IRA members fire a volley of shots for three comrades killed in Gibraltar (Pacemaker Press Intl)

Three IRA members shot dead in Gibraltar

6 March 1988

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Gibraltar, the SAS shot dead three members of the Provisional IRA who were planning to bomb a military parade on the peninsula. They were unarmed.

'Operation Flavius' attracted much controversy, including allegations of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy. It began a period of 14 days that was to prove one the darkest of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Photo: IRA members fire a volley of shots for three comrades killed in Gibraltar (Pacemaker Press Intl)

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"There was blood everywhere. There was no shouting, just shots, about five or eight, one after the other."

These were the words of Derek Luise, who had witnessed the killing of the Provisional IRA members Mairead Farrell and Sean Savage in Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on Sunday, 6 March 1988. A third IRA member, Daniel McCann, was around a hundred yards behind the pair. He was pursued and killed seconds later.

All three were part of an 'active service unit' of the IRA which planned to bomb a parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment in the centre of Gibraltar two days later. The three killings were carried out by a Special Air Service (SAS) unit which had been in place on the island for over a week. Both British and Spanish security forces had been aware of the IRA operation for several months and were working closely together in an attempt to thwart it. 'Operation Flavius' had been weeks in the planning, as had the bombing it was intended to prevent.

IRA changes tactics

Nearly four months before, in November 1987, the IRA had killed eleven people when they bombed a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. There was widespread revulsion around the world, losing the IRA much international sympathy and with it some of their supply lines for weapons and explosives. In an attempt to regain the initiative, the IRA chose to target British military personnel overseas.

On the day of the shootings, the IRA unit in Gibraltar parked a rented Renault car close to the point at which the Royal Anglian Regiment band were to assemble for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a popular tourist attraction which took place every Tuesday. The Renault was intended to hold the parking space for a car bomb that was to be prepared elsewhere. Once the car was parked, the three IRA members, Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, made their way on foot towards the Spanish border where they were intercepted and killed by the SAS.

Shifting stories

The British government initially said that a bomb had been planted. Within 24 hours, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe admitted that there had been no bomb in the car and that the three killed were unarmed.

Shortly after the shootings, a Ford Escort used by the IRA unit was found over the Spanish border. It contained a timing device, screwdrivers, false passports and wire. Two days later, a Ford Fiesta rented by Mairead Farrell was discovered by Spanish police in Marbella. It contained 132 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive and several rounds of ammunition for a Kalashnikov rifle, sufficient to make a large and deadly bomb.


For many, the fact that the victims were unarmed confirmed that the British government was pursuing a 'shoot-to-kill' policy against the IRA. An inquiry into the shootings heard evidence from eyewitnesses that Farrell and McCann had their hands in the air when shot, but concluded that all those who died were lawfully killed. In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights found that the killings constituted the use of excessive force, but that there was no evidence of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy.

The bodies of Farrell, Savage and McCann lay in a Royal Navy morgue in Gibraltar for a week before they could be flown to Dublin, due to difficulties finding an air carrier and the refusal of civilian airport staff in Gibraltar to handle the coffins. Thousands of people lined the route of the cortège from Dublin to Belfast, where the funerals were to take place.

The Irish government, while acknowledging the necessity for British security forces to combat terrorism, declared itself "gravely perturbed" by the killings. A book of condolence was opened outside the General Post Office in Dublin, scene of the nationalist Easter Rising in 1916. In Belfast, there were protests from students of all political persuasions outside Queen's University, where Mairead Farrell was enrolled on a course in Political Science and Economics.

Broadcasters in Britain challenged the official version of events, asking why the unarmed PIRA members were killed rather than arrested. Investigations by both ITV's 'Death On The Rock' and BBC Northern Ireland's 'Spotlight' were subject to challenges by the British government, which argued that the programmes might prejudice the outcome of the inquest into the deaths.

More deaths quickly followed. At the funerals in Belfast's Milltown cemetery on Wednesday 16 March, mourners were attacked by Michael Stone, a man with links to loyalist paramilitaries. Stone killed three and injured many more by firing shots and hurling grenades at the crowd. Three days later, two British Army corporals were dragged from their car, taken to waste ground and shot dead after inadvertently driving into the funeral cortège of Kevin Brady, himself one of the victims of Michael Stone's attack.

This 14 day period is seen by many as the lowest point of the Troubles.