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Operation Flavius
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Shell petrol station, Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar.jpg
Shell petrol station at Winston Churchill Avenue in Gibraltar where McCann and Farrell were shot by the SAS
Type Shooting
Location Gibraltar
36°08′48″N 5°21′01″W / 36.1467°N 5.35031°W / 36.1467; -5.35031Coordinates: 36°08′48″N 5°21′01″W / 36.1467°N 5.35031°W / 36.1467; -5.35031
Objective Prevent Provisional IRA bomb attack
Date 6 March 1988 (1988-03-06)
Casualties 3 IRA members shot by the British Army (SAS) killed

Proposed site of IRA bomb

Operation Flavius was the name given to an operation by a Special Air Service (SAS) team in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988 tasked to prevent a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb attack. The IRA Active Service Unit's (ASU) members, Danny McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell, conspired to detonate a car bomb where a military band assembled for the weekly changing of the guard at the governor's residence. Although the intention of the operation was stated to be an arrest operation,[1] it ended with McCann, Savage and Farrell dead. An inquest later returned a verdict of lawful killing.

Bomb plot

The IRA members planned to hide the bomb in a car to kill the band members of the Royal Anglian Regiment (which had been in Derry on Bloody Sunday) that would assemble for the parade.[2][3] To ensure a parking space in the busy town area, it was necessary to occupy it on the preceding Sunday. The SAS team was informed that the IRA had already placed their bomb and were ready to detonate it.[4] The three conspirators were stopped as they walked near the Shell filling station in Winston Churchill Avenue, the busy main road leading to the airport and the frontier with Spain. McCann was then shot as the SAS claimed he made an 'aggressive move' towards a bag he was carrying. They stated that they believed he was intending to trigger a car bomb using a remote control device.[5] After McCann was killed, it was claimed that Farrell made a move towards her handbag and was shot on similar grounds. Sean Savage had been walking a short distance behind McCann and Farrell and saw them shot. He turned around and started running back towards Gibraltar centre. He was pursued and finally caught up with on Smith-Dorrien Avenue, close by a large beech tree where he was also shot dead. McCann was shot five times, Farrell eight times, and Savage between 16 and 18 times.[6] All three were subsequently found to be unarmed,[7][8][9][10][11] and without any kind of remote trigger. Components of a bomb, including 64 kg of Semtex, were later found by the Spanish police in a car in Marbella, 74 kilometres (46 mi) away in Spain, identified by keys found in Farrell's handbag.[12]

Milltown Cemetery attack

Ten days later, at a funeral in Milltown Cemetery for one of the three killed in the operation, UDA loyalist Michael Stone single-handedly launched a gun and grenade attack, shooting dead three mourners, and injuring others. Stone was rescued by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary before a crowd could apprehend him.

Death on the Rock

The following month ITV broadcast a Thames Television documentary Death on the Rock reflecting concerns about the shootings, which led to criticism of the British government.[13] British tabloids attacked the character and credibility of some of the witnesses in an attempt to discredit their statements, which eventually led to successful libel actions by Carmen Proetta against several newspapers, including The Sun and The Sunday Times.[14][15]

Reviewing this documentary, The New York Times (13 June 1989) stated: "Events leading up to the Gibraltar killings are depicted in a reconstruction made for a British television documentary. Questions abound. Was the IRA trio, carefully followed for days, in fact lured into Gibraltar? Why did the police fail to photograph the bodies or gather forensic evidence? Why was the press—Britain's tabloids were jubilant—told lies about a huge car bomb being defused and about the three suspects having died in a gunfight? This documentary's understated observation: 'There was a strong air of Government cover-up and disinformation.'"[16] British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher denounced the documentary as "trial by television".[citation needed]

IRA retaliation

On 18 September 1990 the IRA attempted to assassinate Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Terry, who had been Governor of Gibraltar during the Operation, at his Staffordshire home.[17] The attack took place at 9 pm at the Main Road house. The gunman opened fire through a window hitting him at least nine times and injuring his wife Betty, Lady Terry, near the eye. The couple's daughter, Liz, was found suffering from shock. Terry's face had to be rebuilt as the shots shattered his face and two high-velocity bullets lodged a fraction of an inch from his brain.[18] Margaret Thatcher later said that she "was utterly appalled and deeply grieved" by the shooting.[19]


An inquest was held in Gibraltar. An Irish radio expert disputed whether a remote-controlled explosive device was technically feasible with then-current technology, casting doubt on the justification given.[20] This was further disputed at the European Court of Human Rights[21] (see below). Captain Edwards, a member of the Royal Corps of Signals with experience in VHF/HF radio in combat net radio spectrum carried out tests which showed it was possible to receive both voice communication and a single audio tone at the site of the shootings from the assembly area.[22] The car bomb found in Marbella was a conventional timer controlled device. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of lawful killing by a 9–2 majority.

European Court of Human Rights

In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights ruled by a majority verdict ten votes to nine that "the Court is not persuaded that the killing of the three terrorists constituted the use of force which was no more than absolutely necessary in defence of persons from unlawful violence within the meaning of Article 2 para. 2 (a) (art. 2-2-a) of the Convention."[23] It ruled that the three had been engaged in an act of terrorism, and consequently dismissed unanimously the applicants' claims for damages, for costs and expenses incurred in the Gibraltar Inquest and the remainder of the claims for just satisfaction. In February 2008, the Irish media carried reports alleging the Garda (Irish police) had passed on information about the three's movements to the British security services prior to their departure to Gibraltar.[24]

Examination of MI5 records

Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian for the Security Service, was given access to MI5's records to prepare a book for the centenary of the organisation. Andrew said he was "confident" that there was no shoot to kill policy in operation and that MI5 had made a mistake in assuming that McCann, Savage and Farrell were carrying a means of causing an explosion when shot.[25]

The book contains a surveillance photo of a PIRA operative, Siobhán O'Hanlon, taken in Gibraltar prior to the shootings, and a map of her movements. The files state that she noticed Spanish intelligence following her in Spain and returned to Northern Ireland. O'Hanlon was a Sinn Féin official and an aide to Gerry Adams. Some British newspapers accused her of being involved in the attempted bombing.[26] O'Hanlon died of breast cancer in 2006.

Andrew had access to all files created by MI5 since it was founded but was limited in what he could publish.[25] He was required to enrol in the Security Service in order to be given access to the archives, which drew criticism from some historians and commentators prior to the writing of the book. In general, these criticisms suggested that he was too close to MI5 to be impartial, and that his link with the Service made him a "court historian" instead of a clear-eyed and critical examiner of its past.[27]


  1. [1], paragraph 15 and 17(c) and (d)
  2. ECHR review (1995), Section I, paragraph 13.
  3. "Revealed: IRA girl who survived Gibraltar; Siobhan O'Hanlon", Sunday Times, 4 September 1988.
  4. [2], paragraph 52.
  5. [3], paragraph 61.
  6. [4], paragraphs 108–110.
  7. Whitney, Craig R. "New Inquiry Urged in Killing of 3 on Gibraltar." The New York Times, 4 April 1989, page A5.
  8. Lohr, Steve. "British Commandos Testify on Gibraltar". The New York Times, September 15, 1988, p. 22
  9. Associated Press, "A Car Bomb Is Found in Spain Near Gibraltar", The New York Times, March 9, 1988, p. A13.
  10. Associated Press, "Gibraltar Killings of 3 in I.R.A. Ruled Lawful", The New York Times, 30 September 1988, page 4.
  11. Clines, Francis X. "British Amend Account of Killing of 3 in Gibraltar", The New York Times, March 7, 1988, p. A7.
  12. paragraph 99
  13. [5] The Museum of Broadcast Communications page on Death on the Rock
  14. [6]: Half of total of £300,000 in damages to Carmen Proetta paid by the Sunday Times
  15. [7]: Notes substantial damages in relation to erroneous claims in The Sun
  16. [8] New Yorks Times review of Frontline documentary on Farell, which used extracts from Death on the Rock
  17. Michael Brufal. "Governors of Gibraltar (1945–0 onwards)". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 9 May 2007. 
  18. "IRA gun attack on ex Governor". Retrieved 9 May 2007. 
  19. "Remarks condemning IRA attack on Sir Peter Terry ("deeply grieved")". Margaret Thatcher Foundation. Retrieved 10 May 2007. 
  20. [9], paragraph 112.
  21. [10], paragrah 131
  22. [11], paragraph 116.
  23. ECHR, McCann and others vs. the United Kingdom, Judgment, 27 November 1995.
  24. "Haughey govt helped SAS – Adams". The Irish Times. 27 February 2008. Retrieved 25 August 2008. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 "IRA Gibraltar deaths 'a mistake'". BBC. 6 October 2009. Retrieved 6 October 2009. 
  26. McKittrick, David (28 September 1995). "The gunshots that had terrible echoes across Ireland". The Independent. London. Retrieved 7 October 2009. 
  27. David Walker "Just How Intelligent?", The Guardian, 18 February 2003

Further reading

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