Three members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) were executed by the British Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar, referred to as Operation Flavius. The three—Seán Savage, Daniel McCann, and Mairéad Farrell were believed to be mounting a bombing attack on British military personnel in Gibraltar.
What is undeniable is that just before 4:00pm that afternoon – just two or three minutes after SAS soldiers took control from the Gibraltar authorities – all three IRA Activists were brought down in a hail of 29 bullets, 16 pumped into Savage alone. A police siren sounded, and two soldiers leaped over a barrier as Farrell and McCann lay dying in the road leading to the Spanish border. A few seconds later and another volley of shots brought down Savage as he headed up an alleyway back towards the town.
The gunning down of three unarmed IRA Activists on the streets of Gibraltar by the SAS has continued to haunt the British government. The March 1988 executions led to a cycle of death in the north of Ireland, re-opened claims that the government operated a ‘shoot-to kill’ policy and, yet again, called into question the reputation of British justice.
In 1995, British justice wanting was found, when the European Court of Human Rights decided that Mairéad Farrell, Seán Savage and Daniel McCann had been unnecessarily executed; delivering its judgement, the court found that the operation had been in violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights as the authorities’ failure to arrest the suspects at the border, combined with the information given to the soldiers, rendered the use of lethal force almost inevitable. The decision is cited as a landmark case in the use of force by the state. For the families who had fought for seven years to uncover the truth behind ‘Death on the Rock’, it was, as they claimed, ‘proof the government had blood on its hands’.
The Ballad of Mairead Farrell (Seanchai and The Unity Squad, vocals by Rachel Fitzgerald)