Michael Stone shoots towards mourners at Milltown Cemetery (Pacemaker Press Intl)

Michael Stone kills three at IRA funerals

16 March 1988

At the funerals of three IRA members, who themselves had been killed by British special forces in Gibraltar just 10 days before, loyalist gunman Michael Stone fired shots and threw grenades at mourners. Three were killed and over fifty injured.

The Milltown Cemetery attack marked a dramatic worsening of the violence in a period of 14 days that was to prove one the darkest of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Photo: Michael Stone shoots towards mourners at Milltown Cemetery (Pacemaker Press Intl)

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"Unarmed young men charged against the man hurling grenades and firing an automatic pistol. This was a heroism which in other circumstances, I have no doubt, would have won the highest military decorations. Victoria Crosses have been won for less."

Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers was describing the actions of mourners at the funerals of the three members of the Provisional IRA who had been shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar on 6 March.

As the coffins were being lowered into the ground, a lone loyalist gunman called Michael Stone began his attack on those gathered by the gravesides. The first shot had been mistaken for an IRA salute, as was common at such funerals, but a second shot soon followed, along with a grenade.

Amid the chaos that ensued, Stone was chased by many of the large crowd in attendance. As Gerry Adams, president of the republican Sinn Féin party, appealed for calm over a loudhailer, Stone threw more grenades and fired shots at his pursuers. He killed three and injured more than fifty.

Policing policy

Michael Stone was a member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a loyalist paramilitary group. The UFF and the closely-related Ulster Defence Association (UDA) both denied sanctioning Stone's actions at Milltown, but they stopped short of condemning them. Stone himself said he acted alone. Sinn Féin 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.

The policing of IRA funerals had long been a controversial issue in Northern Ireland, but was deemed necessary by the authorities to prevent the firing of salutes and other overt paramilitary displays. The presence of large numbers of security force personnel in riot gear at previous services had provoked strong complaints from republicans. Following negotiations with Catholic church leaders, the police and the army had agreed to scale back. Instead of flanking the funeral cortège, they kept a low profile while watching proceedings from the sidelines.

Milltown attack

Whether Michael Stone knew about the level of security or not, he took the decision to infiltrate the mourners. He attended the funeral service at St Agnes church in west Belfast, taking his seat near Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison - the Sinn Féin hierarchy he claimed were the targets of his attack. Reasoning that initiating the attack here would have made his escape almost impossible, Stone instead joined the mourners in the procession to the burial site at the republican plot of the nearby Milltown Cemetery.

As the last of the three coffins was lowered into the joint grave, Michael Stone fired shots and threw a grenade towards the crowd. Some mourners took cover behind gravestones. Others chased Stone as he retreated while continuing to fire shots and hurl grenades. All three of his victims died during the pursuit.

Stone's pursuers caught up with him just beyond the cemetery's perimeter fence, on the M1 motorway. He was disarmed and beaten before the police arrived on the scene and arrested him. One of the handguns he had been carrying was later used by the IRA to kill two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).

Fatal fallout

With many members of the media in attendance, the attack at Milltown Cemetery was captured by TV cameras as it happened, and the footage went out in that evening's news bulletins. There was widespread shock. Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King strongly condemned Stone's attack and appealed for calm.

Two of the men killed by Michael Stone were civilians. Thomas McErlean was 20 years old, married with two children. John Murray, 26, was also a married father of two. The third, Kevin Brady, was a member of the IRA. The attack at Milltown was to have a further tragic consequences at Brady's funeral three days later, when two British Army corporals were dragged from their car, taken to waste land and shot dead after inadvertently driving into the funeral cortège.

For many, the 14 day period that began with the deaths in Gibraltar and ended with the murder of the corporals marked the lowest point of the Troubles.

Michael Stone received a number of life sentences for the Milltown murders, along with other offences he confessed to while in police custody. The nature of his lone attack had made him a potent symbol of loyalism for those who supported him, and for those who condemned him.

His release in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement was to prove extremely controversial. Stone was arrested again in November 2006 after attempting to break into parliament buildings at Stormont in Belfast while armed with a fake gun, knives, an axe, a garrotte and viable explosives. He was found guilty of the attempted murder of the Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

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