DUP corporals motion ‘a political stunt’

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

News Letter columnist Alex Kane has branded the recent DUP motion at Belfast City Council to remember two murdered soldiers, as a political stunt.

FOR a few days in March 1988 it looked as though Northern Ireland was about to go into meltdown: the SAS had shot dead three IRA members in Gibraltar on the 6th; Michael Stone killed three people at Milltown cemetery on the 16th; and two Army corporals were killed by a mob at a funeral in west Belfast on the 19th.

I watched the footage of Stone being chased across the cemetery and motorway, wondering what the mob would do if they got him: and also wondering if he was leading as many of them as he could towards a bomb, or a group of loyalists with machineguns.

I watched the footage of corporals Wood and Howes being hauled from their car and beaten.

I remember screaming at the television, wanting to know why Army helicopters (one of which was filming the events) weren’t swooping down with gas, gunfire and reinforcements.

It was an animalistic moment on the ground and an animalistic response from me. For days afterwards I met people who shared my anger, who wanted to know why the Army hadn’t rescued ‘two of their own’; who wanted to know why the Government didn’t order a final, brutal, no-prisoners-taken crackdown on the IRA.

I met people – just ordinary middle-of-the-road unionists who spoke – albeit in hushed voices – of the need for loyalist paramilitaries to take the war to the IRA’s front door. There was an anger abroad in the land, a level of anger that I had only sensed once or twice before.

I have unlimited admiration for anyone who puts on the uniform of a soldier or police officer and puts themselves on the front line to uphold law and order and protect citizens. I’m glad they are willing to do it: for I never had the courage to join the Reservists or UDR.

I am grateful to them. Grateful to those tens of thousands of men and women over the decades who put themselves in harm’s way for the general wellbeing of all of us in Northern Ireland.

It takes courage – real courage – to put yourself between rioting mobs. It takes courage to direct people away from a bomb, particularly when you may have to pass the bomb a number of times. It takes courage to put your life on the line for others.

I accept, of course, that not every member of the security forces was an angel and that some did break the law, disgracing themselves and their colleagues. In general though, the vast majority of them were honourable, decent and courageous and deserve to be viewed as such.

Corporals Wood and Howes were brave men. They had already proved that by joining the security forces. In the back of their minds – as it is with every soldier or policeman – is the acceptance of the reality that they could be killed, paralysed, injured, traumatised and psychologically scarred for life. It goes with the territory of those who wear a uniform.

I don’t know why they ended up where they did on March 19, 1988. Maybe they didn’t know. They had a number of options facing them – one of which was going out in a ‘blaze of glory’ and shooting as many attackers as they could: hoping that would deter their attackers and buy themselves some time. But they didn’t do that. They did everything they could not to kill or wound their attackers. They died with courage. They died with honour.

That sort of courage deserves to be acknowledged. It deserves to be remembered by everyone who watched it that day.

It deserves to be remembered, as well, by those who dragged them from the car and kicked, stabbed, stripped and shot them to death. It deserves to be remembered by every single person who was part of that funeral crowd.

Twenty-five years is a suitable length of time to look back: to remember how close we came to the tipping point over those few days in 1988. To remember and be grateful for the fact that we didn’t tumble into some sort of abyss or civil war. Derek Wood and David Howes deserve to be remembered.

The manner of their death served as a chilling reminder of how close we came to the edge and it played a part, I think, in concentrating minds and focusing attention on how we could bring something resembling peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

But I don’t see what purpose was served by the DUP’s motion at last week’s meeting of Belfast City Council. They must have known that it was very unlikely to be passed or, that if it was passed, it would be on the back of an ‘us-and-them’ split vote. What sort of message would that send to the families and friends of Derek and David: sorry about this, but Northern Ireland is still so divided that the politicians can’t even agree on a motion about how your boys died?

If the DUP was so keen to remember and pay tribute to the corporals then there were a number of ways they could have done so without resorting to what looked like a political stunt.

They could have organised their own event. They could have arranged something with the regiment concerned. They could have organised something with the families. They could have organised a public event, leaving it up to people to go or not go. That would have been the dignified, respectful and decent way of remembering them and paying respect.

Instead, they chose propaganda and point-scoring over respect and dignity. They handled it in the worst possible manner. In so doing they – to my mind at least – demeaned the memory and courage of two men who still deserve our gratitude and tribute.