An envelope containing a key document which helped trigger the peace process in the North was smeared with the blood of two soldiers murdered by the IRA in Belfast, a new TV documentary reveals tonight.
Father Alec Reid, a Catholic priest, had the document under his arm when he kneeled to anoint the bodies of the two men who were shot after they accidentally drove into the path of a republican funeral in March 1988,
It was a discussion paper prepared by republicans and which was to be delivered to the then SDLP leader John Hume as part of secret dialogue he was having at that time with the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.
Corporals Derek Wood, 24, and David Howes, 23, were dragged from the car by a mob, taken away, beaten, stripped and then killed. Their bodies were found by Father Reid who had earlier been threatened with being shot if he refused to move away from where the two soldiers were lying.
Later he fell to his knees, tried to give one the kiss of life, before administering the last rites.
It was one of the most telling images throughout the years of conflict and political upheaval in Northern Ireland, and happened just days after the loyalist Michael Stone opened fire on mourners at Milltown Cemetery who had been attending the funerals of three IRA volunteers shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar.
The crowd who seized the soldiers initially feared it was another loyalist attack, this time on the funeral of one of the three men Stone killed with gunfire and grenades in the cemetery.
As well as his lips, there was blood also on the brown envelope which Sinn Féin had asked the Redemptorist priest to hand over. He took it back to Clonard Monastery, west Belfast where he was based, put the document into a new envelope and gave it to the SDLP leader at his house in Derry two days later.
The documentary examines that particularly tense and violent fortnight in March, 1988 during which 12 people were killed at a time when Northern Ireland was in a deep crisis with no sign of a political settlement. The chain of events started with the SAS killings in Gibraltar and ended with the horror of the two soldiers, both members of the Royal Signals Regiment, being dragged to their deaths.
But unknown to virtually anyone, the Hume-Adams discussions were already under way and the letter in the possession of Father Reid set out Sinn Féin's position on what they believed was a way forward. Those were private and exploratory discussions – and a vital first step towards the setting up the negotiations involving all sides in Northern Ireland and which eventually lead to the first IRA ceasefire six years later and the signing of the peace agreement in April 1998.
After they were pulled from the car, the two soldiers, were brought to Casement Park GAA grounds where they lay face down. Father Reid, who had been attending the funeral tried to save them and at one stage got down between them and put his arm around one.
Father Reid said: “They were so disciplined, they just lay there totally still and I decided to myself, these must be soldiers.
“There was a helicopter circling overhead and I don’t know why they didn’t do something, why they didn’t radio to the police or the soldiers to come up because there was these two of their soldiers.
“When I was lying between them the two soldiers I remember saying to myself, ’This shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society.’ That motivated me or encouraged me to keep trying to get away from this kind of society where this kind of thing could happen.
“So I kept asking for an ambulance and I was lying there and the next thing somebody came in and picked me up and said, ”Get up, or I’ll f****** well shoot you as well.“
“And he said ”Take him away.“ And they arrested me. Two of them came on either shoulder and manoeuvred me out. But when I got out I came around and came back.
“And I can remember the atmosphere when I came back in. You could feel it. I knew they were going to be shot. It was a terrible tense atmosphere and I can remember thinking that. They are going to shoot these (men) from the actual feeling I got. And I remember saying to myself,’ I’m going to try and stop them doing that if I can.’
“And the next thing I realised is that they had put them over a low wall inside Casement Pk which went down in to a side street. My car was on an avenue just beside where we were in Casement Pk and I said I’ll get the car and I’ll follow them. I was just opening the door of the car when I heard two shots and at first I thought, ’Jesus, the loyalists are attacking the funeral again’, that was my first thought.
“I went to walk up to see what was happening and I saw people looking up what people would call an entry in Belfast but this entry went in to a big area of waste ground. And I realised what had happened then.”
Father Reid told the programme how he gave the soldiers the last rites.
He said: “And then after a while a man came in and stood behind me and said, ‘Look Father, that man is dead.‘ I anointed him, okay, and I went over to anoint the man who was lying about three yards away and he was lying on his face. I went over to anoint him and two women came over with a coat and put it over his head and said, ”He was somebody’s’ son.“
“I felt I had done my best, you know, to save them. I was very shocked and I had a feeling that I had failed to save them. That was the bottom line.
“I didn’t feel happy about that. It added to the tragedy. Everybody would have felt it was a tragedy but it was a tragedy and I felt even more that it was a tragedy that I had tried to stop and didn’t. I don’t know there was anything more I could have done.”
:: 14 Days by DoubleBand Films is on BBC One (Northern Ireland) tonight at 9pm.