14 dark days: Reporting some of the worst days of the Troubles

Media at Milltown funeral Lone loyalist gunman Michael Stone launched a gun and grenade attack on mourners at Belfast's Milltown cemetery, killing three and wounding more than 50

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In March 1988, a traumatic 14 day cycle of violence marked one of the lowest points of Northern Ireland's Troubles and made the journalists who reported it part of the story.

14 days of bloodshed in 1988

Memorial for the three IRA members killed by the SAS in Gibraltar

Bill Neely is a Belfast native and cut his teeth reporting the Troubles for the BBC. Now international editor for ITV News, he vividly recalls the 14 days when the violence seemed to spiral completely out of control:

"Each one of these events was extraordinary. The fact that they all came in the space of two weeks made you feel - what the hell is going to happen next? What kind of cliff edge are we really at in Northern Ireland?"

14 days

The spiral of violence began on 6 March when British special forces killed three members of the Provisional IRA.

Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann were planning a bomb attack in Gibraltar. The three were unarmed, sparking accusations of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy.

There was already tension at their funerals in Belfast's Milltown cemetery, ten days later, when lone loyalist gunman Michael Stone launched a gun and grenade attack on mourners, killing three and wounding more than 50.

Start Quote

Bill Neely

The fact it was on camera showed the world the horror of Northern Ireland”

End Quote Bill Neely International Editor for ITV News

Three days later, at the funeral of one of those killed by Michael Stone, two British army corporals, David Howes and Derek Wood, who drove into the cortege were dragged from their car by the crowd, beaten and then shot dead by the IRA in Andersonstown in West Belfast.

A new low

For Bill Neely these incidents marked a new low point, even by the standards of Northern Ireland's bloody history.

"What was on display that day [when the corporals were killed] was pure savagery. The fact it was captured on camera showed the world the horror of what Northern Ireland could be like.

"Even after twenty years of the Troubles we hadn't really seen very much direct killing. But this was real time - it was 'as live' and that's what was most shocking about it."

Caught on film

The unfolding horror was captured by the media and appeared in newspapers and TV bulletins around the world. But the media didn't just report the story - it became part of it, leading to paramilitary death threats against journalists and, later, confrontation with the government.

Cameraman Cyril Cave is searched by the IRA, Bogside, Derry, 1972 A cameraman is searched by the IRA, in Derry's Bogside in 1972

At Milltown, there was no doubt about the perpetrator. The loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, was caught by mourners and severely beaten before being arrested by police.

In the case of the murder of the two corporals, the media's pictures were valuable evidence in the hunt for the killers and their accomplices. The IRA knew this and tried to prevent films being handed to police.

Death threats

At the time, John Conway was Head of BBC News in Northern Ireland. He remembers how perilous it had been for journalists and cameramen working at the scene.

"It was only down to the bravery and quick thinking of the veteran BBC staff involved that we were able to get any footage of the incident. Republican stewards who searched them leaving the scene asked for the camera tape to be handed over, but they were given a blank one instead."

Conway recalls the threat he received after asking republican paramilitaries to stop intimidating his staff.

"For the first time in over 20 years of covering the Troubles, I was rung at home on my ex-directory line and threatened, with a message of 'testify and you're dead'. I left Belfast at this time. When I was in England, my mother was rung at home and threatened and told that my father, who they knew was in hospital, would also be killed."

Prevention of terrorism

Then, as now, broadcasters and photographers maintained their independence and did not hand over any material that had not been transmitted.

Conway describes what happened next:

"It was agreed by the BBC that I should resist handing over material until I was threatened with arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. At that point, I was empowered to hand over transmitted and untransmitted material. ITN and RTE were required to do the same."

This tension between not obstructing justice and not endangering lives was not new for journalists in Northern Ireland, but rarely had the stakes been so high.

Campaign of intimidation

BBC Northern Ireland's Political Editor Mark Devenport recalls:

"Associates of the many accused decided the prosecution might be derailed if the video evidence could be rendered ineligible. The only way to do that was to mount a campaign of intimidation against the journalists who, under a subpoena, had to testify the video was genuine. A chillingly well-organised campaign of intimidation took place."

Conway and other BBC News reporters who had managed to get footage out of the Andersonstown killings, had their lives threatened and had to temporarily leave Northern Ireland with their families.

They, along with other a number of other members of the media, defied intimidation to give evidence at the subsequent trials.

Denis Murray reporting on paramilitary funerals in 1988

Accidental targets

The dangers that journalists and cameramen faced covering these two weeks alone are vividly described by Mark Devenport in his memoir, Flash Frames.

He writes that after Michael Stone was imprisoned for the Milltown cemetery killings, Stone sent a message to veteran BBC cameraman Peter Cooper, who had captured the terrifying close-up footage of the attack.

"Peter had been under the impression that Stone had been firing in his general direction but not that he was the target. But Stone told a couple of my colleagues, 'Say sorry to Peter Cooper for me - I shouldn't have aimed at him. I thought that thing on his shoulder [his camera] was a weapon.'"

Death on the Rock

Along with the threats and the violence came the controversy. The following month, in April 1988, the media found itself at loggerheads with the British government over the killing of the three IRA members by the SAS in Gibraltar.

"The English tabloid press were in quick with 'IRA plans to blow up Gibraltar foiled by brave SAS' … [but] witnesses contradicted the official account and were in turn smeared. It's fair to say that the BBC in Belfast, more accustomed at the time to these sorts of events, was more sceptical of the official version than some colleagues based in London," says John Conway.

Bill Neely agrees: "We were always testing the police and army's version of events. I think our colleagues in London looked to us sometimes to sow the seeds of doubt because they tended to simply believe their sources.

The BBC Northern Ireland programme Spotlight and, more famously, the Thames television documentary 'Death on the Rock' questioned the official version of events and asked why the IRA unit had been killed instead of arrested.

The British government put pressure on both broadcasters not to transmit their programmes, citing concerns that they could prejudice the outcome of an inquiry into the deaths. In the Commons, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher condemned what she called "trial by television".

Despite Government pressure, 'Death on the Rock' aired in late April and Spotlight in early May.

Trauma

For some journalists, the events they witnessed during these 14 days, and throughout the Troubles, would take a heavy toll.

"I'd say a lot of journalists were traumatised by what they saw day in, day out and that included film editors who regularly saw the footage deemed too graphic to broadcast," says Conway.

This was particularly the case for journalists who were on the front-line year in, year out and who lived in the community. Counselling was not generally offered or sought, so individuals learned to deal with what they had experienced in their own way.

As for John Conway, he returned to work in Belfast after the threats, but after 20 years of covering the conflict and with a wife and two young sons, he felt it was time to move on and has spent the rest of his BBC career in England.

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