After Gibraltar

Conor Gearty

1.Were the SAS acting under government instructions when they shot dead three IRA members on a bombing mission to Gibraltar on 6 March 1988? The ambivalently negative answer recently supplied by the European Court of Human Rights has infuriated the Government and re-opened the whole question of whether Britain should now enact its own Bill of Rights. There is no dispute about the basic facts of the case, which was brought by relatives of the three deceased. Mairead Farrell was shot five times in the head and neck and three times in the back from a distance of about three feet. Daniel McCann was hit by five bullets, twice in the back and three times in the head. A pathologist later agreed that the third IRA member Sean Savage had been ‘riddled with bullets’ in what looked like a ‘frenzied attack’. He was hit 16 times, with a number of bullets entering his head while he lay on the ground. Witnesses to the shootings of Farrell and McCann also claimed they had been shot while on the ground, and some observers suggested that they might have attempted to surrender. The European Court had to decide whether killing them in this way infringed their(qualified)right to life under Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The three had intended to blow up a British Army target in the centre of Gibraltar, but the authorities had learned about the plan in advance, knew exactly when it would be carried out, who the target would be and the means – a car-bomb – that would be deployed. Despite this detailed knowledge, which included information as to the identities of two of them, the three were able to enter Gibraltar from Spain without being apprehended, park a car exactly where the attack was expected to occur and stroll around for nearly an hour, so that they were more than a mile away from their vehicle when the SAS was finally sent in. At the inquest into the deaths, the soldiers explained the killings by saying that they had been ordered to arrest the three, but that each had made suspicious movements which had led the soldiers to believe that it was necessary to shoot them dead in order to protect the lives of others. The suspicious movements fatally engaged in by the three supposedly consisted of efforts by each of them to press a button that each supposedly carried on his or her person which would supposedly have detonated a bomb which was supposedly in the car that had earlier been parked in the target area. Each of these strongly asserted suppositions turned out to have been false.

There was no explosive device in the car, which had been used merely as a blocking vehicle to reserve a space for the real car-bomb,due to be put in position two days later, when the army regiment that was to be its target would be in the vicinity. Although the security team,as became clear in the legal proceedings that followed, knew exactly when the IRA intended to strike, none of them seems to have thought it odd that the supposed car-bomb had been parked two days before its victims would be exposed to it; indeed at earlier briefings the possibility of just such a blocking car had supposedly been peremptorily discounted. (Gibraltar’s chief inspector of police, however, later told the inquest that he would not have brought the bomb in on the day of the proposed assault because the chances of getting an appropriate parking space would have been too slight.)

The soldier who claimed to have inspected the parked vehicle shortly after the three IRA members had walked away from it turned out to be neither an explosives nor a radio signals expert. His fatal assessment that the vehicle was a suspect car-bomb had supposedly been based on no more than the fact that the rusty radio aerial on the vehicle looked older than the car.Had the soldier had any knowledge of his supposed subject, he would have known that a rusty aerial was the opposite of what was required for the job that he said he thought it was doing. He would also have known that the whole threat could have been nullified by the simple and reasonably safe expedient of removing the aerial. (On the other hand, such a low-level army man would have been ideal for the role of reporting a suspect car-bomb if the only purpose of such a ‘report’ was to induce the Gibraltar police to sign a document authorising the SAS to employ lethal force. This is exactly what happened.)

Even if there had been a bomb, it would not have been what the soldiers claimed it was: a ‘button-job’, capable of being detonated by a single action on the part of one of the three from over a mile away. There were no examples of such a remote-control device ever having been used by the IRA other than in line-of-sight conditions, and the device later found in Spain contained the usual timing apparatus. Even if there had been such a ‘button’ and such a bomb connected to it, why would each of the three have chosen to press it rather than suffer arrest? This is an extraordinary feature of the whole affair. The Army said the reason they were certain that the bomb was a ‘button-job’ was that the IRA had issued a directive after the Enniskillen tragedy the previous year that civilian casualties were to be kept to a minimum. A remote-control device operated by somebody nearby would have been far more likely to have achieved this goal than a timed explosion. At the same time, the Army and the security services appear to have been sure that the suspects, being ‘highly dangerous, dedicated and fanatical’, would have detonated such a bomb if ‘cornered’, because they would have wanted to achieve ‘some degree of propaganda success’. So was Enniskillen an IRA failure or an IRA success? The authorities in Gibraltar appear to have seen it as both, but consecutively, the first to justify their belief as to the nature of the bomb, the second to justify their belief as to how the IRA would use it.

Given the Army’s own judgment that they had a fanatical trio on their hands, each armed with one of these terrifyingly simple buttons,why was the area around the ‘bomb’ not immediately cleared of civilians when the suspect car bomb was‘reported’? The extraordinary explanation offered by the authorities was that there was a ‘shortage of available manpower’. How much manpower does it take to shout ‘bomb!’?And even if one accepts this story, one would want to know why the arrest order was not delayed until such an evacuation had been effected. Even more to the point, why had the three not been arrested at the border, or before they had put the ‘bomb’ in position? The authorities later claimed that earlier action might have raised ‘suspicion in any unapprehended members’ of the IRA and would have left ‘no evidence for the police to use in court’. But the authorities already appear to have known that there were only to be three members in the IRA’s active service unit, and surely evidence would not have been difficult to find if the risk to Gibraltar’s population posed by the IRA had been as great as the Army said they believed it to be. That ‘evidence’ had not changed in any way when – immediately after being told about the ‘car-bomb’ – the Commissioner of Police was prevailed on to authorise intervention by the SAS. The military had prepared in advance the following directive for their civil superior to sign: ‘I, Joseph Luis Canepa, Commissioner of Police, having considered the terrorist situation in Gibraltar and having been fully briefed on the military plan with firearms, request that you proceed with the military option which may include the use of lethal force for the preservation of life.’ This was questionable language in which to couch what was supposedly an instruction to arrest.

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