Corporal Derek Woods is pulled from his car at the funeral of Kevin Brady (Pacemaker Press Intl)

Army corporals killed at IRA funeral

19 March 1988

When two corporals in the British Army inadvertently drove into the midst of a republican funeral, their car was set upon by the crowd. They were dragged out and beaten before being shot dead by members of the IRA.

These brutal killings marked the conclusion of a period of 14 days that was to prove one the darkest of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Photo: Corporal Derek Woods is pulled from his car at the funeral of Kevin Brady (Pacemaker Press Intl)

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (5)

More information about: Army corporals killed at IRA funeral

The two-week cycle of violence that ended in the killing of two British army corporals by the IRA began on 6 March when British special forces killed three Provisional IRA members in Gibraltar. At these IRA funerals 10 days later, a lone loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, had killed three more people.

One of those killed by Stone at Milltown Cemetery was Kevin Brady, who was a member of the IRA. His funeral was held three days later on Saturday, 19 March.

As Brady's funeral cortège made its way down the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast, a car drove towards it. The driver was directed by a Sinn Féin steward to turn. In an attempt to find an exit, the car mounted the pavement and then reversed at speed, scattering mourners.

In the car were two British soldiers, Corporal Derek Wood and Corporal David Howes. Both were dressed in civilian clothing and the car was unmarked. The chilling horror of what immediately followed was recorded by television cameras and broadcast around the world.

Crowd attack corporals' car

Emotions were high in the republican community of Belfast after the at Milltown Cemetery killings just three days before. Sinn Féin stewards, fearful of another loyalist attack, were checking cars and frisking mourners. When the corporals inadvertently drove towards funeral procession, the crowd closed in on the vehicle and black taxis were used to block its exit. The car was attacked and some of the windows broken with a wheel brace. A stepladder was snatched from a photographer in an attempt to break in and get at the two men inside.

Corporal Wood drew his pistol and fired a shot in the air. The crowd momentarily dispersed, but quickly regrouped and both he and Corporal Howes were pulled from the vehicle, disarmed and beaten. They were then taken to the grounds of the nearby Casement Park where they were subjected to further beatings, stripped to their socks and underpants, and searched.

IRA take charge

Here, the IRA took control of the situation. The corporals were mistakenly identified as members of the SAS - the British special forces unit that had killed three IRA members in Gibraltar two weeks earlier. The corporals were subjected to further beatings, before being thrown over a wall and driven in a black taxi to waste ground less than 200 metres away.

Once there, the two men were killed by members of the IRA. Corporal Derek Wood was shot six times and stabbed four times in the back of the neck. Corporal David Howes was shot five times.

Trial by media

The shocking pictures of the attack on the corporals' car were shown on the television news that evening. The full, brutal sequence of events was observed and recorded by an army surveillance helicopter. The film, which included harrowing footage of the soldiers being killed, was later produced in evidence at a series of trials related to the day's events.

There had been a large number of photographers, reporters and TV cameras at the funeral, and many members of the media were subject to intimidation by the IRA prior to the trials. Two IRA men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, received life sentences for the murders, with others convicted later on lesser charges.

On 21 March, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King condemned the killings in Parliament and paid tribute to the two corporals:

"The whole House will join me in extending the utmost sympathy to their families, and even more so in view of the awful television pictures of the occasion. Nor has it gone unnoticed, and rightly so, that, although they both had loaded personal protection pistols, they showed incredible restraint in using them only to fire a warning shot in the air."

Light through the darkness

Father Alec Reid, a Catholic priest at St Agnes church on the Falls Road, near the scene of the murders, gave the soldiers the last rites as they lay spread-eagled and nearly naked on the ground. He had also unsuccessfully attempted to prevent them being taken to their deaths from Casement Park.

Father Reid had been secretly acting as a conduit between the leaders of the republican and nationalist movements in Northern Ireland. On the day the corporals were murdered, he was carrying documents from Gerry Adams, the president of the republican Sinn Féin party. They detailed Sinn Féin's position on a democratic resolution of the Troubles. The intended recipient was John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Father Reid still managed to deliver the documents to John Hume later that afternoon, the envelope stained with the blood of the dead corporals. It had been one of the darkest days of the Troubles, and marked the end of 14 days that had shown the world how devastatingly destructive the conflict had become. But Reid's delivery would help the peace process take some of its crucial first steps.

BBC iPlayer

More History programmes on BBC iPlayer

No radio programmes available

More History programmes on BBC iPlayer