allegations that the three had been "assassinated" by a British military hit squad that could easily have taken them alive.

The bodies arrived here from Gibraltar, via Dublin, early yesterday morning.

Paramilitary funerals are traditionally a time for conflict here, with the IRA, and increasingly the Protestant groups, using the occasions for defiant displays of military might. To prevent such occurrences, the constabulary since 1983 has sent hundreds of riot-equipped troops into most republican funerals.

Last March, three police officers were injured by an IRA car bomb placed at the gates of a cemetery where a policeman, himself killed in an IRA attack, was being buried.

The families of the Gibraltar dead had rejected a police request to pledge there would be no military display -- traditionally a volley fired by uniformed and masked IRA gunmen at the gravesite. But the Catholic Church then offered its own pledge, asking police to stay away. The police gave no official response.

The only police presence in the vicinity was an observation helicopter. Sinn Fein officials said early in the day that no military display was planned, and there was no evidence of one later.

At a morning church service, the Rev. Tom Toner struck a relatively moderate tone, saying that the Gibraltar "killings were murder -- just as the killing of soldiers and policemen is murder."

The funeral procession of up to 10,000 people then walked to Milltown Cemetery. Grieving relatives gathered inside the fenced IRA plot, where 18 graves hold three or four bodies each.

Farrell's coffin had been placed in the grave, and Savage's was being lowered as the first grenade exploded about 20 yards away. The coffin was dropped, slamming atop the one below.

Scores of wreathes were trampled into the mud as mourners scrambled to flatten themselves on the wet ground and cowered behind tombstones. Three more explosions quickly followed, along with the screams of the wounded.

Hysterical mothers lay atop shrieking children, trying to shield them. Farrell's elderly father appeared in a state of shock, and McCann's stunned widow was quickly hustled away.

Many of the blood-drenched victims were thrown into cars from the funeral procession and rushed to a hospital.

When the youths beyond the immediate gravesite chased the assailant, many in the crowd began to chant "I-R-A, I-R-A." Some, watching the still-shooting assailant running toward a superhighway at the edge of the cemetery, shouted obscenities at him.

Above the din, Sinn Fein's Adams shouted in vain, "Please, please be quiet. Stay calm and stay where you are." McCann's coffin was hurriedly placed in the ground and the grave was filled.

At a news conference an hour after the attack, Adams said that a mysterious white van, also seen by a number of journalists, had been parked on the shoulder of the highway -- against police regulations -- during the incident. One man, Adams said, had jumped into the van when the crowd started pursuing the gunman, who was trying to reach it when it sped away.

A police spokesman later said the van was a police "motorway maintenance vehicle," whose occupants had simply stopped to "rubberneck" events at the cemetery. The spokesman denied that anyone had gotten in the vehicle at the scene, and said there had been no second man involved at the cemetery itself.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar