Grief porn for the curious: ‘The Funeral Murders’ (BBC) reviewed

Funeral cortege of the Gibraltar Three, Belfast, 16 March 1988. Photograph: Unknown/BBC/Chris Steele-Perkins

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (21 March 2018)

I had great expectations from this documentary. Its own publicity said it was the first documentary to deal with the events of March 1988 and that it included footage and interviews with people who had never spoken about the events before. That much was true; there are new interviews included. On that level the documentary lived up to the hype.

It included interviews with RUC officers in charge of security on the days in question, loyalist paramilitaries, republicans and relatives of those killed. Some of the interviews are informative and many of the interviews with republicans and relatives are poignant and they are allowed speak for themselves. The technique employed by the documentary maker is to let the interviews to speak for themselves, with very little input or voiceover. This is supposed to lend an air of objectivity or neutrality, but it doesn’t. The infrequency of commentary and discussion serve only to highlight the bias and the political position of the documentary. This is, we are told, a documentary about a time in the north when Protestants and Catholics were fighting each other – there is no mention of the British state as part of the conflict. We are introduced to a savage episode in a savage conflict waged by savage people, though those are not the actual terms used.

The documentary opens with the killings in Gibraltrar of three IRA volunteers, a term that is dismissed in one of her rare interventions as something that makes them sound as though they worked for the “local charity shop”. They are not of course charity workers, they are as we will see savage participants in a conflict. Though the facts of the case are presented and one interviewee mentions that Seán Savage was shot 16 times, the concrete circumstances and ferocity of the SAS soldier standing over Seán Savage with a foot on him and that most of the bullets went through his neck almost decapitating him are never mentioned. This was just a legitimate action by the state, it was supposedly not on a par with the savagery that would follow.

We are then shown the scenes of the killings by Michael Stone, the chase by the mourners, the grey van, and the RUC rescuing Stone from the crowd. Stone’s murders are savage, they were carried out at a funeral during a period of deep mourning within the nationalist community. The documentary does explore to some degree the sequence of events and how it came to be that there was no RUC presence at the funeral. One is left with the impression that there was no collusion by the RUC and that Stone just happened to turn up that day, though room is given to republicans to call that into question.

Interestingly the RUC officer in charge of security on the day claims that he withdrew the police after discussions and an agreement with the Catholic Church. The sloppy nature of the documentary stands out at this moment with the questions that were never asked. Who made this agreement? What were the contents of it? Was it just an agreement that the RUC would be discreet and not attack the funeral cortege as they had done on other occasions or did it mean that there would be no presence on the day? These questions are not asked of the RUC officer nor of the Catholic Church who do not appear at all in the documentary.

When the documentary moves on to dealing with the second funeral, that of IRA Volunteer Kevin Brady, this same question is asked and the same answer is given: there was no RUC presence because that was what the Catholic Church had negotiated. Did they not ask for any guarantees that another Stone-like attack would be prevented? Were any reassurances on the matter given? Again we do not know as these questions are not asked and no Church representative is interviewed.

At the second funeral, two British army corporals drive into the cortege and are surrounded by the crowd who drag them out of the car and into Casement Park. Some time is given over to describing the events in their gory detail and the people are depicted as savages. Through the interviews of RUC officers and one witness, the crowd is described as animalistic and as descending on the car like ants. These are not the acts of human beings, but rather of savages.

Of course there is a context, which was the killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar the savagery of which is glossed over and also that of Stone, whose murders were so shocking that initially loyalists were not queuing up to claim him as one of their own; that would come later. The reaction to the murders was one of calm if the RUC interviewees are to be believed, though one British soldier disputes that. The balance to what would come is given by an interview with a loyalist who talks of jumping with delight at the news. So when the crowd pull the corporals out it is just an animalistic act. It was not the logical result of the tension and fear and the precedent set three days previously by Stone.

It was of course the mourners who pulled them out, just as it was mainly ordinary mourners who chased Stone. This fact is overlooked as it was the IRA that killed them.  But the mourners who pulled the corporals out of the car showed the same or similar courage to the mourners who chased Stone. It is of course true that the IRA and not the mourners pulled the trigger and a more political organisation might have presented them to the media at a later date, rather than killing them though, given the period people had gone through, such a course of action would have required not only the politics the Provos were lacking but a calm and coldness that few people possess.

Why these two British soldiers were there is never answered, though the RUC officer is quite clear that they would have known the area was off limits and would have been reminded of this leaving the barracks. There is little doubt they were up to no good, though once again the tale of the experienced officer showing the newbie around is revived and their “restraint” in not shooting everyone is because they were afraid of prosecution after the events, an unlikely scenario given the history of British soldiers murdering civilians and getting away with it.

The documentary finishes with another act of “balance”: a loyalist is asked what would have happened had republicans driven into a loyalist funeral. We are left in no doubt and the loyalist says as much that the same would have happened, i.e. savagery would have broken out again amongst the Irish.

The documentary is disappointing, despite its obvious access to the IRA, loyalists and the RUC. It does not ask key questions and sticks to a narrative, now legitimated by the Peace Process, of two tribes of savages being kept apart by the civilised state. Of course, the events lend themselves to that narrative very easily, but only if you ignore the context, the history of attacks on funerals, the nature of loyalism etc and the nature of the original killings in Gibraltar. The documentary fails on all of these points and on that basis fails also in the interviews with those who lived through the events. Though many of them include very poignant moments, in the end they are cheapened by the overriding narrative and are turned into a type of grief porn for the curious.

This review is reblogged from the Socialist Democracy site, here.  

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Posted on March 26, 2018, in British state repression (general), Catholic church/church-state relations, Commemorations, Engels, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Republicanism post-1900, Reviews - films, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. excellent commentary on the documentary film. This post contains some other earlier films and reports to help set the scene better and deepen understanding of these events https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/unlawful-killings-in-gibraltar-and-sectarian-murders-the-way-we-were/

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