"I felt I had done my best for them, but I failed. I felt it was a tragedy I had tried to stop and didn't"
A Catholic priest has spoken for the first time of how he tried to protect two British soldiers from being shot by the IRA by lying on the ground between them in the moments before they were killed. On the 25th anniversary of one of the most shocking episodes of the Troubles, Father Alec Reid has revealed that IRA gunmen threatened to kill him, too.
The two members of the Royal Signals - in plainclothes - were in their car when they got caught up in a funeral cortege in Belfast in March 1988. The funeral was for an IRA member who had himself been a mourner at a funeral when he was shot dead by a Loyalist gunman.
Live television captured the scenes as the car in which Derek Wood, 24, and David Howes, 23, were travelling was surrounded. The two men were dragged out of their vehicle and beaten before being taken to a nearby sports ground. That was when Reid intervened by trying to give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
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In 14 Days, a BBC1 documentary broadcast yesterday in Northern Ireland, Reid describes how he was heaved away by the IRA gunmen, one of them telling him: "Get up, or I'll f***ing well shoot you as well." The programme also highlights the role Reid played in what can now be seen as the earliest stages of the peace process.
In an emotional interview, Reid recalled seeing the soldiers being taken from their car and dragged to a sports ground. He said: "They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between the two of them on my face, and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one by the shoulder ... I can remember the atmosphere ... I can remember thinking, 'They are going to shoot these men'."
The IRA took the soldiers away and Reid heard two shots. He found the soldiers and tried to help them, but they were dead, so he anointed then. Two women then came over with a coat and put it over the head of one of the soldiers, saying, "He was somebody's son."
The priest concluded: "I felt I had done my best to save them, but I had failed to save them. I felt it was a tragedy that I had tried to stop and didn't."
The programme traces a sequence of events that began with the SAS killings in Gibraltar of three IRA members who were intent on blowing up a British army band. As their funerals were taking place in Belfast, a loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, attacked mourners, killing three of them.
These incidents, followed by the killing of the two British soldiers, convulsed Northern Ireland, but are now viewed by many as a turning-point which helped move the peace process forward, with Reid seen as a vital element in the process.