The use of covert SAS troops to intercept and shoot dead three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar 30 years ago had ramifications which are still being felt today.
Had Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage succeeded in their mission, a car bomb packed with the powerful Semtex explosive would have caused carnage in the heart of the British overseas territory in the Mediterranean.
The ambitious and well-planned IRA operation was, in part, designed to restore morale among rank and file members following an enormous setback at Loughgall the previous year – and to detract from the widespread revulsion caused when the Provos bombed the Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen just four months earlier.
On this occasion, the bombers’ target was the band of the Royal Anglican Regiment due to perform at a changing of the guard ceremony.
On Sunday, March 6, 1988, Sean Savage was seen parking a Renault car at the spot where the band would assemble before walking off along Winston Churchill Avenue towards the frontier with Spain. He was around 100 yards behind his two accomplices when three plain-clothes soldiers confronted both Farrell and McCann.
The SAS troops opened fire with handguns, later claiming they believed the pair made aggressive gestures which were interpreted as having the potential produce a gun, or to detonate a device by remote control. Savage was shot dead immediately afterwards. All three were found to have been unarmed, and it transpired the parked car contained no explosives. However, a set of keys being carried by Farrell led police to a Ford Fiesta car in a Marbella car park. This vehicle contained a large quantity of explosives.
It was claimed at subsequent inquiries that the first car was parked to secure a space for the second vehicle. The military parade was due to take place two days later.
Evidence at the subsequent inquest suggested Gibraltar police handed control of the ongoing security situation to the SAS, just minutes before the shooting, fearing the parked car posed a bomb threat. In the weeks following the incident, further details about the SAS’s ‘Operation Flavius’ emerged, much of it fuelling the widespread anger at the use of lethal force. Both British and Spanish security services had known about the IRA’s plans for several weeks.
The SAS action re-ignited claims the UK Government was operating a ‘shoot to kill’ policy where arrests were possible, although a broad swathe of public opinion had little or no sympathy for the terrorists involved.
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Gibraltar operation, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter: “The SAS played a crucial role in preserving innocent life in Northern Ireland during the terrorist campaign and it is important that their role is commemorated.”
Fierce debate continues to rage around whether the use of the military in such circumstances – operating to different standards than those regulating the actions of civilian police officers – is compliant with international law.
The Royal Navy morgue in Gibraltar held the three bodies until arrangements were made to fly them to Dublin, for an onward journey by road to Belfast.
In an effort to prevent a late night joint homecoming in west Belfast for all three coffins, a massive police operation in the early hours of the morning blocked the Sprucefield roundabout at Lisburn and several RUC Land Rovers then escorted the hearses and close family members, separately and by different routes, into the city.
At Milltown cemetery a few days later, loyalist killer Michael Stone attacked mourners in an attempt to kill some the organisation’s leaders. While being pursued by the crowd, he shot one IRA member, Kevin Brady, and two civilians.
The chain of events from the Gibraltar shooting continued when two soldiers were pulled from a car and killed by mourners at Brady’s funeral.