Emotive memories of horrific events in Belfast 30 years ago were recalled in a major BBC television documentary last night.
In The Funeral Murders, shown on BBC2 at 9pm, loyalists, republicans and former security force members give competing accounts of the events of March 1988 that threatened to spiral into unprecedented bloodshed.
Film maker Vanessa Engle also spoke with relatives of the three men murdered by Michael Stone at a triple IRA funeral at Milltown, and eyewitnesses to the brutal slaying of two Army corporals at a subsequent IRA funeral.
Former RUC chief superintendent Cyril Donnan was the local commander on the day of both the Milltown cemetery attack and the funeral of Kevin Brady three days later.
He said the initial decision to take a “stand off” approach to the funeral of the three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar was “a shock”.
His plan for a high-profile police operation was changed at the last minute after assurances from the Catholic Church that there would be no paramilitary trappings.
Commenting on the events he witnessed at the funeral of Milltown victim Kevin Brady, Mr Donnan said: “We didn’t take any action initially because we had not idea what was going on.
“I was operating under this strict policy that we could not deploy.”
Mr Donnan said once the seriousness of the situation became apparent he decided the police had to abandon the policy and react.
“We needed to get there,” he said.
Recalling the horrific sight of the corporals’ lifeless bodies, Mr Donnan said: “I’ll not forget it to my dying day. The steam was still rising from their bodies.
“We weren’t actually sure they were dead, but we couldn’t find any pulse.”
One unidentified former IRA member described the mob killing as “grotesque” and added: “It wasn’t a properly conducted IRA operation.”
However, Sinn Fein councillor and former IRA prisoner Seanna Walsh took a different view, saying as the IRA was trying to kill British soldiers across Europe, then “it wouldn’t have made much sense for IRA volunteers to say, ‘ok, we’ll let these two go’.”
Asked who we should believe when listening to the different version of events, senior Sinn Fein figure Sean Murray said: “You don’t believe anyone – you listen to all perspectives. Listen to them all and try to understand them.”
Documentary maker Ms Engle said: “The film is in its own terms a document of historic importance, given that the conflict in Northern Ireland witnessed some of the most cataclysmic events to have taken place in the UK since the Second World War.”
One former RUC officer who assisted in the arrest of Michael Stone recalls how the loyalist complained that his gun had jammed otherwise he would have been able to kill more republicans, but also reflects on how the propaganda war is twisting the narrative of the Troubles.
“It’s almost like the police were the terrorists and the IRA were just freedom fighters,” Billy Hamill said.
“Who is going to be believed? Whoever shouts the loudest.”