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State papers shed new light on family of Gibraltar Three's fight for truth

Newly released state papers show that a meeting was arranged between family members and then-Tánaiste Brian Lenihan.

original (4) The three IRA members shot in Gibraltar: (l to r) Sean Savage, Mairéad Farrell, Daniel McCann Source: PA Archive.PA Images

RELATIVES OF ‘THE Gibraltar Three’ were determined to meet Taoiseach Charles Haughey before an official inquest into their deaths had taken place and, following a personal letter to Haughey, that meeting was arranged by the government, newly released State papers show. 

On 6 March 1988, three unarmed IRA members were shot dead by British SAS officers on the territory of Gibraltar.

Mairéad Farrell, Daniel McCann and Seán Savage – who became known as the ‘Gibraltar Three’ - were members of the Provisional IRA suspected of planning a car bomb attack on military personnel.

Killed as part of Operation Flavius, a British military operation targeted at preventing a planned bombing by the IRA in the territory, the events surrounding their deaths are amongst the most controversial of the Troubles. 

On 18 May 1988, the families of Farrell, McCann and Savage wrote to Haughey aiming to arrange a meeting to discuss the government’s intentions “in the aftermath of these murders”.

In their letter – signed by two family members each – the relatives of the ‘Gibraltar Three’ express concern about the “campaign” by the British media – particularly The Sunday Times and The Sun newspapers – to “publicly vilify, discredit and distort eyewitness accounts” that didn’t go along with the official British Government version of events.  

Told by Irish journalists that Haughey had expressed concern about Gibraltar, the family members pushed for him “to meet with us as a matter of urgency so that we can ensure that justice is done”.

“As the inquest into the deaths of our loved ones takes place in Gibraltar on 27 June, we trust you will recognise the need for a meeting as soon as possible.”

Gibraltar Winston Churchill Avenue in Gibraltar where the shootings took place.

Following the incident on Gibraltar, a series of tragic events unfolded. 

On 16 March 1988, the three funerals of Savage, McCann, and Farrell took place in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery.

Ulster Defence Association volunteer Michael Stone stormed the funeral with a pistol and hand grenades. Three people died and 60 were injured. 

Three days later at the final funeral of the three people killed by Stone – Kevin Brady - a grey Volkswagen Passat drove to the head of the procession, scattered mourners and was then attacked by a crowd. 

The two men in the car were off-duty British Army corporals David Howes and Derek Wood who were dragged from the Volkswagen, beaten and stripped before being driven to a waste ground where they were shot dead.

‘Shot in the back’

Though it later transpired that Haughey sought to avoid the return of the Gibraltar Three’s bodies to Dublin in the days following their deaths, a meeting was arranged for family members with An Tánaiste Brian Lenihan. 

On Thursday 28 July, the Farrells, McCanns and Savages were due to meet at Iveagh House in Dublin, according to a previously classified memo addressed to Haughey’s secretary, Dermot Gallagher. 

Seán Savage’s parents would be attending this meeting, as well Daniel McCann’s widow and her mother, the memo notes. 

Solicitor Paddy McGrory, who represented the families, told the Tánaiste’s office that it would be “preferable” for the meeting to go ahead sooner rather than later, according to the memo. 

McGrory had said that the family’s only request was that the government be represented at the official inquest in June. 

Despite stressing confidentiality to the families, McGrory was “not optimistic” confidentiality will be maintained “given the dependence of the families on Sinn Féin”.

To stop word getting out about the meeting, the government asked McGrory to make travel arrangements for the families.

20181206_160812 1988 letter to Taoiseach Charles Haughey Source: Cónal Thomas

According to the memo, McGrory ”now has the Pathologist’s report” which apparently confirmed that some of the shots were fired from as close as between two and six feet and that “some of the shots were fired in the backs of the victims”.

There were indications that the some of the ‘Gibraltar Three’ may have been shot while on the ground, although the report is described by McGrory as being “very badly written (possibly deliberately)”.

By January 1989, relatives of the three IRA members were still waiting for a meeting with Taoiseach Haughey, a later memo reveals. 

Their request was “deferred” until Haughey had met with solicitor McGrory.

Although Farrell, McCann and Savage were unarmed when shot dead on Gibraltar, the inquest into their deaths ultimately returned a verdict of ‘lawful killing’.

But that decision was subsequently appealed by the deceased’s families to the European Court of Human Rights which decided in 1995 that the operation had been in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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