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March 1988, two shocking weeks in Northern Ireland Troubles - Gibraltar, Milltown massacre and Corporals' murders

 

By Ivan Little ·

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One of the Army Corporals draws his weapon after being surrounded by a crowd at the funeral of IRA man Kevin Brady, who was killed in the Milltown attack

The west Belfast man who sipped his cooling pint in the July sunshine outside the Pier Head Hotel in Mullaghmore suddenly swung the conversation away from Lord Mountbatten to those frenzied 14 days in March 1988.

He'd been talking about the IRA murders of Prince Philip's uncle and his companions only yards away in the beautiful Co Sligo seaside village in 1979, and he clearly had no difficulty rationalising the terrorist killings.

But my new-found drinking companion did regret the murderous mayhem of that March madness - 30 years ago this month - that wrote never-to-be-forgotten new phrases into the lexicon of terror.

Gibraltar, the Milltown massacre, and the Corporals' murders are so seared into the consciousness of people over 45 that they barely need explanation.

The three incidents are inextricably linked and created a deadly domino effect of bloodshed in a fortnight that shook Northern Ireland to the core.

The cycle of killings started on Sunday, March 6, with the SAS killing of an IRA bomb team in Gibraltar: Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Danny McCann.

The controversy over what republicans saw as cold and calculated murders still rages, with the Government defending the SAS and denying their actions were part of a shoot-to-kill policy.

But within days a loyalist who unquestionably did have murder in mind used the funerals of the Gibraltar Three to launch his one-man grenade and gun attack on mourners at Milltown cemetery on Wednesday, March 16.

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The Gibraltar bombers Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Danny McCann

Michael Stone had calmly boarded a number 24 bus from his Braniel home into town before getting into a black taxi to Andersonstown where he attended Requiem Mass at St Agnes' Church.

His plan, he said, was to kill Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness but when he couldn't get near them he walked to the cemetery instead.

With the cameras of TV crews from around the world rolling, Stone hurled grenades and fired a gun at mourners, three of whom were killed: John Murray, Thomas McErlean and Caoimhin MacBradaigh, an IRA member.

Mourners who gave chase caught up with Stone at the M1 motorway and bundled him into a commandeered car, but the police saved the killer.

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Billy Wright ,loyalist fanatic who was shot dead in the Maze Prison, was leader of the renegade Loyalist Volunteer Force

The man I met at Mullaghmore said he was one of the people who grabbed Stone and there was no reason to doubt him.

I asked him what would have happened to Stone if police hadn't intervened. His reply was "behave yourself" and that said it all.

Stone was later to tell me he had resigned himself to death as his captors drove him away.

For years Stone clearly enjoyed his hero's status among loyalists who put up murals to him, but he did later talk to me of the "courage" of the men he killed at Milltown.

Stone, who was freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, is back in jail after his manic attempt to get into Stormont to kill Messrs Adams and McGuinness in November 2006.

But what Stone had done at Milltown wasn't the last chapter of carnage that had begun in Gibraltar three decades ago.

For on Saturday, March 19, as the world's media again looked on, there were even more killings.

Thousands of mourners were following the cortege of Milltown victim Caoimhin MacBradaigh when two soldiers in plain clothes inexplicably drove up the Andersonstown Road.

As they reversed away from the cortege at speed, dozens of mourners surrounded their vehicle.

As they reversed away from the cortege at speed, dozens of mourners surrounded their vehicle.

Their fear was the men in the car were loyalists, planning a Michael Stone-style attack.

Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes didn't stand a chance.

Cpl Wood drew his standard-issue weapon but didn't fire directly at the baying crowd who ordered TV crews to hand over their tapes, little realising that quick-thinking cameramen were giving them blank ones instead.

The images of the initial attack stunned the world but in court even more harrowing pictures from a camera on an Army helicopter showed the hapless corporals being attacked in Casement Park before IRA gunmen shot them on waste ground.

A chilling picture taken by English photographer David Cairns then emerged of the Redemptorist priest Fr Alec Reid kneeling over the body of Cpl Howes, giving him the last rites.

Earlier in the day Fr Reid had been involved in secret peace talks with republicans. He later found bloodstains on his papers from the negotiations.

Few people would have given him any hope of success if they'd known what the late cleric had been doing. And little wonder.

For even aside from Gibraltar, Milltown and the Corporals it was a bleak, black time in the Troubles. The previous month had come to an end with troops shooting Aidan McAnespie, an unarmed civilian in Tyrone; the IRA had murdered two UDR soldiers, Frederick Starrett and James Cummings, in a booby-trap attack in the centre of Belfast; and two top Provos, Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley, died after their own bomb had blown up near Crossmaglen.

Three more Catholic men - Kevin McCracken, Charles McGrillen and Kevin Mulligan - died in the days between Gibraltar and Milltown.

The first of the trio was shot by troops and Republican News said he was preparing an ambush on the Army.

Mr McGrillen and Mr Mulligan were described as innocent victims of the UDA, which had just given me a statement saying ordinary Catholics had nothing to fear from them.

The day before the corporals' murders, Protestant shop worker Gillian Johnston was shot dead by the IRA outside her family home near Belleek in Co Fermanagh.

The Provos said her killing was a mistake.

Yet two days after the corporals were killed they shot dead policeman Clive Graham in Londonderry - the 18th person to die violently between February 21 and March 21, 1988.

A man convicted of the policeman's murder told detectives he'd joined the IRA for "a bit of craic".

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One of the Army Corporals draws his weapon after being surrounded by a crowd at the funeral of IRA man Kevin Brady, who was killed in the Milltown attack
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Mourners panicking at Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, after a gun and hand grenade attack was launched by loyalist Michael Stone
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The Gibraltar bombers Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Danny McCann
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Billy Wright ,loyalist fanatic who was shot dead in the Maze Prison, was leader of the renegade Loyalist Volunteer Force
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Martin McGuinness handcuffed to a policeman after being remanded at Special Criminal Court in Dublin, January 1973.
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SDLP press conference with John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Austin Currie and Paddy Devlin. 11/09/75
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Behind the barbed wire of long kesh internment camp are SDLP MPs(from left)Paddy Devlin, Austin Currie, John Hume and Ivan Cooper. They were visiting internees. 21/09/71
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Images from the Belfast Telegraph Troubles Gallery. Belfast IRA man on patrol in West Belfast 1987 - Pacemaker
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Belfast IRA men with a drogue bomb in 1987
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IRA Bomb attack on the La Mon House Hotel
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Customs officers check cars at the old Killen-Carrickarnon border post
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MOURNERS CARRYING HURLING STICKS HEAD THE FUNERAL PROCESSION OF JOHN JOSEPH KAVANAGH, FOUND SHOT DEAD IN THE RIVER BLACKSTAFF. 27.01.1971.
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John Hume is detained by soldiers during a civil rights protest in Londonderry in August 1971.
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John Hume is detained by soldiers during a civil rights protest in Londonderry in August 1971.
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La Mon House Hotel Provisional IRA Bomb Victim, Sandra Morris
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La Mon House Hotel Provisional IRA Bomb Victim, Carol Mills
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La Mon House Hotel Provisional IRA Bomb Victim, Christine Lockhart
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RUC constable Victor Arbuckle who was shot during street disturbances on the Shankill Road Belfast. He was the first RUC man killed in the troubles. October 1969
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Mrs Arbuckle, wife of constable Victor Arbuckle who was shot during the Shankill Road riots receives the Union Jack which covered the coffin during the funeral service at Roselawn Cemetry
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Miami Showband massacre... A Ford Escort which was one of the cars used by loyalist gunmen, is left abandoned near the murder scene. 31/7/1975
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Miami Showband
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Darkley (Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Hall). The scene where three elders were shot dead by the INLA. The terrorists broke in during a church service. 20/11/1983
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The children who escaped death by inches at Darkley, from left, Graham Ritchie, Helen Wilson, Nigel Wilson, Andrew Reid (standing) and Keith Ritchie, photographed the day after the INLA attack.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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First protest march to Belfast city centre. A crowd pictured at a meeting with Ian Paisley at Shaftesbury Square, Belfast. 9/10/1968.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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The first Civil Rights (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) from Coalisland to Dungannon, held on 24/8/1968. Pictured is a member of the official party leading the civil rights marchers, appealing to the crowd, and requesting that there should be no violence during the march in Dungannon.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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First protest march to Belfast city centre. A crowd of students pictured at a meeting with Ian Paisley near Belfast City Hall. Pictured is Ciaran McKeown(with beard). 9/10/1968.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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Banned Derry Civil Rights march broken up by RUC batons in presence of Gerry Fitt MP, three British Labour MPs and television crew. Two nights of rioting ensued. 5/10/1968.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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Civil rights marchers are confronted by a strong force of polive in Duke Street. October 1968
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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Banned Derry Civil Rights march broken up by RUC batons in presence of Gerry Fitt MP, three British Labour MPs and television crew. Two nights of rioting ensued. 5/10/1968.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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People's Democracy group organised a four-day march from Belfast to Londonderry, starting on 1/1/69. The most serious incident was near Burntollet Bridge in County Londonderry, when marchers were ambushed by some 200 loyalists.
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Sir John Hermon, the former Chief Constable of the RUC at the funeral of the RUC's 100th victim of the Troubles, Constable Neill Quinn. Newry 22/6/1081
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Betty Williams, former leader of the NI Peace People, pictured with Mairead Corrigan.
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UDA members being carried in a Land Rover along the Shankill Road. 22/05/72.
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A soldier recieves first aid after being injured by debris after a car bomb exploded on the Crumlin Road. 29/05/72
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Riots in Belfast.
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UDR colleagues fire a volley of shots over the grave of Private Steven Smart, at Movilla Cemetary. Private Smart was killed along with three others after an IRA bomb blew up their Land Rover in Downpatrick. 13/04/90
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Troops and UDA members on joint patrol at Clon Duff Drive in Castlereagh Road area of Belfast, 1972.
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The funeral of RUC man William Russell, shot while investgating a burglary at the Avoca Shopping Centre, Andersontown, Belfast
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Hunger striker Bobby Sands coffin, flanked by an IRA colour party, leaving his mother's home in Twinbrook.
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Bobby Sands' son Robert Gerald holds his mother's hand at the funeral of his father Bobby in west Belfast flanked by Masked IRA men. Picture by Martin Wright
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Army engineers take away the fallen statue of the famous Protestant minister The Rev 'Roaring Hugh Hanna' after an early morning IRA bomb blast at Carlisle Circus. 3/3/1970
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Newly elected DUP MP Peter Robinson and his wife Iris. 4/5/1979
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Peter Robinson about to invade the small village of Clontibret, Co Monaghan, in 1986.
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Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes in Long Kesh
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Martin McGuinness in Derry's Bogside at a press conference. 1971
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Members of the UDA provide an escort at the funeral of 30 year old John Lunnen Brown, a UDA volunteer, of Blackmountain Park, Springmartin. 01/07/72.
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Northern Ireland Troubles Gallery: Mrs Mary Meehan who was shot by the army in Cape Street, 23rd october 1971. Family photo.
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Northern Ireland Troubles Gallery: Scots Guardsman, Paul Nicholls, from Caithness, killed by an IRA sniper on the Falls Road, Belfast. 1971
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Scene of the IRA bomb and shooting attack at Loughall Police Station which resulted in 8 IRA and 1 Civilian being killed.
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Supporters of the UDA preparing food to be used by UDA members in the Shankill Road area. 02/07/72
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A UDA checkpoint barrier at Moat Road. 08/06/72
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UDA on the streets of Londonderry. 30/09/72
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Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney, who spent 53 days on IRA hunger strike.
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Some of the 24 Ulsterbuses which were burnt out after an IRA attack on the depot in Armagh. 28/4/1982.
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Mourners panicking at Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, after a gun and bomb attack by Michael Stone which left three people dead and four seriously injured during the funerals of three IRA membes shot dead in Gibraltar. 1988
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Joan Travers and her daughter Ann at the funeral of her other daughter, Mary, shot dead by IRA gunmen in Windsor Avenue, Belfast. while walking home from Mass with her father Judge Tom Travers. 1984
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Ian Paisley at the scene of the IRA motar attack on Newry Police Station. which killed 9 officers. 28/2/1985.
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President of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of Patrick Kelly . 1987
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Martin Meehan (centre) with Gerry Adams at a funeral in Belfast in 1971 of a Belfast IRA commander.
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UDA men line up for inspection at Bloomfield before the march. 30/09/72
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Reverend Martin Smyth and Billy Hull with UDA leaders. 1972
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The Shankill Road member. 1972
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A man is frisked by masked members of the UDA at a barricade on the Lisburn Road end of Sandy Row. 1972
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Belfast, Bloody Friday, 21 July, 1972, the IRA set off 26 explosions in Belfast, which killed 11 people and injured 130. 7 people were killed in Oxford Street bus station and 4 at a shopping centre on the Cavehill Road.
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Riots in Belfast, 1969
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A man talks to soldiers over the barricade, in Divis Street, Belfast. 16/8/1969
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Respects are paid to the victims of Bloody Friday, Oxford Street, Belfast
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Rioting in Belfast, 1962
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A family flee their home during rioting in Belfast 1969
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Belfast 1969
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British soldiers patrol Belfast in 1969
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Belfast City Hall bombed. 23/5/1994.
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O'Tooles Bar (The Heights), in the quiet Co Down village of Loughinisland where UVF gunmen burst in opened fire, during a World Cup match on June 18, 1994.
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O'Tooles Bar (The Heights) in the Co. Down village of Loughinisland. Six men were shot dead by two UVF gunmen, while they were watching the 1994 World Cup on television.
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The ruins of McGurks Bar. Dec 1971
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UDA barricades off Ainsworth Avenue. 04/07/72
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John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono raise their fists as they join a protest in this Feb. 5, 1972, file photo in front of British Overseas Airways Corp. offices in New York on Fifth Avenue. The demonstrators called for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.
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Ulster Vanguard Movement: Ulster Vanguard Association Rally at Stormont. 29/03/72
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William Craig:Leader of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive party.
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Ulster Vanguard Movement: A section of the crowd at the Vanguard Association Rally at Ormeau Park. 18/03/72
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Ulster Defence Association/U.D.A: 1972. Delegates at the talks between Vanguard, Ulster Defence Association and the Loyalist Association of Workers.
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Ulster Vanguard Movement:September 1972.
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As the Queen was visiting Belfast city centre in 1977, soldiers came under attack a few hundred yards away in the republican Falls Road area. An army captain was seperated from his unit and was being heavily stoned and kicked when a 'snatch squad' of his troops rushed the crowd to rescue him from the mob.
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RUC: Police officers at the 12th parades at Portadown 1985.
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The body of catholic man lies in an entry off the Shankill Road in West Belfast after being murdered by members of the Shankill butchers. 25/10/82. Pacemaker Press
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Shankill Butcher Lenny Murphy
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William Moore aka Shankill Butcher gang member. Pacemaker Press
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Con Neeson who was killed by the Shankill butchers in the late 70's. Pacemaker Press
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Shankill Butcher Edward McIlwaine. Pacemaker Press
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Robert 'Basher' Bates: Shankill butcher
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A man with slashed wrists after an attack by the Shankill Butchers. Pacemaker Press