On the 20th March 1988 Celtic played Rangers in a vital league match at . It was a time of great excitement for hoops fans as a win for Celtic would almost certainly see them clinch the title in the club's centenary season. It was an exciting game in which both sides created chances but Celtic fans were delighted as goals from McStay and Walker were enough to give the team a vital 2-1 win amid the usual cacophony of noise which accompanies the Glasgow derby. As that game took place on Glasgow's south side, 110 miles away in Belfast, that city was coming to terms with one of the darkest weeks of the Troubles.
I recently watched the powerful and disturbing 'Funeral Murders' documentary on the BBC iPlayer. It outlined in all to graphic detail the events which took place at two republican funerals in Belfast in the spring of 1988. Those of you of a certain age will remember all too clearly the attack by a loyalist, Michael Stone, on the mourners at the funeral of the 'Gibraltar Three.' Stone killed three people and injured many others as he threw grenades and fired into the unarmed crowd. Controversy still rages about who supplied the weapons he used, who sanctioned the attack and why the Police were nowhere to be seen when they had previously policed Republican funerals with a robustness bordering on brutality. Those are questions history may or may not answer in the years ahead.
Three days after the shocking scenes at Milltown Cemetery the funeral took place of Caoimhin (Kevin Brady) one of the unarmed people killed by Stone. As thousands of people followed the cortege, a car containing two armed, plain clothed British soldiers blundered into the crowd of mourners. The events of a few days earlier led many to believe they were under attack again and elements of the crowd overpowered the soldiers and they were quickly identified and executed by the IRA. Catholic Priest, Alec Reid, who would later play a major role in the peace process, tried to intervene and save the soldiers but to no avail. It was all he could do to administer the last rights to the men. As with the circumstances of Stone's attack a few days earlier, there remains controversy and dispute about what the soldiers were doing in the vicinity of the funeral but in the twilight world of truth and lies of that era we may never know for sure.
The documentary framed events in the context of a religious struggle which is par for the course for those who don't wish to delve too deeply into the darker actions of the UK government in Ireland. That apart, it allowed the voices of relatives of those killed and injured to speak and this was powerful testimony about the lasting effects of violence and loss on those left behind to mourn. The well of pain is deep indeed and both communities suffered hugely in the dark times of the past.
The events of March 1988 of course came just four months after the Enniskillen bombing of November 1987 which killed 11 people attending a Remembrance-day event. The world was rightly horrified at what happened that day and many see it as a turning point in the Troubles. The voices demanding peace became louder and even some of those the media liked to call 'the men of violence' began to think a new approach might be required. Gordon Wilson, a Solicitor who lost his daughter Marie in the bombing spoke courageously and with great dignity in the aftermath of the bombing. He said that as he and Marie lay in the rubble caused by the explosion...
"She held my hand gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say." To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, "But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night."
Mr Wilson became a tireless peace campaigner and pleaded with loyalist paramilitaries not to seek revenge in his or Marie's name. His pleas fell on deaf ears as the reprisals against innocent Catholics began but something had changed and the slow journey to peace was beginning.
It's now 30 years since those events in the fine city of Belfast. It's a place I have visited and found the people to be as friendly and decent as any you'll find. Of course, it bears the scars of its history; how could it not? I recall travelling on the Belfast Tour bus around the main sites of the town and seeing the slow regeneration of the place. The peace wall still stands at the interface areas as a reminder that there is a way to go yet in normalising the city but things have improved vastly since the dark days of 1988.
For years I sat beside a Belfast man at Celtic Park and he would tell me tales of growing up there in the 1970s. What struck me most was not the tales of violence and suffering of which he had many, but rather the humour and humanity of the people who endured so much and never lost their dignity.
I hope peace endures in the north of Ireland and the new generations find a way to live together. The pain of the past remains very real for those who suffered and lost loved ones. It was good to see their voices heard in that disturbing documentary as they are often ignored. It is the ordinary people who pay the highest price when some choose violence to solve disputes. Hopefully those dark days are gone for ever.
We live in hope.