THIS year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Monday, March 17 were overshadowed by the 20th anniversaries of two of the most televised bloody massacres in the history of the Irish Troubles – the Milltown graveyard massacre and the brutal killings of two Army corporals in Belfast in 1988.
However, both could have been prevented, separate Protestant loyalist and British security force sources said last week.
Indeed, as the anniversaries of both horrific events take place this month on the 16th and 19th respectively, startling new revelations suggest no one needed to die.
Convicted loyalist killer Michael Stone went from being viewed as a loner to the iconic status of ‘Stoner’ in some sections of working class Protestantism after launching a suicide-style attack on Catholic mourners and the Sinn Fein leadership at an IRA funeral in west Belfast.
However, one senior loyalist source said last night the Milltown cemetery attack could have been stopped if the leadership of the banned loyalist death squad, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, in 1988 had taken Stone seriously and ordered him to ‘abort his mission’.
Three Catholics – including one IRA member – died when ‘Loner Stoner’ unleashed a murderous gun and grenade attack at the graveside orations for the three unarmed Provos shot dead in Gibraltar by the SAS days earlier.
The loyalist source said: ‘Stone was always known in loyalism as a loner and a bit of a crackpot. There was a lot of talk about him wanting to hit directly at the Sinn Fein leadership.
‘There’s no doubt taking out Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would have been very appealing, but that would have brought the wrath and revenge of the Provos down on top of us.
‘By the late 1980s, we were already aware of the Provos’ capability to assassinate us loyalists in our own areas. We had to weigh up how many Protestants would have to die in retaliation for killing Adams and company.
‘Republicans had already demonstrated their utter ruthlessness when they shot dead the 10 Protestant workers at Kingsmills, and butchered the worshippers at Darkley mission hall.’
This was a reference to two massacres carried out by republican gunmen in January 1976 and November 1983.
In the ’76 massacre, 10 Protestant workmen were lined up beside their minibus and machine-gunned to death by a group calling itself the South Armagh Republican Action Force, believed to have been a covername for the Provisional IRA.
In the ’83 massacre, three Protestant church elders died and seven others were wounded when gunmen attacked a Christian Pentecostal church in south Armagh. The attack was claimed by the Catholic Reaction Force, thought to be a cover name for the Irish National Liberation Army, then headed by top republican Dominic ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey.
The loyalist source added: ‘We never actually thought Stoner had the fucking balls to carry out the attack. We know before the attack, he had been in contact with John McMichael. Unless something John said to him fuelled Stoner’s imagination.’
McMichael was a senior brigadier in the UFF and one of loyalist terrorism’s top strategists, who was killed in an IRA booby trap car bomb at his home in late December 1987 – three months before the Milltown massacre.
‘Had the UFF leadership of 1988 known Stoner was serious about attacking the Provos in the cemetery, they would have told him to wise up otherwise he could have got himself killed.’
Three people were shot dead as they pursued Stone across the cemetery – 20-year-old Thomas McErlean, John Murray, 26, and 30-year-old IRA man Caoimhin MacBradaigh.
During Stone’s lone rampage, about 60 people were also hurt by bullets, grenade shrapnel and fragments from headstones.
After the massacre, Sinn Fein boss Gerry Adams said Stone could not have acted alone, alleging the loyalist killer must have colluded with the security forces.
Ironically, the police saved the heavily built Stone from being beaten to death by Catholic mourners who caught up with him.
Initially, the Ulster Defence Association paramilitary group – then a recruiting front for the UFF – denied Stone was a member of its death squad, but in jail, he was housed with other UDA inmates.
He was eventually charged with six murders, six attempted murders and 32 other charges.
This made him a hate figure among Irish republicans, but guaranteed him iconic status among some sections of the loyalist working class.
His place in loyalist terror history secured, he was one of four top UDA inmates who met the then Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam in the Maze in January 1998 to discuss the peace process. Three months later, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
However, Stone’s murder of IRA man MacBradaigh was to trigger another of the Troubles most brutal episodes – the beating, stripping and shooting of two Army corporals Derek Wood and David Howes three days later in Belfast.
Like the Milltown massacre, the Andersonstown Road massacre of the two Royal Corps of Signals squaddies was captured on film.
While both corporals were shot several times, they were also severely beaten by their captors, who believed them to be SAS members or Stone copy-cat loyalist killers.
The whole incident was also recorded by an Army helicopter camera, but security force colleagues did not intervene to save their comrades.
A British security source said: ‘However and whatever the two corporals came to be doing in the middle of an IRA funeral, we could have got them out.
‘Perhaps we did not move in because it could have led to a Bloody Sunday style massacre in Belfast. What our people would have been facing was a republican lynch mob baying for blood.’
Bloody Sunday was a reference to one of the most notorious massacres of the Troubles in the 1970s, when 14 civilians were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry following a Civil Rights march.
The security source continued: ‘The only way to rescue the soldiers would have been to kill more civilians. This was not like Dunloy in 1984 when the IRA ambushed two SAS men, killing one. There was no crowd for the support team to encounter – and we got the Provisional IRA gunmen into the bargain.’
The spokesman would not be drawn if the two corporals had been with the SAS, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Two men were later jailed for murder, while others were jailed for terms of up to nine years. Those who actually shot the two corporals were never charged.