THE month of March always makes me think of murder. When spring arrives, memory sends me tumbling back through the decades to when I’d just turned 18. A series of events began then, in March 1988, which forever changed me and my country Northern Ireland.

It started 35 years ago this week, and lasted 14 terrible days. A fortnight that would begin the process of bleeding Northern Ireland white, of exhausting the nation so there was nowhere left to go but toward peace.

The catalyst was known as "Death on the Rock", when the SAS killed three IRA members on Gibraltar; that was followed by the Milltown Cemetery Massacre, when a loyalist terrorist launched a gun and grenade attack on those mourning the IRA team killed on Gibraltar; then came the lynching of two undercover British soldiers by a republican mob during the funeral of one of the Milltown victims.

The tide of blood rose so high we were drowning. The people were broken by the barbarism amongst us. Those 14 days shaped every single kid in Northern Ireland. We’d become the "Peace Generation": young people demanding an end to the rule of the monsters; who would march for peace, turn our lives towards peace, and eventually vote through the Good Friday Agreement in our thousands, cementing the fragile peace which still holds today.

Neil Mackay: Why we must not wash our hands of Northern Ireland’s Dirty War

If you’re over 45 now, you’ll probably recall that awful fortnight. It’s strange that everyone alive back then has the horror stored in their memory banks, but few talk of it. But then perhaps it’s not strange to turn your face away from the mirror these events held up not just to Britain and Northern Ireland but to humanity; to the appalling truth that civilisation is gossamer thin, that in conflict there’s no such thing as good and bad, only hell and bloody hands.

March 6 1988, and three IRA members are shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. They were said to have been planning a bomb attack. At the time of the killings, however, they were all unarmed and there was no bomb in their car. Accusations flew that it was murder. A documentary, Death on the Rock, raised questions about unlawful killing. The British Establishment was outraged at ITV airing the programme. Eyewitnesses claimed the SAS opened fire without warning. There were allegations one IRA member was shot on the ground.

The Herald:

It was a ghastly event. It seemed clear the IRA were planning some unspeakable horror in the Mediterranean. This was only a few months after the IRA’s Poppy Day Massacre in Enniskillen when 11 people were killed by a bomb at the town’s cenotaph. Yet it also became clear the British Army had taken the lives of people they could have arrested. A policy of shoot-to-kill renders justice meaningless.

We’d eventually learn that British security forces were as bloodstained as the terrorists on both sides. The Dirty War – Britain’s shameful collusion with paramilitary murder gangs – rendered the Army and intelligence services little better than the IRA or the UVF. And of course, the military still dripped the blood of Bloody Sunday.

Back home, we all knew what Gibraltar meant. Revenge. Killing. Another cycle of tit-for-tat murder would begin. None of us knew, though, how bad it would get this time.

Northern Ireland at 100: How Scotland became a refuge for a boy lost in the Troubles

March 16, and the funeral of the three IRA members killed in Gibraltar took place. As their Tricolour-draped coffins were taken to their graves at Milltown Cemetery in front of TV cameras, an explosion was heard. Michael Stone, a member of the loyalist terror group the UDA, had launched an attack on mourners using guns and grenades. Grieving people where being murdered in a graveyard in front of the nation’s eyes. Three people died, 60 were injured. It seemed insanity had come to the land.

At the same time, on the other side of the world in Apartheid South Africa, people were being "necklaced" in the street – tyres placed around them and set alight so they burned to death. I remember thinking "would we get that bad?". In Northern Ireland, there were attacks called "breeze-blockings", where victims were forced to lie on the ground before a concrete slab was dropped on their head, to deliberately leave them brain-damaged. There were so-called "50-50 punishment shootings" where victims were shot in the spine, deliberately leaving them 50% paralysed. Sadism, torture, inhumanity.

Then the worst did happen. We were as bad as South Africa.

On March 19, two undercover British Army corporals, monitoring the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, were lynched in the street. They were dragged from their car live on TV by a screaming savage mob, stripped, beaten and taken away to be murdered on waste ground.

I’ll never forget that day. It was Saturday. Together with around 100 other young people I was at Queen’s University for a "youth peace conference". We were a bunch of kids studying politics at A Level, recommended to attend by our schools because of our grades and interest in peace. We were from all religions and none. I was "none". My family is mixed, Catholic and Protestant, and I was brought up free from religious bigotry.

Neil Mackay's Big Read: The truth about the Troubles, the dirty war and who really won the bloody conflict

As this group of idealistic kids debated, those two corporals were being butchered just a few miles away. On the drive home, I listened to the radio reports of their murder. The baying for blood. As if Northern Ireland itself had become a wild, wounded animal, thrashing out, destroying everything around it as our last fragment of decency was stabbed and shot in the street.

I knew at that moment there was no side I could ever take in Northern Ireland. Every side was monstrous: British, loyalist or republican. All were depraved. I hated them all.

I’m forever marked by that fortnight. I see shadows of Northern Ireland all across Scotland and Britain, all across the western world: division, hatred, othering of political "enemies", the notion that my identity trumps your identity. It scares me, because I know where it can go, and so does every child of my Northern Ireland generation. All it takes is one terrible act, one flick of a domino, and everything you’ve got just dies.