Lying half-asleep in my room at the Holiday Inn one night I listened to a song I hadn’t heard in twenty years. The tune was ‘Marching Through Georgia’, but the words did not belong to the American Civil War. I last heard them rising from the crowd at the Glasgow Rangers football ground, where every alternate Saturday the chant is probably bellowed still:
Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys!
Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys!
We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood,
Surrender or you’ll die,
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys.
I went to the window. Members of the British popular press were walking unsteadily towards the hotel. Great drinkers and pranksters, these chaps from the tabloids. Already in Gibraltar we’d enjoyed a fortnight of jokes. The first fashion was for water pistols, which to be strictly accurate was started by the men of Independent Television News (or at least it started at their party, shortly before their guests were thrown into the swimming pool). You might be sitting innocently in a bar or walking down the street when the challenge came from behind, ‘Stop, police, hands up!’ and you’d turn sharply – very much, I imagine, as Danny McCann and Mairead Farrell turned – and receive a small jet of water straight in the chest. This was the English journalists’ reconstruction of the role of the Special Air Service Regiment as executioners of the members of the Irish Republican Army. The role of the Irish Republican Army itself had to wait for the second fashionable joke. A couple of Japanese transmitter-receivers were purchased – the kind of thing strolling British policemen use, the kind of thing we’d been shown in court as an IRA bomb-detonating device – and then demonstrated whenever an evening looked as though it might close unpromisingly in an exchange of civilities. Once, at the Marina, I came across a drunken couple shouting into these machines outside a quayside restaurant. ‘Shitbag calling fuckface, shitbag calling fuckface, are you receiving me, over?’ ‘Fuckface to shitbag, fuckface to shitbag, I am receiving you, over . . . ’ And now, two weeks into the inquest into the killings of three Irish republicans, this Orange song rolled around the lanes of Gibraltar at one in the morning. ‘Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys . . . up to our knees in Fenian blood.’ The only surprise was that Englishmen seemed to know some of the words of a song born of sectarian gang-fighting in Glasgow of the 1930s. But then the English these days are a surprising race.
I write as a Scot, and one with too much of the Protestant in him ever to empathize much with the more recent traditions of Irish republicanism, as well as an ordinary level of human feeling which precludes understanding of the average IRA bomber. But the longer I spent in Gibraltar, the more difficult it became to prop up a shaky old structure – that lingering belief in what must, for lack of a more exact phrase, be called the virtues of Britishness. Both the inquest and its setting played a part in this undermining; perhaps this is what the British government meant when it said that it feared ‘the propaganda consequences’ of such an inquiry and set up an informal cabinet sub-committee (which included Mrs Thatcher) to combat the eventuality. As it turned out – and who knows what part the informal committee played – the government need not have worried. They got the verdict they wanted, the great mass of British public opinion applauded it and the proceedings were minimally covered in the only foreign media which matter to Britain, which lie in New York and Washington. The government then pressed ahead with ‘the war to defeat the terrorist’ by banning IRA spokesmen and their political sympathizers from radio and television, where in any case they had scarcely ever appeared, and renewed attacks on the television programme that had ventured to suggest that the Gibraltar killings raised questions which needed proper investigation.
And that, so far as the British government was concerned, closed the Gibraltar affair. One or two journalists remained sceptical, but a week after the verdict the topic had vanished even from the letters columns.
What is Gibraltar? John D. Stewart, in the only decent book about the place, wrote that
it may symbolize steadfastness to some and arrogance to others, the British bandit or the British policeman, according to the point of view. But the strongest of all the Rock’s suggestions . . . is that concept which used to be called Military Glory, and which we have come to reassess as the slaughter of young men for causes vaguely understood and rapidly discredited and cast aside.
Stewart wrote that more than twenty years ago. Since then Northern Ireland and the Falklands War have intervened to recast the military’s position in British life, and the disparaging reassessment of ‘military glory’ which seemed so enduring to Stewart in 1967 has now itself been reassessed. Who, in 1967, had heard of the Special Air Service Regiment? Who could imagine that in less than two decades its initials, SAS, would comprise a ‘sexy headline’ for the British tabloids (as an SAS officer told the Gibraltar inquest)? And who could foresee that the Sun, then a faltering broadsheet of mildly Labourite views, would become the tabloid-in-chief and cheerleader of a born-again chauvinism for twelve million readers? Its front-page headlines are inimitable. Of the IRA in general: ‘string ’em up!’ Of the three who were shot in Gibraltar: ‘why the dogs had to die.’ Then again, who in 1967 worried about the fate of Northern Ireland other than the Northern Irish, or about the gerrymandering and discrimination against its minority which kept the province intact? Or who could imagine an ensuing twenty years of terror and counter-terror which, at its last great manifestation on the British mainland, nearly killed a British prime minister and many of her cabinet?
I don’t want to go back further. Let’s avoid Oliver Cromwell and the potato blight. But is there anything which the head – rather than the gut – can latch on to in this pernicious cycle of cause and effect, some handhold on fairness and reason? One such handhold should be the rule of law, which has always found great favour with the British establishment who speak of it like a sacrament, inviolable, invulnerable to prejudice or political influence: the rule that sets the state morally above those who oppose it by violence. It would follow that the rule of law would be served by truth and that truth – the truthful reconstruction of events – would be the objective of any disinterested and open process of inquiry.
It was the duty of the Gibraltar inquest to use such a process to discover the truth of what happened and thus to see whether that discovery conflicted with the principles of the rule of law – in other words, to establish whether what was true was also legal, whether it was the symbolic British policeman or the symbolic British bandit who shot three unarmed people to death on the streets of Gibraltar on 6 March 1988. It was not a trial, it was an inquest, and was in many people’s view a sadly inadequate forum to determine what happened, but the British government insisted that it would be the only one. Six months after the killings, on Tuesday, 6 September, the coroner called his first witness into court. For the next four weeks he heard evidence and argument in a courtroom which, oddly enough, also heard the inquiry into the fate of the crew of the Marie Celeste after that abandoned barque was towed to port in Gibraltar in 1872. Sometimes during those four weeks it seemed we were in the presence of a mystery of equal proportions. There was rarely a day when a saying of one of Mrs Thatcher’s own party men did not come to mind: in the words of Jonathan Aitken MP, when you try to reconcile effective counter-terrorism with the ancient rule of English law, the result is ‘a huge smokescreen of humbug’.
Gibraltar has only one overland entrance and exit. A large lump of Jurassic limestone, it points south into the Mediterranean from Spain. Sea surrounds it on three sides. Only to the north does water give way to land – a flat, low strip of plain about one mile long and half as wide joins Gibraltar to the sweep of the Costa del Sol. The airport runway crosses this strip from east to west, while further to the north are the fences and guard posts which mark the half-mile width of Gibraltar’s land frontier. The road into the colony bisects the fences and then the runway. Before visitors can reach the town by road, they must first pass through Spanish and British immigration control and then, if they are unlucky, wait at the traffic lights which control movement across the runway.
Sean Savage, Danny McCann and Mairead Farrell arrived by this route on Sunday, 6 March 1988. Savage came first. He drove a white Renault 5 across the border around 12.30 p.m. and parked it ten minutes later near Ince’s Hall at the south end of the town. At 2.30 p.m. McCann and Farrell crossed on foot. By 3.45 p.m. all of them were dead.
It seems likely (no, certain) that we shall never know their exact purpose on that day. None the less, certain aspects of it are beyond dispute. Within hours of their deaths, the Irish Republican Army in Belfast claimed all three as ‘volunteers on active service’, attached to a unit of the IRA’s General Headquarters staff. The next day the IRA admitted that the three had ‘access and control over’ 140 pounds of explosives. What the IRA would not divulge was the intended target, though on this particular point the British government’s scenario has never been seriously challenged. News bulletins on British radio and television on the evening of 6 March quoted briefings in London and Gibraltar which identified not only the target but also the place and time. According to several reports the three dead had intended to blow up the band of the Royal Anglian Regiment, which had recently served in Northern Ireland, as it assembled for the weekly changing of the guard ceremony outside the Gibraltar Governor’s residence two days later, on Tuesday, 8 March, at eleven in the morning.
As a description of intention, that may be entirely accurate. It was, however, a minor accuracy embedded in a larger untruth. Throughout Sunday evening and Monday morning the same reports also asserted that a bomb had been found in Gibraltar. The earliest reports were the most circumspect. At 6.25 p.m. on the television news, the BBC’s Madrid correspondent said that troops were searching Gibraltar’s main street, ‘following a report that a bomb had been planted near a public hall . . . but it’s not known if that report is genuine.’ Three hours later all circumspection was cast aside. At nine o’clock the BBC reported that 500 pounds of explosives had been packed inside a Renault 5 and, according to ‘official sources’, timed to kill British troops when they assembled for Tuesday’s parade. At 9.45 p.m. Independent Television News had further details. Three Irish terrorists had been killed in ‘a fierce gun battle’. Their bomb had been defused by ‘a controlled explosion’. It was becoming more evident, said ITN’s correspondent, ‘that the authorities came desperately close to disaster with a bomb being left in a crowded street and a shoot-out when innocent civilians were in the area.’
Monday’s newspapers all carried similarly certain accounts, though the size of the bomb varied from 400 to 1,000 pounds. On the BBC’s morning radio programme, Today, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Mr Ian Stewart, again spoke confidently of ‘the bomb’ and its timing for Tuesday’s parade. And yet this bomb was a fiction. There was not and never had been a bomb in Gibraltar, neither had the crowded streets of Gibraltar witnessed a gun battle.
At 3.30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, rose to make a statement in the House of Commons. No bomb had been found; neither were the suspected terrorists armed. However, Howe added, ‘When challenged they [the dead] made movements which led the military personnel operating in support of the Gibraltar police to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat. In the light of this response, they were shot.’ What Howe then went on to say is worth examination, because its confusing mixture of hypothesis and reality echoed through the Gibraltar affair for the next six months and in fact formed the basis of the British government’s case at the inquest:
The suspect white Renault car was parked in the area in which the band of soldiers would have formed for the Tuesday parade. A school and an old people’s home were both close by. Had a bomb exploded in the area, not only the fifty soldiers involved in the parade, but a large number of civilians might well have been killed or injured. It is estimated that casualties could well have run into three figures. There is no doubt whatever that, as a result of yesterday’s events, a dreadful terrorist act has been prevented. The three people killed were actively involved in the planning and attempted execution of that act. I am sure the whole House will share with me the sense of relief and satisfaction that it has been averted.
The whole House did, for who would not want to prevent a carnage of innocents? When George Robertson, the Labour opposition spokesman, got to his feet, he seemed oblivious to the fact that the carnage would have been wrought by a bomb which in the course of Howe’s speech had quietly ceased to exist. Robertson congratulated the military on their ‘well-planned operation’:
The very fact that this enormous potential car bomb was placed opposite both an old folk’s home and a school underlines the cynical hypocrisy of the IRA . . . This House speaks with one voice in condemning unreservedly those in Ireland who seek to massacre and bomb their way to power. These people are evil. They kill and maim and give no heed to the innocents who get in their way. They must be dealt with, if any democratic answer is to be found.
Consider the statements of both men. Howe admits that there was no bomb; at the same time the shooting of three people prevented ‘a dreadful terrorist act’ because such an act had been planned in the minds of the dead who at some point in the future would have tried to implement it – had they been alive. This could be read as a confession to a lethal pre-emptive strike. Robertson, in reply, is understandably confused by the semantics of what has gone before. The car bomb seems to him still real and a cause for moral outrage; it is only ‘potential’ because it has not gone off.
Today it may be easy to separate the various elements in this extraordinary fudge, but at the time the government got away with it, aided by further semantic horseplay from the Ministry of Defence, a credulous media and an impolitic volubility from the IRA. We now know from the bomb disposal officer who gave evidence at the inquest that, if members of the British army in Gibraltar had ever imagined Savage’s car to contain a bomb, they knew by 7.30 p.m. on Sunday that it certainly did not. And yet throughout that night and the following morning the Ministry of Defence in London cultivated (or, at the very least, did not correct) the impression that a bomb had been found. At 4.45 p.m. on Sunday the Ministry of Defence confirmed that ‘a suspected bomb had been found in Gibraltar’. At 9 p.m. a statement was issued to the effect that ‘military personnel dealt with a suspect bomb.’ The following morning the Ministry was still repeating that ‘a suspected bomb had been dealt with.’
There is a strong temptation here, a temptation to use the word ‘lie’. Writer (and reader), resist it. According to the Ministry of Defence, the phrase ‘suspect bomb’ or ‘suspect car bomb’ is ‘a term of art’. As the army’s bomb disposal officer explained to the inquest it means no more than a car which, for whatever reason, is thought to contain a bomb. Hence you ‘find’ a suspect bomb by finding a car and suspecting it. Hence you ‘deal with’ a suspect bomb either by confirming its presence and defusing or exploding it, or by discovering that no bomb exists. Bomb disposal officers are brave men; nobody need mock the terms of their art. But unfortunately neither the British media nor Mr Ian Stewart, a defence minister, quite grasped the subtleties of their definitions. ‘Dealt with’ so easily became ‘defused’, while the size of the notional bomb grew in the minds of reporters in Gibraltar whose only source of information was the gossip of excited Gibraltar policemen. (That night, Ronald Sinden, assistant to the deputy governor, was appointed official press spokesman. He said memorably: ‘I am the only source of information, and I have no information.’)
These ‘facts’ had a formidable effect on the IRA, and the two statements it issued tried to correct what were rightly perceived to be untruths. The first did it no harm: ‘There could have been no gun battle because the three volunteers were unarmed.’ The second immeasurably helped the British government because, four hours before Howe’s statement, the IRA admitted that the three had ‘had access and control over’ 140 pounds of explosives. This was meant to correct reports of bombs six times that size with the consequent potential carnage, in the belief that the British government or media were simply exaggerating the size of a bomb that had actually been found. But of course, as Howe was to admit, no bomb had been found; the IRA, by misunderstanding the radical nature of the lie it was trying to correct, confessed to a bomb thirty hours before the Spanish police found it forty miles away on the Costa del Sol. From the IRA’s point of view, an opportunity to embarrass the British government for thirty hours had been wasted.
Little of this information was ever presented to the inquest as evidence – perhaps rightly; much of it is after and outside the facts. But here, only twenty-four hours after the killings, some lessons can be drawn and kept in mind. One, the British government and its servants are no fools. Two, there are already reasons to distrust the British version of events. And three, London, rather than its colonial outpost, Gibraltar, pulls the strings.
One day in Gibraltar I tried to buy a map. This was in early May, a couple of months after the killings. Maps are not hard to come by in Gibraltar, in fact the tourist office gives them away, and these are perfectly good if you want to find your way to the feeding grounds of Gibraltar’s famous apes, or the Holiday Inn, or any of the bits and pieces of old military science – steam-driven artillery, stout fortifications, labyrinthine tunnels – which are Gibraltar’s chief contribution to history. These maps specialize in the past. About the present they are more reticent. Naturally, I didn’t expect them to fill in the details of the naval base or the munitions dumps or the copse of radar and radio masts stuck high on the rock above the town; these are contemporary military secrets. But even with ordinary civilian geography they were vague, as though when it came to housing estates and dual carriageways the cartographer had unhooked his jacket from the back of the chair and taken the rest of the day off.
Farrell, Savage and McCann died in the middle of the civilian quarter. Without a good map it was difficult to follow the arguments about who saw them die, from where. I asked a woman in Gibraltar’s bookshop about ordnance survey maps: ‘They are not available to the public.’ Not knowing Gibraltar, I found this hard to believe. Whatever the vices of the British Empire, one of its virtues is the legacy of careful cartography (imperialism needed to be sure of what it owned) still found in the old British capitals of Asia and Africa and even, I am sure, among those forgotten islands – Pitcairn, St Helena and others – which together with Gibraltar, Hong Kong and the Falklands form the rump of the colonial empire.
Eventually somebody suggested the Public Works Department. There I met the chief draughtsman who asked me to choose from a fine selection of maps of different scales. I picked one, and he went off to have it photocopied. Another man approached.
Would this have anything to do with the shootings?
Only indirectly, I said. It was simply a journalistic exercise to show the exact location, and in the interests of accuracy it would be good to work from the best available map.
The man nodded and went away. I heard him making several telephone calls, successively marked by a rising tone of deference. He returned. ‘I am sorry but the Attorney-General has refused me permission to sell you a map.’
The Attorney-General himself! This struck me then as the kind of absurd infringement of liberty that might happen in Evelyn Waugh’s Africa. But the better I got to know Gibraltar the more typical it seemed. Gibraltarians do not suffer from an over-developed sense of freedom, and this is not just because they are colonials. Their whole identity is antithetical: to be Gibraltarian is not to be Spanish; to be free is not to be Spanish. Therefore to be free and Gibraltarian is to be British, because Britain is all that stands between them and a successful Spanish reclamation of their rock. Spain is only a mile from the centre of the town, and yet bread is imported from Bristol (it comes frozen, in lorries) and newspapers from London. No Spanish newspapers can be found; nobody in Gibraltar reads El País; the local radio and television stations broadcast only in English. And yet Spanish is the first language of the Gibraltarian, who speaks it at home and in the street (and badly only to Spaniards). To judge by their names, many if not most Gibraltarians are as Spanish as any man or woman from Cádiz or Seville. And yet they mock Spain. Echoing the tabloid xenophobia of the mother country (‘dago’ and ‘wop’), they call Spaniards ‘slops’ and ‘sloppies’. Every weekend they drive out to the resorts of the Costa del Sol and then come home to complain. ‘Too many slops on the beach today, Conchita.’ ‘Let’s stay on the Rock next weekend, Luís.’ Nor do they believe that Spain has changed. To them it will always be Franco’s Spain, rich only in cruel policemen and opaque bureaucrats. But surely, I asked a shopkeeper one day, Spain was now prospering, freer, much more democratic? ‘Maybe so, but Spaniards don’t understand the word freedom like we do. To them it means the freedom to take drugs and screw around, to behave badly, which they couldn’t do under Franco. It’s not British freedom or democracy like you and I know it.’
Freedom! Democracy! Executive authority in Gibraltar is vested in the Governor, by tradition a retired British military man, who is appointed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1,200 miles away in London. The Governor represents the Queen and retains direct responsibility for the colony’s defence and internal security. A Council of Ministers, drawn from an elected House of Assembly, looks after lesser domestic matters, but even here the Governor is free to poke a finger in: the list of ministers must first be submitted to him for approval, and he can intervene later if he thinks that any of their policies are a threat to the colony’s stability.
Few Gibraltarians object to this semi-autocracy. Could a government in distant Madrid deliver more liberty? And in any case to object is to be pro-Spanish, and the colony owes everything, its origins and continued existence, to Britain. Its limited local democracy is a recent invention: not until after World War Two did the civilian population have any say in its colony’s affairs. For 200 years its citizens had been there only to serve the British army and navy, who, together with the Dutch, had seized the fort from Spain in 1704. Nine years later the Treaty of Utrecht ceded it in perpetuity to the conqueror. The local Spanish were expelled and new camp-followers drawn from Malta and Genoa and the Jewry of Morocco. By the nineteenth century, recurrent sieges and the Rock’s bold outline, prickling with guns, had found Gibraltar a firm place in the imperial imagination: ‘as safe as the Rock of Gibraltar’.
This historic symbolism is still powerful; ‘Free since 1713’ says the graffiti on Gibraltar’s walls, in the same pugnacious red, white and blue as the slogans (‘Remember 1690’) of Protestant Belfast. But even more potent are the contemporary facts. Today Gibraltar has a civilian population of about 29,000 – 20,000 Gibraltarians, the rest British or immigrant Moroccan labour – all of whom squeeze into 2.25 square miles of territory, much of it uninhabitably steep (the Rock rises to 1,400 feet), half of it owned by the Ministry of Defence. The Royal Air Force controls the airport and the Royal Navy the harbour, while the army spreads out in barracks to the south. Regiments come here after tours of duty in Northern Ireland, in part for rest and relaxation but also to keep in shape for further tours: according to reports, one of the Rock’s large caverns contains a mock Ulster village made of wood – a main street, four side-streets, two shops, a Roman Catholic church called St Malachy’s, a school and a women’s lavatory. What goes on here under artificial light? Raids, sieges and patrols, one assumes, stun bombs thrown into the ladies’ loo, the school stormed, sanctuary denied at St Malachy’s.
At night the troops come out to play. The usual sights and sounds of a garrison town: rounds of English lager in the Gibraltar Arms, the Olde Rock and the Angry Friar, chips at Mac’s fish bar, maybe a disco down at the RAF base. By eleven the military police are cruising down Main Street. By two in the morning only the brain-dead are left, bumping into shop windows, moaning, crying. ‘Oo you fackin’ callin’ a cunt, Kevin? You fackin’ cunt you.’ Gibraltarians do not complain; these lads are their bread and butter, less an ancestral burden than an heirloom. When the novelist Thackeray visited Gibraltar in 1844 what struck him mainly was the sight of befuddled seamen. But the British Mediterranean fleet was long ago disbanded, and these days respectable young Gibraltarian women no longer weight their handbags with stones. Life in a sense has improved.
This then is the town in which Farrell, Savage and McCann spent the last hour or two of their lives. Had they lived and returned and managed to detonate their bomb, then the result would be what British Intelligence knows as ‘a spectacular’, worth ten times the publicity of ten bombs in Belfast or County Armagh. As it was, they died among memorials to the enemy’s history – Farrell and McCann on the pavement of Winston Churchill Avenue, Savage just below King’s Lines – having first been watched from the tombstones of Trafalgar Cemetery, the forecourt of the Anglican Cathedral and a small shop called the Imperial Newsagency where Gibraltar queues up for its air-freighted copies of the Sun.
Of course they had been watched for months.
According to statements made by the Spanish government soon after the killings, McCann and Savage were first spotted at Madrid airport arriving on a flight from Malaga on the Costa del Sol in November 1987. They were travelling under the aliases Reilly and Coyne. Around this time the Spanish police also detected a third IRA member in Malaga, a woman – not Mairead Farrell – who used the alias Mary Parkin. She, along with Savage and McCann, returned to the Costa del Sol again in February.
In the meantime the Gibraltar authorities had abruptly cancelled the changing of the guard ceremony scheduled for Tuesday, 8 December – the guardhouse, they decided, needed repainting – and did not resume it until 23 February. It was also on that day, according to British intelligence, that ‘Mary Parkin’ once again visited Gibraltar, to attend the ceremony; she returned the following Tuesday, 1 March. She then disappeared.
Four days later, on Friday, 4 March, McCann and Savage reappeared for the third time on the Costa del Sol and were joined there by a second woman, soon identified as Mairead Farrell. All three came from Belfast, and exhibits produced during the inquest (a boarding pass, an air ticket and an airline timetable) suggest that Farrell took three flights to reach Malaga: from Dublin to Brussels by Aer Lingus, from Brussels to Madrid by Sabena, and then on to Malaga by an internal Spanish flight. McCann and Savage may well have come the same way; the man who drove McCann to Dublin airport was stopped on his way home to Belfast by British troops at the border on Thursday evening, 3 March. It seems unlikely that they would risk travelling on the same series of flights on the same day – very imprudent terrorist behaviour – but with the question of the exact sequence of their arrival in Malaga the story reaches another large contradiction.
Of course they had been watched. Or had they?
In the weeks after the killings, there seemed to be no doubt. On 9 March the Spanish Interior Ministry issued a communiqué which said that the Spanish police had ‘maintained surveillance on the suspects’ until they left Spain and entered Gibraltar. On 21 March Señor Augustín Valladolid, then the senior spokesman for the Spanish security services, went further. In a briefing to Harry Debelius, an American correspondent based in Madrid, Valladolid said that Spain had accepted a commitment in November to follow the IRA unit and to keep the British informed of its movements. On 6 March, therefore, Savage, driving a white Renault, was followed all the way down the coast road to Gibraltar. To quote the affidavit later sworn by Debelius, Valladolid said that:
The method of surveillance used was as follows: (a) four or five police cars ‘leap-frogged’ each other on the road while trailing the terrorists so as not to arouse suspicion; (b) a helicopter spotted the car during part of the route; (c) the police agents were in constant contact with their headquarters by radio; (d) there was observation by agents at fixed observation points along the road.
Debelius’s affidavit also states that Valladolid told him that the Spanish police sent ‘minute-by-minute details’ of the Renault’s movements directly to the British in Gibraltar. Later, in a telephone conversation, Valladolid told him that two members of the British security services had also worked with the Spanish surveillance teams in Malaga.
These statements from members of the Spanish government – and many others – are public knowledge.
But: of course they had not been watched.
By the time of the inquest, the matter was no longer certain. There were, of course, no Spanish witnesses – not in a Gibraltar court. And every other witness – members of the Gibraltar police, the British military and British intelligence – flatly denied that the three had been watched. Impossible. Their information, they insisted, was limited to a reported sighting of the three in Malaga.
Of course: otherwise how could the bomb – or the car believed to have contained the bomb – have reached the centre of Gibraltar unchecked?
The likely facts are these: the Spanish police followed McCann and Savage, who were both known to them, but either missed or lost Farrell, whom they had never seen before. All three had aliases and false documentation. Farrell flew out of Dublin as Mary Johnson, but entered Gibraltar as Mrs Katherine Alison Smith, née Harper. For two days the Spanish police could not trace her, though by midday on 5 March they at least knew who to look for. Savage and McCann, on the other hand, presented no difficulty. As Señor Valladolid told Tim McGirk of the Independent in May: ‘We had complete proof that the two Irishmen were going to plant a bomb. We heard them say so.’ Under the names Coyne and Reilly, McCann and Savage checked into the Hotel Escandinavia in Torremolinos, a few miles down the coast from Malaga, towards midnight on 4 March, and stayed two nights. Farrell did not register, although some women’s clothes were found later in the room: she may have stayed with them, or she may have left her luggage there while she drove through Friday and/or Saturday night to collect and deliver the explosives.
Three cars were hired. A man thought to be Savage, using the name John Oakes, hired a red Ford Fiesta about midday on Friday, 4 March, from a firm in Torremolinos. Spanish police found the car on Sunday evening, a few hours after the shootings, parked in a car park several hundred yards from the Gibraltar border. Its contents included false documents, a money belt containing £2,000, a holdall covered in dust and soil which looked as though it might have been buried, several pairs of gloves, a dirty raincoat and anorak, tape, wire, screwdrivers and a small alarm clock. The office manager of the car hire firm retrieved the car and said it had been driven 1,594 kilometres and was covered in mud. A policeman told him that it had been to Valencia and back.
Using the alias of Brendan Coyne, Savage then hired another car, a white Renault 5, from Avis in Torremolinos about eleven on Saturday morning, 5 March. The next day he drove it into Gibraltar and parked it at Ince’s Hall, where the band of the Royal Anglian Regiment would leave their bus, form up and fall out again on Tuesday (during the inquest this became known as ‘the de-bussing area’). This car became the suspect car bomb. Some time after the three were shot, an army bomb disposal team blew open its bonnet, boot and doors. It contained car hire literature.
Farrell also hired a car, the third car, using a British driving licence in the name Katherine Alison Smith, from a firm called Marbessol in Marbella, the next large resort down the coast from Torremolinos. Marbessol’s manager recalled that she came into the office about 6.30 p.m. on Saturday evening, 5 March, to make a provisional booking, and returned about 10.30 a.m. the next morning to collect a white Ford Fiesta. The manager later told a reporter from Thames Televison, Julian Manyon, that she looked exhausted, ‘as though she hadn’t been to bed’. Spanish police found the car two days after the killings, on Tuesday evening, 8 March, in an underground car park just off Marbella’s main street and about a hundred yards from the Marbessol office. It had been driven less than ten kilometres. It contained 141 pounds of Semtex, a plastic explosive made in Czechoslovakia, wrapped in twenty-five equal blocks; ten kilos of Kalashnikov ammunition; four electrical detonators made by the Canadian CXA company; several Eveready batteries; and two electronic timing units with circuit boards which, according to the evidence of a Ministry of Defence witness at the inquest, bore the same patterns or ‘artwork’ as previous IRA bombs. The timers had been set for an elapsed time of ten hours forty-five minutes and eleven hours fifteen minutes: a fail-safe device. If set running at, say, midnight on Monday the first would have detonated the bomb at 10.45 a.m. on Tuesday morning. If it failed, the second timer would give the bomb a second chance half an hour later; which represents the difference in time between the Royal Anglian band leaving the bus and preparing to board again.
Events during those few days in Spain, therefore, may well have unfolded like this: Savage hires the red Fiesta and at some point hands it over to Farrell, whom the Spanish police have the least chance of detecting. Savage then meets McCann and the two idle in Torremolinos while Farrell drives 700 kilometres north to Valencia, collects the explosives and returns. She may have made this journey on Friday night and Saturday, or just possibly (driving hard) on Saturday night and Sunday morning between her two appearances at the car hire office in Marbella. Then, either on Saturday around 6 p.m. or Sunday around 10 a.m., she parks the red Fiesta and its bomb in the underground car park. At 10.30 a.m. on Sunday she picks up the white Fiesta, takes it for a run round Marbella’s one-way traffic system, then parks it underground next to the red Fiesta. She and one of the men transfer the explosives while the third keeps watch. Savage, whom British intelligence insists was ‘the expert bomb-maker’, checks that the bomb has been safely transferred and then, at about 11.30 a.m., sets out for Gibraltar in his white Renault 5. Farrell and McCann follow a couple of hours later in the red Fiesta, park it and cross the border on foot. By this hypothesis, Savage is using the white Renault as – in another of the bomb disposal squad’s terms of art – ‘a blocking-car’, a car which would hold the parking space in Gibraltar until the white Fiesta with the bomb was driven into the same position on Monday night.
Given the traffic in Gibraltar, such a precaution makes sense. To make a small diversion into social history: one consequence of the colony’s acute land shortage is that most people live in small apartments; one consequence of its military history is that most apartments are owned by the government. Only 6 per cent of Gibraltar’s homes are owner-occupied. Money can’t chase property so it chases cars instead. At the most recent count 8,000 households owned 15,000 cars, or 555 cars for every mile of narrow Gibraltarian road. Parking is a problem which ‘Mary Parkin’ could not fail to have noticed on her reconnaissance trips.
Very little of this information was mentioned at the inquest.
The second time I flew to Gibraltar I noticed a man in Club Class reading Doris Lessing’s novel, The Good Terrorist. He took it up soon after we lifted from Gatwick and didn’t put it down again until we were over the Mediterranean for the Gibraltar approach. This was unusual behaviour. Club seats on Gibraltar flights are taken up mainly by off-shore investors and English expatriates who have ‘companies’ registered in the colony or real estate on the Costa del Sol. Fugitives from British weather and British tax laws, they tend not to be great readers–books not being duty-free.
The man turned out to be a diplomat with the British Foreign Office. A few months later he returned for the inquest. For four weeks he sat in court with a colleague from the Ministry of Defence and at the end of each day both made themselves available to brief the press; sometimes as the equivalent of ‘spin-doctors’, there to put the best British gloss on the day’s proceedings, and sometimes (helpfully) as translators of military or legal jargon. I can’t imagine that Lessing’s fictional insights into terrorist behaviour played much of a part here. Her characters are muddled, alienated members of the English middle-class whose violent rage against the state springs from domestic roots, smug parents and unhappy childhoods. They are inept at what they do. Nobody in court suggested that Savage, Farrell and McCann were inept. British military and intelligence witnesses spoke of them as ‘ruthless’, ‘fanatical’, ‘dedicated’, ‘experienced’ and ‘professional’. And yet outside the court, in Gibraltar and London, the government’s off-the-record conversations stressed their surprising amateurishness. The British had expected professionalism and planned accordingly (so this private argument ran), only to find themselves up against three people who behaved like novices. Had they behaved like professionals–that is, as the British said they expected them to– then their deaths would not have been controversial. Their amateurism had let the British down.
Who were Savage, McCann and Farrell, and how good were they as professional terrorists?
Sean Savage, the unit’s technician, was twenty-three and the youngest and least known. He grew up in Catholic West Belfast. When he was four, the houses on the streets around his birthplace were burned down by Protestant mobs. At the age of seventeen, he joined the IRA; according to his obituary in Ireland’s Republican News, he was ‘a quiet and single-minded individual who neither drank nor smoked and rarely socialized,’ and who had ‘an extremely high sense of personal security.’ Savage seems never to have worked, at least outside his business for the IRA, but unusually for West Belfast both his parents have jobs. His family insist that they knew nothing of his involvement with the IRA, though he was arrested (and then released without charge) in 1982. The parents are by all accounts respectable, religious people. His sister Mary engraves crystal in a Belfast factory. According to her, Savage was an enthusiastic cyclist, amateur cook, Gaelic speaker and night-school student of French. He did well at school. His brother has Down’s Syndrome and Savage often took care of him. His obituary records: ‘His dedication to the struggle was total and unswerving. To his fellow volunteers he was a strong, steadfast comrade, whose sharp and incisive judgement was relied on in tricky situations.’
Daniel McCann, the unit’s leader, was thirty and well known to all sides in the Irish conflict. The Republican News spoke of him as ‘the epitome of Irish republicanism’. He was first arrested as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy and sentenced to six months imprisonment for rioting. He joined the IRA soon after. Between 1979 and 1982 he spent three terms in prison on charges which included possession of a detonator and weapon. Later in 1982 he was arrested and held with Savage and two others after information was passed to the Royal Ulster Constabulary from a man already in their custody. But the charge was dropped and the four released. His family have run a butcher’s shop in the Falls Road, West Belfast’s main street, since 1905. At the inquest an SAS officer called him ‘the ruthless Mr McCann’. His obituary records: ‘He knew no compromise and was to die as he had lived, in implacable opposition to Britain’s criminal presence in our land.’
Mairead Farrell had become an important public figure in the armed republican movement by the time of her death, aged thirty-one–and perhaps its most important woman. She joined the IRA aged eighteen and went to jail a year later, in 1976, for planting a bomb at the Conway Hotel, Belfast. Of her two male companions on that bombing, one was shot dead by the RUC on the spot and the other died on a prison hunger-strike in 1981. Farrell served ten years in Armagh jail and Maghaberry women’s prison and herself became prominent as a hunger-striker, the ‘Officer Commanding’ other IRA women prisoners and leader of the ‘Dirty Protest’, smearing excrement on the walls of her cell. After her release in 1986 she spoke at political meetings throughout Ireland and enrolled as a politics undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast. She defined herself as a socialist; many also saw her as a feminist. Her family are shopkeepers, prosperous by the standards of West Belfast (they own their own house). Neither her parents nor her five brothers have any affiliations with the IRA. Her four brothers are businessmen; a fifth, Niall, is a freelance journalist and activist for the Irish Communist Party, which sets itself apart from the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’. In a sense Farrell wrote her own obituary in one of her last interviews: ‘You have to be realistic. You realize that ultimately you’re either going to be dead or end up in jail. It’s either one or the other. You’re not going to run forever.’
Mary Savage, Niall Farrell and Seamus Finucan, Mairead Farrell’s boyfriend, attended the inquest, and sometimes I’d cross the border to their cheap hotel in Spain and meet them for a meal or a drink. They struck me as intelligent and, I think, honest people; it was often easy to share their indignation at what Niall Farrell described as a ‘set-up’ or a ‘fix’. But our conversation had its limits; discussion of the state’s morality could not easily be widened to include the moral behaviour of the deceased. Good terrorists? A case might be made for Farrell. Her only known bombing was preceded by a warning; there were no casualties. As for Savage and McCann, we don’t know what part their ‘dedication’ and ‘implacable opposition’ played in the ending or maiming of life.
But good terrorists in the professional sense? As Farrell had spent most of her adult life in prison and had been free for only eighteen months, it is difficult to see how she could have perfected her trade. Certainly she was careless or superstitious enough to wear a prison medallion – ‘Good luck from your comrades in Maghaberry’ – around her neck when she entered Gibraltar. McCann? His friends describe him as ‘charismatic’ and ‘a natural leader’. But professional? When he was shot, he was clutching a copy of Flann O’Brien’s novel, The Hard Life. Farrell’s bag contained sixteen photocopied pages of a work entitled Big Business and the Rise of Hitler by Henry Ashley Turner Junior.
Both had some of the highest profiles within the IRA. To send either of them on a foreign mission which required safe passage through five different border checks and airport controls sounds like ineptitude. To send both smacks of desperation. Soon after their deaths recriminations began to be heard inside the IRA to this effect. But that was in private.
The three bodies stayed in Gibraltar for more than a week. First came the autopsy, then the identification by another Farrell brother, Terence, and a representative from Sinn Féin. The embalming posed a problem. Lionel Codali, the undertaker, said that with few staff members at his disposal the process of restoration and preservation would take at least two days. (In Savage’s case, though Codali did not say this, there was a great deal to restore.) Eventually they were ready to be air-freighted. But by whom?
Scheduled flights from Gibraltar go only to London; rumours suggested that baggage handlers at both ends, Gibraltar and Gatwick, might refuse to touch the coffins. Irish charter companies excused themselves on grounds of lack of aircraft. At length an English company took the contract. The bodies were loaded by British servicemen from the Royal Air Force and reached Dublin on Tuesday, 15 March.
They were driven north the same evening. Sympathetic republican crowds turned out to see the cortège as it passed through the counties of Dublin, Meath and Louth, but later, over the border, it was stoned by knots of Protestants from the edge of the motorway. That night at a requiem mass for Farrell in Belfast, Father Raymond Murray said that she had died ‘a violent death like Jesus . . . she was barbarously assassinated by a gunman as she walked in public on a sunny Sunday afternoon.’ On Wednesday, 16 March, several thousand spectators and mourners turned out for the funeral at Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, where the three were to be buried in the corner of the ground reserved for republican martyrs. About 1.15 p.m., as the first coffin was about to be lowered into its grave, a man began to lob grenades and fire a pistol into the crowd. Mourners chased him from the cemetery and on to the motorway nearby. Often he turned to fire at his pursuers, crying: ‘Come on, you Fenian fuckers’, and ‘Have some of this, you IRA bastards’. A mourner told The Times: ‘He seemed to be enjoying it. He was taking careful aim and firing at us, just as if he was shooting clay pigeons.’ After the crowd caught up with him, he was beaten unconscious and would have been beaten to death had not the police intervened to carry him away. Three men died during the grenade attack; another two people were critically wounded; sixty-six were hurt.
On Saturday, 19 March, another large crowd assembled at Milltown Cemetery to witness the funeral of Kevin Brady, an IRA activist and one of the three killed in the cemetery three days earlier. As the cortège made its way up the Falls Road a Volkswagen Passat drove towards it, stopped, reversed and then got hemmed in by taxis accompanying the funeral. The car contained two British soldiers in civilian clothes, Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes of the Royal Corps of Signals, who were dragged from the car, beaten, stripped and shot dead, amid shouts of ‘We have got two Brits’. Spokesmen for the British army said they could think of no reason why Wood and Howes had driven to the funeral, other than misplaced curiosity. Mrs Thatcher described their deaths as, ‘an act of appalling savagery . . . there seems to be no depths to which these people will not sink.’
A lethal chain of events which began in Gibraltar on 6 March had ended thirteen days later in Belfast with a total of eight dead and sixty-eight hurt. The last two deaths, however, imprinted themselves on the British imagination in a way the first six never could. They were young British soldiers killed in view of press and television cameras; the most enduring image from that time shows one of their naked carcasses full-length on the ground like something from an abattoir, with a kneeling priest administering the last rites.
It was not a time that encouraged the asking of difficult questions about the killings in Gibraltar. None the less, by the end of the month, Amnesty International announced that it intended to investigate the shootings to establish whether they were ‘extrajudicial executions’. The government was contemptuous. Mrs Thatcher told the House of Commons: ‘I hope Amnesty has some concern for the more than 2,000 people murdered by the IRA since 1969.’ One of her former ministers, Ian Gow, described the investigation as ‘a stunt . . . undertaken apparently on the behalf of three terrorists mercifully now dead.’ But real government fury had yet to show itself.
The British press had stayed obediently, perhaps slothfully, silent on Gibraltar – this was not one of its more glorious moments. Then in late April Thames Television announced that its current affairs team had made a thirty-minute documentary on the shootings which included eyewitness accounts of how the three had died. The government moved quickly to have it stopped. Sir Geoffrey Howe telephoned the chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority to ask him to postpone the programme’s transmission until after the inquest. It was the job of the law rather than ‘investigative journalism’ to throw light on the Gibraltar affair: journalism would simply muddle or prejudice the legal process. We should await a legal verdict, even though Sir Geoffrey Howe himself had not obeyed that stricture when on 7 March he issued his version of events, which had, by its amplification in the press, become the conventional British wisdom.
When the Independent Broadcasting Association resisted Sir Geoffrey, Tom King, the Northern Ireland Secretary, told Parliament that the programme amounted to ‘trial by television’. Mrs Thatcher took up the phrase. ‘Trial by television or guilt by accusation is the day that freedom dies,’ she told a group of Japanese journalists on the day before the broadcast. When asked if she was furious, as she often is, she replied that her reaction went ‘deeper than that’.
The programme, ‘Death on the Rock’, went out on the evening of 28 April. The response was immediate: an immense uproar, which increased when the BBC, also refusing to bow to government pressure, broadcast a similar investigation a week later in Northern Ireland. Both programmes implied that the government’s version of events, as stated by Sir Geoffrey Howe to Parliament on 7 March, was not necessarily complete. Thames Television had found witnesses who said that they had heard no warning before the shots were fired, that McCann and Farrell had their hands up in surrender when they were killed, and that two and possibly all three of them seemed to have been shot again after they fell to the ground. The programme had discovered these witnesses by knocking on the doors of the apartments surrounding the Shell petrol station on Winston Churchill Avenue, the scene of the killings. It is a traditional journalistic method of investigation. It is also a traditional police method, but not one, at that stage, that had been adopted by the Gibraltar constabulary. Several dozen apartments had a good view of the spot where Farrell and McCann died. The programme’s researcher, Alison Cahn, found that most of their occupants were reluctant to discuss what, if anything, they had seen on 6 March. Two did, however.
Mrs Josie Celecia said that she was looking from the window of her flat, which faces the petrol station from the other side of Winston Churchill Avenue, when she heard two shots. She turned to look in their direction and then heard four or five more shots as a casually dressed man stood over two bodies.
Mrs Carmen Proetta, whose flat lies 100 yards to the south of the Shell station on the same side of the road, gave a more complete, and even more controversial, picture. She had been at her kitchen window when a siren sounded and several men with guns jumped over the barrier in the middle of Winston Churchill Avenue, and rushed towards a couple who were walking on the pavement near the petrol station. They put their hands up when they saw these men with the guns in their hands. There was no interchange of words, there were just shots. And once they [the couple] dropped down, one of the men, this man who still had the gun in his hand, carried on shooting. He bent down and carried on shooting at their heads.’
A third witness, Stephen Bullock, described what he had seen about 150 yards to the south. Bullock, a lawyer, had been walking with his wife and small child when he heard a siren and shots almost simultaneously. He looked in the direction of the sounds, towards the petrol station, and saw a man falling backwards with his hands at shoulder height. ‘He was still being shot as he went down.’ The gunman was about four feet away. ‘I think with one step he could have actually touched the person he was shooting.’
Other evidence from two anonymous witnesses said that Savage had also been shot on the ground, while a retired bomb and ballistics expert with a distinguished army record in Northern Ireland appeared on the programme casting doubt on the possibility that anyone could have believed that Savage’s white Renault 5 contained a bomb. According to this expert, George Stiles, it would be obvious to any experienced observer that the Renault was not low enough on its springs – the wheels were not against the wheel-casings – and that therefore the car ‘clearly carried no significant weight of explosives’.
The response of the press was curious. Little of its coverage addressed the programme’s new evidence. Instead a campaign was begun to discredit the witnesses and the journalists at Thames Television. Two of the government’s strongest media supporters – Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Sunday Times – led the campaign, and the viciousness of their attacks surprised even some of the newspapers’ employees. Mrs Carmen Proetta in particular took a mauling. She emerged on the front page of the Sun as an anti-British whore (‘the tart of gib’), an allegation which had its perilous foundation in the fact that her name had briefly appeared on company documents as a director of a Spanish tourist and escort agency.
The programme emerged as such a powerful challenge to the government and its version of events that the government has not, apparently, forgiven Thames Television. But at the time, the government’s complaints wore a nobler face: journalism had no place in the legal process, and that process, as it had said many times before, was entirely a matter for the Gibraltar coroner and magistrate, Mr Felix Pizzarello.
But what had happened to that process? There was still no date fixed for the inquest. Two months went by before the coroner’s office finally announced that the inquest would begin on 27 June. For a fortnight or so, this date held good. Then at 11 a.m. on Monday, 27 May, a press spokesman for the prime minister’s office announced that the inquest would be indefinitely postponed. The government, said the spokesman, had received this news from Mr Pizzarello over the weekend, adding that the postponement was of course entirely Mr Pizzarello’s decision. The government could not interfere with Mr Pizzarello’s timetable.
The spokesman, however, was unaware that Pizzarello himself did not know of the decision he had taken. The same morning that the government announced the decision made by Pizzarello over the weekend, Pizzarello was telling Dominic Searle, a reporter on the Gibraltar Chronicle and correspondent for the Press Association, that he was considering a postponement – but only considering it. When Searle heard the news from London he went back to the coroner’s office, to be told that Pizzarello was still only considering a postponement. Eventually, at 4 p.m., the coroner vindicated Downing Street’s prescience and announced an indefinite postponement.
There is a temptation here, a temptation to use the word ‘horseshit’. Reader, resist it. Pizzarello had good reason to delay proceedings, and the pressure came from below rather than above. Ten days before, a young Gibraltar woman, Miss Suyenne Perez, had written to the coroner in her capacity as chairwoman of the Gibraltar International Festival of Music and the Performing Arts to remind him that this year’s festival was scheduled to begin on 24 June. Four days of it would coincide with the inquest. Perhaps, Miss Perez wrote to the coroner, he would like to consider changing his dates to avoid an undue strain on police resources?
In the event, the festival consisted of one beautiful baby contest, and, in the evening, a number of recitals held in the school halls. Neither the British government nor Pizzarello nor the Gibraltar police ever advanced any other reason for the inquest’s postponement. And so the inquest was once again delayed, this time for a further two months, by which time Parliament had gone, on holiday – there would be no troublesome questions – and Mrs Thatcher could prepare for a visit to Spain.
During late summer a peculiarly local climate overcomes Gibraltar. For several weeks life conducts itself under a thick cloud, while only a mile away Spain sparkles in the sun. Gibraltarians make jokes about this cloud – even our weather is English! They know it as ‘the Levanter’ and its causes are interesting enough. The prevailing wind in Gibraltar is easterly. From June to September it blows across a thousand miles of warm Mediterranean, gathering moisture on the way, until it strikes the rock’s sheer eastern face and soars up 1,400 feet. The air cools rapidly, its moisture becomes vapour, and a dense white cloud tumbles over the rock’s escarpment to blot out the sun from the town, which lies in a windless pocket to the west. The effect is spectacular – look up from Main Street towards the ridge and you can imagine a blazing, smoking forest on the other side – but also oppressive. As the colony’s historian, John D. Stewart, writes:
It obscures the sun, raises the humidity to an uncomfortable degree, dims and dampens the town and the ardour and enterprise of everyone in it. It is, inevitably, hot weather – too hot – when this added plague arrives, and now it is hot and humid and without even the benefit of brightness.
It was September, the Levanter season, and we had gathered at last for the inquest. Everybody sweated. The courtroom had a high ceiling from which fans had once been suspended; an effective system of Victorian ventilation helped by the windows high in the walls. But as part of some colonial modernization the fans had been removed, the windows double-glazed and air conditioning installed. The air conditioning had broken down. Sometimes the coroner ordered the doors to be opened; papers would then blow around; the doors would be closed again. Upstairs in the press gallery shirts grew dark from sweat stains.
The court was wood-panelled in the English fashion, brown varnish being sober and traditional, and from the gallery its layout looked like this. Straight ahead and raised above the courtroom floor sat the coroner. A large plaster representation of the royal coat of arms was stuck to the wall above him; the lion and the unicorn, splendidly done up in red, white and blue, picked out in gold, and complete with its legends in courtly French which say that the English monarchs have God and right on their side and that evil will come to those who think it.
To the right sat the eleven members of the jury – all from Gibraltar, all men (women must volunteer for jury service but few do). Counsel shared a bench in the well of the court. On the left, Mr Patrick McGrory, the Belfast lawyer who was representing the families of the dead without a fee. In the middle, Mr John Laws, who represented the British government and its servants in Gibraltar. On the right, Mr Michael Hucker, who represented the soldiers of the Special Air Service Regiment.
The purpose of the inquest was to determine, not guilt or innocence, but whether or not the killing was lawful. The government badly needed the jury to return a verdict of lawful killing. The relatives of the deceased sought to demonstrate that the three had been murdered, and, although dealt with fairly by the coroner, they and their counsel always felt that they were at a disadvantage: inquests, unlike trials, do not require the advance disclosure of witnesses’ statements, and so McGrory had no idea what most witnesses would say before they said it. As it was the Crown’s inquest, the Crown’s counsel read the statement of every witness beforehand! Laws, therefore, could think ahead, while McGrory, always struggling to keep up, had no way of testing evidence he was hearing for the first time against what later witnesses might say.
McGrory was at a disadvantage in other respects. John Laws had been provided with ‘public interest immunity certificates’ which he invoked whenever the line of inquiry looked as though it might risk ‘national security’. So, in the public interest, the inquest learned little about the events in Gibraltar, Spain, Britain or Northern Ireland before 5 March. Nor did it ever discover the true extent of the military and police operation on 6 March, though it clearly involved many more people than appeared in court.
There was some question about who in fact would appear in the first place. Would the SAS testify? Although members of the SAS were servants of the Crown and although the Crown was holding the inquest, the government was, it said, unable to force the soldiers to come to court. Finally – with a curtain round the witness box to protect them from recognition and possible retribution from the IRA – the soldiers, voluntarily, appeared. A total of eighty witnesses passed through the court, but eighteen of them were visible only to the coroner, jury and counsel. These eighteen anonymous witnesses – referred to always by a letter – were drawn from, in addition to the SAS, MI5, Special Branch and the Gibraltar Police.
Soldier A was clearly working-class and from the south of England – perhaps London. This much could be deduced from his accent. He was also the one who fired the first shot – at Danny McCann on Winston Churchill Avenue. Soldier B was standing next to Soldier A, and subordinate to him. Soldier B was the first to shoot Mairead Farrell.
Down the street were Soldiers C and D. They were also working-class but from the north: Soldier C was probably from Lancashire. He was the first one to shoot Sean Savage. Soldier D, his subordinate, then began firing.
Two teams, then: Soldier A and Soldier B, Soldier C and Soldier D. Other teams were on the ground – the inquest heard of soldiers at the airport – but there was no way of knowing their exact number. The two ‘known’ teams reported to a tactical commander, Officer E, who was in constant touch with them via radio. Officer E reported in turn to Officer F, who was the overall commander of the military operation. Both officers spoke as though they had attended public schools.
Officer F was also assisted by a bomb-disposal expert, an Officer G. This, then, made up the SAS team:
Soldier A: the first to shoot Danny McCann.
Soldier B: the first to shoot Mairead Farrell.
Soldier C: the first to shoot Sean Savage.
Soldier D: Soldier C’s subordinate.
Officer E: the tactical commander of the two teams of soldiers.
Officer F: the overall military commander.
Officer G: the bomb-disposal expert.
There was also Mr O, a senior figure in British intelligence whose information instigated the entire operation. But in addition to the SAS there was a large number of ‘watchers’, in all likelihood drawn from MI5. At the trial their initials were H, I, J, K, L, M and N. It is probable that there were many more watchers. And finally, although most of the Gibraltar police testified without the curtain, there were three who sheltered behind it: Policeman P, Policeman Q and Policeman R.
The visible witnesses comprised the following: twenty-four members of the Gibraltar police; twelve experts on pathology and ballistics – seven from the London Metropolitan Police and two from the army; a map-maker from the Gibraltar Public Works Department; and twenty-five people who were, by accident, close to the scene of the killings. But these twenty-five people included five who worked for the Gibraltar Services Police guarding military installations, one who was an off-duty member of the ordinary Gibraltar police, one who was a former Gibraltar policeman, one who worked for the Ministry of Defence, one whose father was in the Gibraltar police, and three who worked for various branches of the Gibraltar government. No more than sixteen witnesses out of seventy-eight, therefore, could be said to be completely independent of either the British government or the administration of its dependent territory.
McGrory also had a problem with money. He had given his services free and had little to spare. The legal authorities in Gibraltar, meanwhile, had decided to charge ten times the usual rate for the court’s daily transcripts. Four days before the inquest began they raised the price from 50p to £5 per page – which amounted to between £400 and £500 per day. McGrory couldn’t afford it and instead relied on longhand notes made by a barrister colleague from Belfast. McGrory was the only person in court who wanted to ask awkward questions of the official account. But for all these reasons his ability to ask awkward questions was sometimes severely limited.
Over the next few weeks I sometimes wondered what Farrell, Savage and McCann made of Gibraltar during their last few hours there. Did they notice, for example, the number of fit young men in sneakers and jeans wandering aimlessly about? Did they realize that few of them were ever far away?
I wonder if they spotted the two young men lounging in the Trafalgar Cemetery. They were Soldier C and Soldier D. They were the two men who would kill Sean Savage. When Farrell looked into the Imperial Newsagency, did she see a man suddenly turn his back? He was Soldier B. Did she glimpse his face, even briefly? He was the man who would kill her. Later, walking down Line Wall Road, looking over her shoulder from time to time (which, we heard, she did frequently), did she think that the two men hurrying behind her were vaguely familiar? They were, once again, Soldiers C and D.
What about Savage? There was the chap who passed him in Lovers’ Lane. He was Policeman P of the Gibraltar police. They stared at each other, or, as Policeman P would express it to the court, he and Savage made ‘eye-to-eye contact’. Savage had been in town at least ninety minutes longer than the others, doubling back on his tracks, suddenly stopping and watching at the end of alleyways. Around two o’clock, did he see the fellow hanging about outside the Anglican Cathedral? That was Watcher H of MI5, who likewise spent the afternoon doubling back on his tracks, suddenly stopping at the end of alleyways. According to Watcher H, Savage employed ‘very subtle anti-surveillance techniques.’ All three, he said, were ‘highly alert and sensitive . . . to all the movements and events that were happening around them.’
The authorities in Gibraltar had been waiting for Savage and McCann, if not Farrell, for weeks and possibly months. The source of their information was Mr O, a senior British intelligence officer and specialist in counter-terrorism and the IRA. Mr O told the court that his representative in Gibraltar (who never appeared as a witness) had briefed the governor, the commissioner of police and military officers with details of the IRA’s intention: the time and the target, the method (car bomb), the kind of explosives that would be used (Semtex) and the names of Savage and McCann. When these details were passed on to Gibraltar’s commissioner of police, Mr Joseph Luís Canepa, Canepa then requested military assistance; the assistance would turn out to be an unspecified number of troops from the Special Air Service Regiment which specializes in covert anti-terrorist operations – most famously ambushes – in Northern Ireland.
An advisory group was then established, comprising Canepa, two of his most senior policemen, and the principal parties from Britain: Officer G, the bomb-disposal expert; Officer E, the SAS tactical commander; Officer F, the overall military commander; as well as intelligence officers from MI5. Together they devised a strategy that can be summarized as ‘arrest, disarm, defuse’. Secrecy was paramount. According to Police Commissioner Canepa, very few members of the Gibraltar police force knew of the operation. A secret operational headquarters was set up (probably in the Governor’s Residence on Main Street, though the location was never revealed to the inquest). There, at midnight, between 5 and 6 March, a meeting of police, military and intelligence officers was told that the three suspects were in Spain and that they could be expected to arrive during the next forty-eight hours.
A secret operational order was issued.
Soldiers and police were briefed about how they would put the order into effect. First, the offenders would be arrested, ‘using minimum force’; second, they would be disarmed and their bomb defused; then evidence would be gathered for a court trial. SAS soldiers would make the arrests and hand over the suspects to armed Gibraltar policemen.
By this stage, the operation had a codename, ‘Operation Flavius’. The order for Operation Flavius had many appendices, the most vital being the rules of engagement. The written instructions that Officer F, the overall military commander, was meant to obey included the following:
use of force
You and your men will not use force unless requested to do so by the senior police officer(s) designated by the Gibraltar police commissioner; or unless it is necessary to do so in order to protect life. You and your men are not then to use more force than is necessary in order to protect life . . .
You and your men may only open fire against a person if you or they have reasonable grounds for believing that he/she is currently committing, or is about to commit, an action which is likely to endanger your or their lives, or the life of any person, and if there is no other way to prevent this.
firing without warning
You and your men may fire without a warning if the giving of a warning or any delay in firing could lead to death or injury to you or them or any other person, or if the giving of a warning is clearly impracticable.
warning before fire
If the circumstances in [above] paragraph do not apply, a warning is necessary before firing. The warning is to be as clear as possible and is to include a direction to surrender and a clear warning that fire will be opened if the direction is not obeyed.
Those were the rules. Here, once again, are the facts. Farrell, Savage and McCann were unarmed; the car Savage had driven into Gibraltar did not contain a bomb; all three were shot dead. Can the facts be made to square with the rules? Can the facts be reconstructed or revealed in a new light, as it were, which would make their pattern on 6 March conform with the law? The recent history of Northern Ireland supplies an answer.
Soldiers of the SAS were first dispatched to Northern Ireland in 1976 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees. This year Rees admitted that their deployment had as much to do with public relations as counter-terrorism: the Labour government needed to be seen to be ‘getting on top of terrorism’, and the piratical, daredevil reputation of the regiment, familiar only to students of late colonial counter-insurgency (Malaya, Borneo, Aden), might therefore be fostered to appease public concern. ‘Who Dares Wins,’ says the regimental motto. The SAS could be expected to strike first.
Two years later, on 11 July 1978, an SAS unit shot and killed a sixteen-year-old boy, John Boyle, at a cemetery near his home in County Antrim. The previous day Boyle had discovered an arms cache in the cemetery and told his father, who then informed the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The RUC passed on the information to the army, who then ‘staked out’ the cemetery with soldiers from the SAS. The next day young Boyle was cutting hay in a field near the cemetery and at about ten in the morning went back to see if the arms were still there. The SAS opened fire. Boyle’s father, meanwhile, had been warned by the RUC about the stake-out. He ran to the graveyard to look for his son and was joined by Boyle’s elder brother, who had also been haymaking in another field. The SAS arrested both men. The army’s press office quickly issued a statement: ‘At approximately 10.22 a.m. this morning near Dunloy a uniformed military patrol challenged three men. One man was shot; two men are assisting police enquiries. Weapons and explosives have been recovered.’
The SAS version of events did not please the RUC. The Boyles were a Catholic family and therefore an unusual and prized source of important information. The SAS had now shot one of the family dead. In its press statement, the police denied the army’s implication that the Boyles were connected with terrorism, prompting a second army statement confessing to inaccuracies in the first: ‘Two soldiers saw a man running into the graveyard. They saw the man reach under a gravestone and straighten up, pointing an Armalite rifle in their direction. They fired five rounds at him. The rifle was later found with its magazine fitted and ready to fire.’
There had been no challenge – a warning would have been ‘impracticable’.
Eight months later, in the wake of a public outcry caused by the publication of the pathologist’s report, two SAS soldiers were charged with murder. Evidence at their trial showed that the rifle had not been loaded, contrary to the army’s second statement, and the judge was unable to decide if Boyle had ever picked it up. He concluded that the army had ‘gravely mishandled’ the operation and that the only SAS soldier to give evidence – one of the two charged – was an ‘untrustworthy witness’ who gave a ‘vague and unsatisfactory’ account. The two were found not guilty none the less. Their ‘mistaken belief that they were in danger,’ said the judge, was enough to acquit them.
Over the past fifteen years many other killings in Northern Ireland have hinged in court on this question of ‘mistaken belief’ and the subsequent use of ‘reasonable force’. Perhaps the most famous is the case of Patrick McLoughlin, who was shot dead with two other unarmed men as they tried to rob a bank in Newry in 1971. McLoughlin’s widow, Olive Farrell, sued the Ministry of Defence for damages in the Northern Ireland High Court, but the jury decided that McLoughlin was to blame for his own death. It had been persuaded by the argument that British troops, in a stake-out or ambush similar to the one that killed Boyle, had shot three men because their commanding officer had suspected, ‘with reasonable cause’ (though wrongly), that the three were trying to plant a bomb which would endanger life. Shooting was the only practicable, and therefore reasonable, means of arrest. As Lord Justice Gibson, the Northern Ireland judge later to be killed by a republican bomb, commented:
In law you may effect an arrest in the vast extreme by shooting him [the suspect] dead. That’s still an arrest. If you watch Wild West films, the posse go ready to shoot their men if need be. If they don’t bring them back peaceably they shoot them and in the ultimate result if there isn’t any other way open to a man, it’s reasonable to do it in the circumstances. Shooting may be justified as a method of arrest.
The case of Farrell versus the United Kingdom was appealed unsuccessfully in the House of Lords and went eventually to the European Commission on Human Rights, where the British government settled out of court in 1984 by paying Farrell £37,500. The payment ensured that the commission’s ruling remains confidential, though the British government’s submission to the commission has been published. Britain argued that the jury in the Farrell case had been directed correctly because it had been told that it would be unreasonable to cause death ‘unless it was necessary to do so in order to prevent a crime or effect the arrest’; and that the concepts of ‘absolutely necessary’ and ‘reasonable’ were the same thing when it came to killing a person believed to be a terrorist bomber.
‘Belief’, ‘believed’, ‘reasonable’. The same words appear in Operation Flavius’s rules of engagement. The inquest heard them with dripping regularity. Out of the graveyards of Ulster, one may suspect, reasonably, came the bones of the government’s legal case in Gibraltar; a case, like Boyle’s and McLoughlin’s, of mistaken belief.
Could there really have been a bomb activated by a button?
In the months preceding the inquest, the Sunday Times became essential reading if only because its reports seemed to reflect so reliably the official leaks that served to strengthen the government’s original story: that Farrell, McCann and Savage had all made ‘suspicious movements’ – suspicious enough to justify shooting the three of them: either they were going for guns or they were about to detonate a bomb with a radio-controlled device. That they had neither guns nor radio-controlled devices obviously diminished the credibility of the government’s story, which was diminished further following the statements made for the Thames Television programme by bomb expert George Stiles: that he had never known the IRA to explode a radio-controlled bomb without a view of the target, and that it was unlikely in the extreme that the kind of transmitter used by the IRA could have been sophisticated enough to send a signal a mile from the bomb with buildings in between.
Nevertheless, on 8 May, ten days after the programme, the Sunday Times supplied an answer of sorts (revealed: why the sas shot the ira). According to military sources, the SAS had ‘secret intelligence which convinced them that the gang was able to detonate a bomb by using a sophisticated remote-control device.’ In the event, the inquest heard of no sophisticated remote-control device. But ‘sophisticated’ was not the keyword in the Sunday Times report. The keyword was ‘convinced’. In the face of the apparent facts (no bomb, no devices, no gun) and the Thames Television programme, the government’s case rested on the SAS’s conviction that McCann, Farrell and Savage could have been carrying radio-controlled devices.
At the inquest Mr O, the senior intelligence officer from London, admitted that while so much of his information had been flawless – names, date, times – he had blundered in three respects: first, the three suspects were not, as he had predicted, armed; second, as he had not predicted, they had used a blocking-car; and third ‘when the car bomb was eventually discovered in Marbella it did not contain a radio-controlled device, it contained a timer.’
Why had he been so sure about a radio-controlled bomb?
Because Mr O had overrated the morality of the IRA. The bombing at Enniskillen on 8 November 1987 was central to Mr O’s thinking: eleven civilians had been killed and fifty wounded at an Armistice Day parade, eliciting so much protest from so many different parts of the Irish community, north and south, that it had shaken the IRA, and the organization had apologized for ‘a mistake’. The bomb, it implied, had gone off at the wrong time. Mr O assumed that the IRA would not run the same risk of civilian casualties in Gibraltar, and radio-control was the only way to ensure that the bomb was exploded when the bombers were sure it would destroy the intended target – the British troops. It was unlikely, Mr O said in court, that the IRA would use a timing device, ‘because, once a timer is started, it is virtually impossible to stop it [unless the bombers] go back to the bomb and actually disarm it, which is a highly dangerous procedure.’
The only fact that Mr O, or anyone else, could summon to support the assumption that there would be a radio-controlled device was in the discovery by Belgian police on 21 January of a car containing a large amount of Semtex, four detonators and ‘equipment for a radio detonation system’ of a kind familiar in Northern Ireland. For reasons never disclosed, Mr O assumed the Gibraltar bomb would be of a similar type.
McGrory was puzzled by the statement made by Mr O that a radio-controlled bomb would be ‘safer’ for the terrorists because they could get away. Wouldn’t some form of timer be just as safe for them?
‘Yes,’ said Mr O, ‘but if the parade had been cancelled at the last moment because it rained, which we understood was a possibility, there would have been absolutely no way of reversing the bomb. It would have been set and would have exploded willy-nilly, and the people who would have been injured and killed would not have been military personnel.’
Mr O’s answer contained a dramatic implication which went unnoticed at the time, because McGrory, imagining that Mr O thought the bombers intended to detonate their radio-controlled device from Spain, went on to ask Mr O if he had ever heard of a case in which the IRA had exploded such a bomb from such a distance, without ‘line of sight’ of the target. Mr O said he had not; in fact the army never believed that the IRA would detonate its bomb from Spain in the first place. The army believed it would be detonated in Gibraltar, with a clear view of the target. What would then be the point of radio-control? To avoid civilian casualties the bombers would need to watch the target. They would need to be, as it turned out, high on the Rock to the east of the car park at Ince’s Hall, hemmed in by buildings and walls on its other three sides.
The bomb-disposal expert, Officer G, and his counsel, Michael Hucker, explained:
Michael Hucker: What would the position on the Renault be? The bomb is planted on the Sunday; the terrorists walk north and stay in Spain. One of them comes back on the Tuesday morning at about ten o’clock and goes to the Rock with a pair of binoculars and one of those [indicating a radio transmitter-receiver]. What would he be able to do?
Officer G: He would be able to maximize the effectiveness and the use of his bomb because he could wait until the band was assembled in toto, in that nice clear area of the Ince’s Hall car park. He could wait until they had formed up and from the housing estate [up on the Rock] he could then press the transmit button and destroy them all.
This is the terrorists conforming to what might be called the Dr Jekyll hypothesis. This is the terrorists showing a high regard for the sanctity of civilian life by putting their own lives at considerable risk, entering one of the world’s most heavily defended and patrolled military outposts – not once, but twice. They leave a car bomb in an obvious place for two days, risking the chance that it will be detected, defused and the area staked out. And then, assuming that it has not been detected or defused or the area staked out, they rush to reach Gibraltar’s only exit, one and a half miles away, before the authorities close the border in the wake of a massive explosion.
But, apart from its improbability, the Dr Jekyll hypothesis contains a serious flaw. If the bombers are prepared to take such care to protect innocent people that they will blow up only a precise military target at only a precise time on a Tuesday afternoon, how are they such a threat to life on the preceding Sunday that they need to be killed? The answer is in the Mr Hyde hypothesis, revealed to the court by Officer F, the SAS military commander of the operation. According to Officer F, it was expected that Farrell, Savage and McCann would carry radio-detonating devices so that, if their operation was ‘compromised’ – that is, if they thought they were about to be arrested – they would explode the bomb at any time, whatever the consequences to civilian life. In court, McGrory tried to unravel the thinking.
McGrory: Isn’t that [the Hyde hypothesis] quite contrary to the other supposition, or deduction, that in fact their anxiety after Enniskillen and all that would be to avoid civilian casualties?
Officer F: Yes, but that’s two different deductions. There’s one deduction . . . which is that in their terms the perfect operation is where they can use the radio-controlled device in theory to minimize the number of casualties. But the other supposition is that when they are cornered a different set of factors pertain, in my opinion, and when cornered they will have no qualms about either resorting to weapons or pressing a button, knowing that the bomb was there . . . they’d achieve some degree of propaganda success, apart from casualties, of exploding a bomb in the centre of Gibraltar.
McGrory: I’m sorry, I can’t follow that, because, if the submission was that Enniskillen caused a propaganda disaster of great magnitude for them, why should they cause another propaganda loss like that, not a propaganda gain that you are talking about?
Officer F: In my opinion, they are adept at turning disaster into triumph in their own propaganda terms, and therefore, if they could claim that they had got a bomb into Gibraltar, that they had . . . successfully exploded it in Gibraltar, I believe that they would claim that to be a propaganda success and would try and derive credit and publicity from it.
McGrory: Propaganda success that had emulated Enniskillen, which was the greatest propaganda disaster? Surely that can’t be right?
Officer F: I believe it is.
The jury was being asked to accept that, an hour or so before McCann, Farrell and Savage were killed, the authorities had come to believe the following: that the three would use a car bomb to be detonated by radio on Tuesday morning; that the car itself was expected to arrive on Monday evening; that a car arrived instead on Sunday which the authorities nevertheless believed to be a car bomb rather than a blocking-car; that the three bombers would leave and that one (or more) of them would return on Tuesday; that each time the bombers crossed the border and its immigration and customs controls they would be armed and in possession of detonating devices; and that, finally, Savage, using an Irish passport in his known pseudonym of Brendan Coyne, had not been spotted driving the Renault over the border despite the fact that British surveillance teams and the Spanish border police were awaiting his arrival.
This last apparent mistake – the failure to spot Savage as he crossed the border – was crucial to the government’s case. Otherwise it would have to explain why it had allowed Savage to drive a car suspected of containing a bomb into the middle of Gibraltar. The lack of surveillance in Spain and hints of some Mediterranean sloppiness at the border itself were the favourite explanations (Charles Huart was the detective constable posted to the border that day to check the passport of everyone who entered, but somehow Savage managed to drive through).
But was it a mistake, an accident? One witness thought not. According to Detective Chief Inspector Joseph Ullger, the head of Gibraltar’s Special Branch, the authorities ‘were concerned to gather evidence . . . Members of the [British] security service had said that they don’t normally give evidence in court . . . so the [police] commissioner spelled it out that evidence was absolutely vital for the subsequent trial of the terrorists.’
McGrory: You said the only way for the operation to succeed was to allow the terrorists to come in?
Ullger: We had the police officers who were going to identify these people, SAS people . . . to assist us in the arrest, so I did not see problems at all. It would have been a problem if we’d told the police officers on duty at the frontier because unfortunately word would have got around … and I think there was an absolute need for extreme confidentiality.
McGrory: But you told the Spanish officers?
Ullger: Yes . . . the Spaniards were told because we required the technical advantages, facilities, which they had with computers, simply because of that.
McGrory: But you didn’t tell the officers on the Gibraltar side, even to look for a passport in the name of Coyne?
Ullger: No sir, we did not.
Only two conclusions are possible from Ullger’s testimony: either the Gibraltar authorities did not seriously believe Savage’s car contained a bomb, or that they did, and for several hours risked the lives of Gibraltar’s population so that they might gather evidence and make three arrests (remembering Lord Justice Gibson’s definition of the word), which legal precedent had established as lawful, and which domestic or international opinion would hardly have found controversial given the presence of a large bomb parked near a school and a Jewish old people’s home. Could there really have been a bomb activated by button? The question, finally, was immaterial.
But what if Savage’s car contained a bomb?
Apparently undetected at the border, Savage then parked his car some time between noon and 1 p.m. Some understanding of the operation awaiting him is suggested by the number of people who spotted him once he had entered the town centre.
Watcher N was one of a number of people from MI5 who were meant to study the target area, the car park outside Ince’s Hall, where the bomb was expected. Watcher N said that he had a ‘good view of the area, a very good view.’ At 12.45 a white Renault 5 pulled into the car park; the driver was a young man, who remained in the car for two or three minutes. A man was later seen to be wandering near the car park, and Watcher N was asked to check his identity. He discovered that the man was the driver of the Renault 5 and that it was Sean Savage. Watcher N sent his information by radio to the operations room at 2.10 p.m., and then followed Savage ‘for a considerable period’. Savage walked up and down the lanes off Main Street, stopping every now and then, ‘trying to draw out stares,’ to see if he was being followed. At about 3 p.m., he saw McCann and Farrell, who were met by Savage. They were about 150 yards from the car.
Albert Viagas, a Gibraltar constable, was also watching the target area from the offices of Hambros Bank at one end of the car park. Several other watchers had gathered in the same building. Viagas had two cameras and a radio – his job was to record all movements within the target zone. He did not see Savage drive in, but remembered hearing that at 12.30 p.m. a radio message had said that he had parked. A member of the security forces had commented that ‘the driver had taken time and fiddled with something between the seats.’ Viagas noted that the man reappeared between 2 and 2.30 p.m., walked away and then reappeared at 2.50 with the other two suspects. The three looked at the car and then disappeared again. Headquarters wanted the identities of the suspects confirmed, which the surveillance officers working beside Viagas were able to do: the three were McCann, Farrell and Savage. They were asked to provide further confirmation by a closer inspection, which was duly done, with the suspects positively identified by 3.25 p.m., the time the three returned to their car.
Watcher H of MI5 told the court that he first saw Savage about 2 p.m., when a radio message told him that Savage was approaching his position outside the Anglican Cathedral. He saw Savage stop at the tourist office and look at the noticeboard and its diary of local events. He identified him ‘with no problem at all’, and then, like Watcher N, began his tour of the alleyways dogging Savage’s heels.
About the same time, Policeman P of the Gibraltar police spotted Savage and they exchanged glances in Lovers’ Lane.
By 2 p.m. Savage was being watched by officers of the military, the police and British Intelligence. There were minute-by-minute reports of his progress round Gibraltar. For more than an hour several of these agents had sat studying the car that was meant to contain a bomb of terrible potential. Could they really have believed that a bomb was there in the boot? If so, would they have sat around so casually studying it? If so, would they have done so little to protect the civilian population? After the suspects were shot, it was at least thirty minutes before anyone was warned of a potential bomb, and the first instructions to clear the area were haphazard and slow. If it was reasonable to believe that the Renault contained a bomb, then surely the people who believed it behaved unreasonably. And if it was reasonable, wouldn’t somebody have told the man in charge? Until nearly 3 p.m. Police Commissioner Canepa knew nothing about Savage and his car.
Canepa made a good impression in the witness box; silver-haired, silver-moustached, quietly spoken, he appeared a round and paternal figure. Fighting terrorism was not his game. None the less the rules of Operation Flavius put him in control, no matter that almost every aspect of the operation – its intelligence, its watchers, its troops, its technology, even the rules themselves – had arrived by aircraft from London. Officer F and Officer E swore he was in control (‘I think’, Officer F said in his plummy accent, ‘that the chances of me hoodwinking the commissioner are about as good as selling ice-cream to Eskimos’), and Canepa himself grew tetchy when McGrory suggested otherwise. Indeed he seemed to believe he was still in control during the twenty-five minutes when, by his own admission, he had clearly signed control over to Officer F. But that happened later in the afternoon. For most of the day Joseph Luís Canepa was nominally in control of at least a dozen SAS men, an unspecified number of British intelligence operatives, 230 Gibraltarian police and a secret operations or ‘ops’ room that had been set up to coordinate the entire venture.
In control, but rather badly informed. Part of the trouble lay in the sophisticated radio system the military had imported for the operation. The system had two networks – tactical for the SAS soldiers, surveillance for the MI5 watchers – both of which were controlled from the ops room. It was clever, versatile equipment. The watchers and soldiers on the streets could switch into each other’s networks; they had tiny microphones stuck to their collars and even smaller ear-pieces stuck in their ears; to transmit they simply pushed a button on their wrist-watches and mumbled into their shirts.
It was unfortunate that Commissioner Canepa could not hear a word. Officer E and Officer F swore that he could if he had wanted to – the information was audible in the ops room. But Canepa, who gave his evidence first, said that all the tactical and surveillance business was conducted by operators with earphones, who sat at different desks.
In any case, at 12.30 p.m. Canepa left the ops room and went home for lunch, leaving the acting deputy police commissioner, George Colombo, temporarily in command. It was of course at about that same time that Sean Savage was parking his car in the Ince’s Hall car park, but Canepa must have just missed being informed. So, too, however, did his deputy Colombo. In fact the military and surveillance officers neglected to tell Colombo about Savage for more than two hours.
At 2.30 p.m. Colombo did learn that two suspects believed to be McCann and Farrell had crossed the border. He telephoned Canepa, who stayed at lunch. Then at 2.50 p.m. Colombo was at last informed Savage was in town as well and that he had met McCann and Farrell; all three had been seen looking at the car: ‘It was highly suspected that it was a car bomb.’ He telephoned Canepa again, and this time the commissioner dismissed prospects of a prolonged siesta and made his way back to the operations room.
What happened in the operations room during the next forty minutes is far from clear, but it would seem that there were some differences of opinion between the police, Canepa and Colombo, and the military, SAS Officer E and Officer F. Under the rules of Operation Flavius the SAS soldiers on the ground had to receive control from the police before they could make their arrests. This required Canepa or his appointed deputy to sign a document which read:
I have considered the terrorist situation in Gibraltar and have been fully briefed on the military plan with firearms. I request that you proceed with the military option which may include the use of lethal force for the preservation of life.
Canepa or his deputy would be expected to give this to Officer F, who would give the go-ahead to Officer E, the tactical commander of the troops on the ground. After the arrests had been made, Officer F would return control to the police by signing a second form:
A military assault force completed the military option in respect of the terrorist ASU [active service unit] in Gibraltar and returns control to the civil power.
In the event, it took some time before Canepa finally signed the first document and gave the SAS the control it wanted: it was not in fact until 3.40 p.m., about forty minutes after all three suspects had been seen together and positively identified by numerous watchers.
During the inquest Canepa always insisted that there was no pre-arranged or pre-determined point of arrest, but questions were bound to arise – and perhaps were anticipated – about the forty-minute delay. According to Canepa an arrest had ‘nearly been made’ before he got to the ops room at 3 p.m., when Colombo was still in charge. Soldier A and Soldier B, however, said in court that control had been passed to them twice before 3.40 p.m., and was twice withdrawn.
Why was it withdrawn? Canepa and Colombo said that on the first occasion (they denied a second or third) that, from the direction the suspects were walking, the people in the operations room thought they were not leaving the car after all, that they were going back. At the time, Officer E, along with Soldier A and Soldier B, said the same thing: permission for an arrest had been granted and then rescinded. Real doubt at this moment seems to have existed about a bomb in the Renault.
Soldier C and Soldier D told a different story. Between 2.50 and 3, they were in Trafalgar Cemetery, about a minute’s walk from the car park, when the three suspects strolled past. Officer E told Soldiers C and D to get out of the area and make for the airport. It is not clear why; ten or fifteen minutes later, they heard on the radio that Soldiers A and B had been given control for the first time and had been asked to ‘apprehend the terrorists’, who were, by then, returning to their car. Soldiers C and D were told to turn back. And, as they did so, control was then withdrawn.
Why this reluctance to allow the military to make its arrests? The evidence suggests that it had nothing to do with the direction in which the three suspects may or may not have been walking. It was because Canepa had returned to the ops room. According to Colombo, one of his chief’s priorities was to order that the suspects be ‘formally identified’. No watcher or soldier was in any doubt about their identities by then – even Colombo thought they were ’80 per cent certain’ – but none the less two watchers left the hide-out in the Hambros Bank and confirmed the identities of the three around 3.25 p.m.
Soon after, the three began to walk north down Main Street, suggesting to Officers E and F that they were leaving the car behind and making for the border (an oddly certain conclusion: they could simply have been making for the centre of town for a drink). According to Officer E and his soldiers in the field, control again passed to them and was again rescinded, this time more swiftly than before, because, in the words of Officer E, ‘The police commissioner wanted to be one hundred per cent sure of the identities of the three terrorists before any arrest was made.’ Canepa seems to have been a troubled man; by the account of other witnesses he had been requesting and receiving confirmations of identity for about twenty minutes by now. And yet Colombo’s ‘80 per cent’ would have been more than good enough for most policemen in most circumstances, and his military and intelligence advisors, who knew much more about Irish terrorists than he did, seemed absolutely sure. What could have been troubling the commissioner? Wrongful arrest? Surely not; three badly scared tourists would have been the only result. Unless, of course, they were to be arrested in Lord Justice Gibson’s sense of the word.
Events began to move quickly.
Soldier C and Soldier D, having almost got to the airport, now returned towards the centre and were sheltering behind the Mobil petrol station in Line Wall Road. The three suspects passed, walking towards the border. Farrell kept looking over her shoulder. Soldier C and Soldier D began to follow. For the next few minutes soldiers and suspects were in sight of each other. Soldier C and Soldier D were wearing loose shirts, casually covering the nine-millimetre Browning pistols stuck in their trouser waistbands.
At 3.40 p.m. Canepa signed his paper and gave it to Officer F who handed it to Officer E, who then devolved control to his men in the field. According to their evidence, the time and place of arrest were now entirely in their hands. Soldier A and Soldier B took a shortcut through the Landport Tunnel; Soldier C and Soldier D continued walking along the road; both ways were about to meet at the complicated junction where the town of Gibraltar draws together its few roads and sends them forward towards Spain in a short stretch of grandiose dual carriageway: Winston Churchill Avenue. Soldiers and watchers told the court that the three suspects stopped at this junction on Winston Churchill Avenue; some evidence said that Savage and McCann exchanged newspapers here. Two pairs of SAS troops now approached them from behind, all four utterly convinced, so they told the court, that any hesitation on their part could mean carnage a mile to the south.
Approaching Danny McCann, Soldier A was convinced that if he could kill him, he would prevent the slaughter of innocents. His vision was intense:
‘At that stage there I thought the man McCann was definitely going to go for a button. Uppermost in my mind . . . was the bomb and the de-bussing area. On that particular Sunday itself I noticed a couple of ships in the harbour, quite a few people around about the area of Main Street. Uppermost in my mind was this bomb. If he had gone for the button to press the button which would have detonated the bomb which was in the car or that was believed to be in the car . . . So . . . as I said, I was drawing my weapon. I fired at McCann one round into his back.’
Soldier A’s conviction about the existence of the bomb was deeply inculcated. But it was not nearly as strong as the conviction felt by Soldier C – which emerged when McGrory began asking him about Farrell. How long had he had her under observation?
Soldier C: On and off for an hour.
McGrory: And during which time Miss Farrell was showing this . . . alertness or nervousness about surveillance?
Soldier C: Very much so.
McGrory: However, you and your surveillance teams were so good at your jobs that she doesn’t appear to have twigged, so to speak, that she was being watched closely?
Soldier C: No sir. Well they had just laid a bomb . . .
McGrory: Had just what?
Soldier C: Had just laid a bomb in the Ince’s Hall area.
McGrory: No, they had not.
Soldier C [angrily]: I was told by [Officer] E!
McGrory: You are just after saying they had just laid a bomb. You know perfectly well they had not laid a bomb.
Soldier C: I was briefed on that day and categorically told there was a definite bomb in Ince’s Hall. I can only operate from that information at that moment in time.
McGrory: It turned out to be rubbish, of course?
Soldier C: At that moment in time I can only react to that information.
McGrory: And at all times you were acting with the information that had been fed into you by [Officer] E?
Soldier C: Fed into me by [Officer] E, yes.
McGrory: Can we get it clear that you are not saying now that there was a bomb?
Soldier C: I don’t understand what you are saying.
McGrory: It can’t be the fault of my [Ulster] accent this time. I am saying to you, you are not telling his Honour and the jury now that you still believe there was a bomb?
Soldier C: I am not talking about that. I am talking about information I had; on the day there was a bomb in Ince’s Hall.
McGrory: I am talking [about] now . . . and would you tell me whether you now believe that now as you stand there, that there was a bomb?
Soldier C: I still believe that there is a bomb in Gibraltar.
The Coroner [trying to clarify]: He still believed.
Some conversation between McGrory and Laws, the government’s counsel, occurred at this point. Then the coroner intervened again: ‘Put it directly to him. “Do you know that there was no bomb?”’
Soldier C: [at last] At this point in time I’d be a fool not to know.
Where did this strange certainty come from?
The night before the killings, at the secret midnight advisory meeting, there was a discussion about the two kinds of detonation – timer and radio-controlled. The police witnesses who attended that meeting – Commissioner Canepa, Detective Chief Inspector Ullger, Policeman Q and Policeman R – recalled that a timer had not been ruled out. But members of the SAS – both the officers and Soldiers A, B, C and D – attending the same meeting, all believed, and not just believed but knew, ‘one hundred per cent’, that the bomb would be radio-controlled, a ‘button job’. Further, they believed that all three suspects would be carrying transmitters or ‘buttons’.
One of the small revelations of the inquest was that on certain kinds of operations, including this one, SAS units take an army lawyer with them. The lawyer attending their legal needs in Gibraltar had, it transpired, drawn up the document which Canepa signed to give control to the military. He also accompanied the four soldiers when they went to hand over their guns and their spare ammunition at the Gibraltar police station after the shooting. And he also secured permission, from the colony’s deputy attorney-general, that the unit could leave that night for the United Kingdom without first making any statements to the local police. In fact it was not until 15 March, after several sessions with the army lawyer, that the soldiers made statements to British policemen who were acting on behalf of their colleagues in Gibraltar. And it was months before it was even decided that the soldiers would ‘volunteer’ to attend their trial. No doubt the SAS lawyers had the opportunity to clarify any confusion in the soldiers’ minds during this period; which is their right.
Was it reasonable that the soldiers hold these beliefs about the ‘button’ so firmly? Yes; they had been instilled by their commanding officers. Were the mistaken beliefs reasonable in themselves? Only Mr O knows, but he offered scant evidence to support them. Did they grow more reasonable as the afternoon of 6 March wore on? Hardly, though the crown tried hard to show so.
The important evidence: first, Savage had been seen ‘fiddling with something in the car’ after he parked it. The watcher alleged to have seen this fiddling (perhaps a seat belt?) never turned up at the inquest. Second, the three suspects ‘stared hard’ or ‘looked intently’ at the car. Hardly proof of evil intention, far less a radio-controlled bomb. Third, the Renault had ‘an old aerial’ and yet was ‘a relatively new car’. Several official witnesses latched on to this conjunction, which came originally from Officer G, the bomb-disposal expert. At about 3.25 G was sent from the ops room to inspect the car, about which he found nothing untoward apart from the aerial. But when the aerial was produced in court it turned out to be a remarkably unsuspicious piece of wire.
6 March 1988. Soldier A and Soldier B emerged from the Landport Tunnel with a female witness, known as Watcher J. Soon they saw McCann, Farrell and Savage standing together just north of the zebra crossing on Corral Road. They were talking and smiling. According to Soldier A, Savage broke away from the group and started to walk up towards the soldiers, actually bumping into Soldier A’s shoulder as he moved past. Watcher J turned and followed Savage.
Soldier A and Soldier B pressed on towards Farrell and McCann, who were now walking towards the border. According to their evidence, Soldier A followed McCann on the inside of the pavement, while Soldier B took the outer position behind Farrell. The soldiers started to walk fast – ‘a controlled brisk pace’. By the time Farrell and McCann had walked a hundred yards and were in front of the Shell petrol station, Soldiers A and B were only a few feet behind them. Then McCann looked back – the glance that, by this evidence, killed him, killed all of them, and started a small procession of Belfast coffins.
Soldier A: He had a smile on his face and he looked over at me. We literally had what I would call eye-to-eye contact. We looked directly at each other, and the smile went off McCann’s face, and, it’s hard to describe, it’s almost like McCann had a realization of actually who I was, or I was a threat to him. The look on his face was of alertness and he was very aware. So this came over his face and at that stage then I was just going to shout a warning to stop . . . and at the same time I was drawing my pistol. I went to shout ‘Stop!’ whether it [the word] actually came out I honestly don’t know. I went to shout ‘Stop!’ and the events overtook the warning. The look on McCann’s face, the alertness . . . then all of a sudden his right arm, right elbow, actually moved aggressively across the front of his body . . .
Soldier A then shot McCann once in the back. ‘I then, out of the corner of my eye . . . [saw that] Farrell had a bag under her left armpit at this stage. She had actually moved to the right and was grabbing her bag.’
Soldier A then shot Farrell once in the back before switching his fire back to McCann, who was now falling to the ground. He aimed once at his body and twice at his head.
Soldier A did not hear Soldier B fire, though Soldier B heard Soldier A’s shots. Soldier B said that as Soldier A was the senior partner he expected him to initiate the arrest. He heard ‘a startled yell’ to his right and in a split second ‘firing, bargh, bargh, firing’. Soldier B was drawing his own weapon at the time. ‘At the same instant again Farrell, who I was still watching intently, made a sharp move to her right, and she was carrying a shoulder bag which she drew across her body.’
Soldier B: I, with the information I’d been given at the time – we were told of their professionalism, their dedication, and of all the car-bombing and other information – I was intently watching Farrell . . . in my mind she made all the actions to carry out a detonation of a radio-controlled device. Uppermost in my mind at that time, sir [to the coroner], was the lives of the general public in that area.’
Soldier B thought he fired one or two rounds at Farrell before he switched his fire to McCann – ‘Because I didn’t know whether Soldier A had been shot, and I perceived McCann as being an equal threat to myself, Gibraltarians and my comrades.’ When he returned his aim to Farrell she was going down, but he continued to fire because, he said, he still couldn’t see her hands. He did not know how many rounds he had fired at each person, but he fired seven in all and did not miss, he said, with any of them. ‘I carried on firing until both the terrorists were laying on the floor, their arms were away from any device or bag, and I decided that they were no longer a threat.’
The twelve shots fired at the Shell station had, according to Soldier C and Soldier D, an instant effect on Savage. He was about 150 yards away and walking back towards town, going up the same path to the tunnel which Soldier A and Soldier B had recently come down. Soldier C and Soldier D had caught up with him and were, according to Soldier C, about five or six feet behind him. Soldier D was to the left and slightly ahead.
Soldier C: There were a lot of people coming towards us . . . My intention at this stage was to effect the arrest but as I was moving forward there were shots to my left rear [at Shell] . . . and when this happened Savage spun round very fast. As he spun round I shouted ‘Stop!’ At the time I was shouting, he went down with his right arm to the area of his jacket pocket.
Soldier C: At this stage I fired, because at this moment in time it had been confirmed from [Officer] E that there was a device, a bomb, at the Ince’s Hall area which could be detonated by one of these three terrorists, more likely to be Savage, because earlier he had been seen in that vehicle, playing around in the front, leaving the vehicle.
Soldier C fired six rounds at ‘the mass’ of Savage’s body and thought that four hit him in the chest and two in the head, as Savage went ‘spiralling down . . . like a corkscrew’ through his arc of fire. He stopped firing ‘as soon as Savage had hit the ground, his arms had flung back to the side and I was sure, at that moment in time, that he was no longer a threat to initiate that device.’
Soldier D said he pushed a woman away with his left hand and drew his Browning with his right, to get ‘a clear line of arrest’ as his counsel Hucker called it. He had not drawn his gun when Savage spun round and Soldier C shouted stop.
Soldier D: At this stage I had to make a decision as to what my actions would be, and uppermost in my mind at the time was what had been confirmed to me by [Officer] E. He told me there was a bomb . . . I believed that Savage had a detonator and he was going to detonate the device. With all the innocent people up in the area I had to make a decision. There was gunfire to my left and to the rear. Again, I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know if Soldiers A and B had been shot by McCann and Farrell, and I also had a threat to the people who were around me at the time . . . At this stage I had to make a decision, and it was in milliseconds I drew my pistol and I fired at Savage.
And went on firing at him; nine shots as he twisted and fell, all aimed at the centre of his body, apart from the last two which were aimed at his head – ‘just before he became still, just as he reached the ground’. Soldier C estimated that their total of fifteen shots had been fired from within three to five seconds – fast work with non-automatic pistols – but could not be sure if Soldier D went on firing after he had stopped.
None of this, of course, was supposed to happen. The court heard how the SAS had practised their arrest procedure. Pistols would be drawn, a challenge shouted and the suspects made to lie on the ground with their hands away from their bodies until Gibraltar policemen arrived with handcuffs. Four or five times the challenge itself burst from behind the curtain over the witness box. STOP . . . POLICE . . . HANDS UP. Few in the court (including the coroner, as he later confessed) had understood this challenge when Officer E first demonstrated it. Consonants disappeared, vowels were mangled – it was no more than the kind of frightening noise which professional soldiers perfect on the barrack square. In any case the challenge was something of a luxury. As Soldier D said, ‘In our rules of engagement, if we thought the threat was so great . . . we had no need to give a warning. We knew the fact the bomb was there. We knew he [Savage] could well be carrying the device to detonate the bomb. With him making such violent movements . . . in fact we didn’t even need to give him a warning.’
McGrory: Why did you give him it then?
Soldier D: Because we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We told him to stop. He didn’t stop. He carried on with the movement.
Loud noises frighten people. They tend to move. No soldier could explain to the inquest, however, why the dead had moved as they were alleged to have done. No buttons, no guns, but three distinct movements, all of them lethal. Was there anything Savage, Farrell and McCann could have done to prevent themselves from being killed that day, apart from rewriting the history of their last few months alive? One thing had always been clear. There was never an intention to shoot to immobilize: soldiers are trained to fire and go – on firing until they kill, and in this case they needed to expunge life, to stop the possibility of ‘contrived movement’, in Hucker’s phrase, as quickly as possible. But McGrory wondered what would have happened if Savage, in the middle of the firing, had shouted, ‘Stop! I surrender!’ Would Soldier D have carried on killing him?
Soldier D: I would have carried on firing until I believed he was no longer a threat.
McGrory: Even if words of surrender like that had been uttered like that?
Soldier D: He may well have said that and pressed the button at the same time.
McGrory: The startled man was wheeling, and the shout and the shot had come on top of each other. What chance had he to surrender?
Soldier D: He had been given the chance. He had been told to stop and he didn’t.
McGrory: You didn’t even finish the warning.
Soldier D: Because we didn’t have the time to finish the warning.
McGrory: I am suggesting to you, soldier, that you appointed yourself Lord High Executioner of Mr Savage on this day.
Soldier D: That is definitely not true.
By Officer E’s reckoning Savage, Farrell and McCann had died at 3.47 p.m. He was in the ops room with Canepa, Officer F and others when his men radioed in – somewhere between 3.47 and 3.48 p.m. – that the ‘apprehension of the terrorists had taken place’. Officer E said he wasn’t sure what this implied – though clarification would surely have been easy enough – and so he left and went to the scene with Detective Chief Inspector Ullger of the Special Branch. By 4 p.m. he had confirmed that the three were dead and that the SAS soldiers were ‘safely out of the area’. Canepa himself did not hear about the killings until 4.05 p.m., his first definite information since he handed over control twenty-five minutes before. One minute later Officer F signed the document which restored control to the civil power.
There is in police methodology a universal principle known as the preservation of the scene of the crime. It was applied sparingly on 6 March. Within minutes, the Gibraltar police had corrupted, if not quite destroyed, any chance that the killings could be properly reconstructed by the higher standards of legal proof. The spent cartridges were collected without first marking where they had been found. The bodies were removed without first photographing them in situ. No one bothered to chalk around the outlines of Farrell and McCann; without the pictures of Douglas Celecia, an amateur photographer whose home overlooks the scene, the inquest may never have known precisely how or where they had fallen (Celecia’s photographs, which appear in these pages, were later seized by the police and restored to him, only after a legal action, with every face whited out).
The bodies were then removed to the morgue of the Royal Naval Hospital. A senior pathologist, Professor Alan Watson of Glasgow University, arrived around lunchtime the next day to perform the autopsy. It wasn’t an easy job. The hospital had a mobile X-ray machine, but he was never given access to it; X-rays could have traced the track of bullets through the bodies. The clothing had already been removed; torn fabric can help determine entry and exit wounds, while the spread of blood stains could indicate whether the three were upright or prone when they were shot. He found the photographs taken in the morgue inadequate – the police photographer had not been under his direction – and there was no surgical help. Subsequently he was not given any copies of the ballistic and forensic reports, nor the reports on the blood samples he had submitted in London on his return.
McGrory expressed puzzlement.
‘Yes,’ said Professor Watson, ‘it is a puzzle to me too. I am just giving you the facts.’
But wasn’t there normally close cooperation between the pathologist and the forensic scientist?
‘Yes,’ said Watson, ‘but here, I repeat, I have had none.’
‘I cannot answer that question.’
‘Are you saying’, McGrory asked, ‘that at no stage in the last six months did you become aware that, for instance, it was a matter of importance in this case that it is alleged that some, if not all, of these people were shot as they lay on the ground?’
‘Yes, [but] I had expected that you would put those questions to the . . . forensic scientist.’
The forensic scientist was David Pryor of the London Metropolitan Police. He appeared in court on 27 September. Professor Watson had appeared on 8 September. The gap between their appearances made it impossible to combine their complementary evidence, blurring thereby a vital – maybe the most vital – question in the case: did the wounds, the clothing and the bullets bear out the stories of the soldiers?
Like Watson, however, Pryor had been handicapped. The blood-soaked clothes had been dispatched to him in bags. ‘The clothing was in such a condition when I received it,’ said Pryor, ‘that accurate determination of which was an entry site and which an exit site was very difficult.’ What Pryor could say, from powder marks found on Farrell’s jacket and Savage’s shirt, was that a gun had been fired about three feet from Farrell’s back and about four feet to six feet from Savage’s chest. And of two bullets found in Savage’s head, one came from the gun of Soldier C and the other from that of Soldier D. Watson’s evidence, however, proved in the end to be more important than Pryor’s, and taken together with ‘strike marks’ – impressions left by bullets – in the ground it casts a good deal of doubt on the soldiers’ stories.
The first body Watson examined was Mairead Farrell’s. Farrell had three entry wounds in the back and three exit wounds in the chest. The back wounds were all within about two-and-a-half inches of each other – a cluster – and neater and smaller than the chest wounds, which were higher in the body. The five wounds to her face and neck were produced by two bullet tracks: one from the left cheek to the hairline below the left ear, producing an intermediate hole just below the left ear; one on the right neck beneath the chin to the left neck just above the collar line. The head wounds were superficial. Farrell had been killed by gunshot wounds to the heart and liver. Watson thought that Farrell must either have had ‘the entire body, or at least the upper part of the body, turned towards the shooter’ when she was shot in the face and had then been shot in the back as she was going down. Farrell’s height was only five feet one inch, said McGrory, so the upward trajectory of the bullets in her back would mean that the gunman would have to be kneeling, or Farrell would need to be close to the ground. Watson agreed.
‘Or on her face?’
McCann had two entry wounds to the back, again close together, and two exits in the chest. Again the trajectory was upward. He had a hole without an exit in the lower left jaw and extensive damage to the back left side of the brain caused by a bullet which appeared to have entered at the top left back of his head and exited in his left neck above the hairline. The hole in the jaw could have been a ricochet or a bullet which had first passed through Farrell. The bullets in the back and the back of the head would all have been lethal. Watson suggested that the wound in the jaw stunned him and the rest were fired at his back and head ‘when he was down or very far down’.
Savage was a mess. His twenty-nine wounds, said Watson, suggested ‘a frenzied attack’. He had seven wounds to the head, five to the back, one to each shoulder, five to the chest, three to the abdomen (‘and lying there in the depth of the navel itself was a piece of grey distorted metal presumed to be a bullet’), two to the left thigh, two to the right arm, one superficial to the left arm and two to the left hand. Watson recorded the cause of death as fractures of the skull and cerebral lacerations, with a contribution from gunshot wounds to the lungs. He thought sixteen or eighteen bullets had struck Savage, which is at least one more than Soldier C and Soldier D said they fired. He said that of the seven head wounds, five were probably entries. ‘But bullets, with respect, are extremely difficult . . . a bullet does not simply do what you imagine.’ The exits and entries to the chest and back were difficult to establish with certainty.
At first sight, Watson’s evidence seems to support two civilian witnesses – Mrs Carmen Proetta and Mrs Josie Celecia – in their earlier statements to the press and television that Farrell and McCann were shot from close range as they lay on the ground. That could account for the clusters in the back, the powder marks on Farrell’s jacket and the upward trajectory of bullets fired by a gunman standing nearer to their feet. What this supposition overlooks, however, is that all the evidence, including Celecia’s pictures, suggest that Farrell and McCann fell backwards, face up.
The wounds to Farrell’s face and neck, on the other hand, do support evidence in court from several civilian witnesses that one or more of the gunmen fired from the road rather than the pavement, where Soldiers A and B claimed they stood. She seems to have turned back and to the left – a bullet tearing through the left side of her face from cheek to neck – from her position at the edge of the pavement. In which case the bag on her left shoulder, which contained the notional detonating device, could hardly have been hidden from the gunman’s view.
In Savage’s case the contradictions are quite impossible to reconcile. Soldier C thought he hit him twice in the head, accidentally, as he fell through the soldier’s arc of fire. Soldier D said he fired twice at his head as Savage was close to the ground. Sure enough, a bullet from each gun was found in his skull, and the other two bullets could have gone clean through. But the Gibraltar police, in an unusual moment of efficiency, had circled four strike marks within the chalk outline of Savage’s head. Watson saw a photograph of these strike marks for the first time when McGrory showed it to him in court. Did it look as though those bullets were fired into his head as he lay there?
‘Yes, that would be reasonable.’
This is not the only problem with the death of Savage. Savage died in a busy area – 6 March was Gibraltar’s first fine Sunday of the spring, with families strolling in and out of town through the Landport Tunnel. Soldiers C and D themselves estimated there were about thirty people in the vicinity. Yet the coroner’s office could find only three civilian witnesses to Savage’s death, two of whom had been found originally by Thames Television. The picture of the shooting that emerges from them, and from the four MI5 watchers who were also close by, has some extraordinary gaps.
Kenneth Asquez, a twenty-year-old bank clerk, alleged last April that he saw a man with his foot on Savage’s chest, firing into him at point-blank range two or three times. Asquez made the claim in two statements, one handwritten and another made before a lawyer, which he refused to sign because, he said, he wanted to protect his identity. Thames Television used seventy-two words from his statements. But at the inquest Asquez – a surprise witness, given his previous anonymity – said he had invented his account under ‘pressure’ and ‘offers of money’, the first unspecified and the second unquantified (he received none, in any case). Sir Joshua Hassan, the colony’s most distinguished lawyer and former chief minister, represented him in court. Asquez said he was ‘confused’ about which parts of his statements were true and which parts he’d made up. The coroner said that, retracted or not, his first account should still be considered by the jury.
Then there is Robyn Arthur Mordue. He was a British holidaymaker, walking towards Savage in Landport Lane when the shooting started and he was pushed to the ground by a woman on a bicycle (herself pushed by a third party). He saw Savage fall at the same time. The shots stopped for a time, and then resumed as Mordue struggled to his feet; as he ran for cover behind a car, he looked back to see a man standing over Savage and pointing down with a gun. Mordue was a confused (and perhaps frightened) witness; coroner and counsel examined him ten times before he was released from his oath. He may also have been a confused and frightened witness before he arrived in Gibraltar: in the weeks before the inquest, he received a number of threatening phone calls (‘Bastard . . . stay away’). His telephone number is ex-directory.
Diana Treacy, another Gibraltar bank employee, told the court she saw two men running towards her, the second with a gun. After she was passed by the first man, who turned out to be Savage, the gunman opened fire, about six feet in front of her. While Savage was on the ground, she saw the gunman fire another three, four or five shots into him. Professional observers close by managed to see even less.
Watcher J, the woman surveillance officer from MI5, followed Savage round the corner and turned away when he spun round, to avoid eye contact. She neither saw the shooting nor heard any of the fifteen to eighteen shots fired. Yet she was only fifteen feet away.
‘Is that not’, McGrory asked her during the inquest, ‘a very remarkable thing?’
‘It may be, sir, but I did not hear them.’
Watcher H, the surveillance officer who accompanied Soldiers C and D, saw Savage spin round with ‘an expression of amazement, a quite intense expression’. Then Watcher H too turned away and ran back down the road to warn people to take cover. He saw none of the shooting. When he looked back he saw that Savage was on the ground and that Soldier C and Soldier D had ‘stood back’ to the right of the lane.
Watcher I said he heard gunfire in the lane and walked a few paces to have a look. He saw ‘one or two shots being fired, by which time the terrorist Savage was on the ground.’ He left the scene immediately.
Watcher L, another woman from MI5, heard gunfire from the lane and ‘got to the ground, a natural reaction’.
The woman on the bicycle and the man (possibly a watcher) who pushed her were never identified. Neither was the woman whom Soldier D pushed with his left hand. The only complete account of Savage’s death comes from the people who say they killed him.
Commissioner Canepa contended that there was no predetermined point of arrest: that everyone happened to arrive on the scene just before the shooting started. Diagram Two illustrates just how many people happened to turn up – at least of those we know. Policeman P, Policeman Q and Policeman R are all members of the Gibraltar police force, armed with .38 Smith and Wesson revolvers. They just happened to form a circle around the scene of the shooting. Policeman P hitched a lift from a foreign-registered Mercedes, and Policemen Q and R rode by their motorbikes. There were others. Watcher K of MI5 had been hiding behind the hedge for some time. There was also Detective Constable Charles Huart, who, after his fruitless day’s work examining passports at the border, having failed to identify Savage (and later Farrell and McCann), happened more or less by accident to show up. There was also a police car that parked opposite the petrol station, from which four men came, crossing the barrier which divides the two carriageways; they are Inspector Joseph Revagliatte, Sergeant Emilio Acris, PC Ian Howes and the police car’s driver, PC Clive Borrell.
All four policemen told the inquest that, like the vast majority of Gibraltar’s police, they knew nothing of Operation Flavius. Their presence at the shootings was fortuitous, they said. And yet the inquest also heard the theory that they had caused, or at least prompted, the shootings to begin. Theirs is the story of the accidental siren that Carmen Proetta and Stephen Bullock heard.
According to Inspector Revagliatte, he and his men were making a routine patrol of the colony when at 3.41 p.m. they got a call to return urgently to the central police station. The car was stuck in traffic, and, as the call was urgent, the driver switched on the siren. Just past the Shell station, Revagliatte heard ‘what appeared to be shots’, turned and saw two bodies on the pavement. He radioed the police station, and the operator logged the call there at 3.42 p.m.: ‘Control, we have firing incident at Shell petrol station.’
The police car went swiftly round the roundabout and then headed back towards the Shell station. During this short journey – thirty seconds at most – Revagliatte told his men to divert traffic from the scene of the shooting. Before they were dispersed, however, all four went over or around the central barrier and towards the bodies. Given that all four were unarmed and had just seen two people gunned down by unknown assailants, their behaviour was certainly both prompt and gallant.
For Mr Hucker, counsel for the soldiers, Revagliatte’s testimony was a splendid instrument, accommodating some of the most stubborn and awkward evidence of the inquest. First, why is there only one uniformed policeman in Douglas Celecia’s photographs? Because the others have gone off to do their traffic duties. Second, why did McCann suddenly glance backwards in the suspicious or frightened way that resulted in him being shot? Because he and Farrell were panicked by the siren. And finally and most importantly, why did Carmen Proetta believe that she saw armed men attack McCann and Farrell from over the barrier? Because what she saw, and got muddled by, was a group of uniformed, unarmed policemen jump over the barrier some seconds after Soldiers A and B shot Farrell and McCann from the footpath.
Again and again, the counsel for the SAS allowed Revagliatte to demonstrate how his involvement in the killings was accidental:
Hucker: Inspector, I am going to ask you some questions on behalf of Soldiers A to G. The first matter is what your knowledge was of the operation to arrest the terrorists on 6 March. When you came on shift at three o’clock or thereabouts, did you know anything about that operation at all?
Revagliatte: Nothing at all.
Hucker: You thought that life in Gibraltar was totally normal, that what was happening between you and the border was the same as happened any other day of the week?
In November, eight weeks after Inspector Revagliatte gave this evidence, a startling fact emerged. His name appears on the secret operational order prepared by police Commissioner Canepa for Operation Flavius that was read by certain unnamed police officers at the midnight briefing between 5 and 6 March. The order assigns him a vital role – officer in charge of the two police firearms teams. Each team consisted of three armed policemen, and one consisted of the witnesses known as Policemen P, Q and R, the same policemen who happened to form a circle round the scene of the shooting. Had this fact been disclosed to the court, the jury would would have been asked to conclude:
- That while Policemen P, Q and R had attended the midnight briefing, their commanding officer for the operation, Revagliatte, had not.
- That while Policemen P, Q and R knew their role on 6 March, their commanding officer, Revagliatte, did not.
- That though Revagliatte and Policemen P, Q and R appeared at the scene of the killings almost simultaneously, this was pure coincidence.
The British government may, of course, supply a simple explanation. But as I write, two weeks after the question was first raised in the Irish parliament, it has so far neglected to comment.
So what are we now to believe? If Revagliatte was knowingly involved, the official version of what happened in Winston Churchill Avenue needs to be completely re-examined. We fall back on what his testimony tended to destroy – the stubborn and awkward evidence of the civilian witnesses who first appeared on Thames Television. Carmen Proetta said at the inquest more or less what she said on television: that from her kitchen window she saw a car pull up and one uniformed policeman and three men in plain clothes get out and jump over the barrier; that at least two of the men in plain clothes appeared to have guns; that two people (McCann and Farrell), on the pavement near the Shell station, looked round and raised their hands to about head level; that one shot dropped the girl to the ground; that the man moved as if to shield or help her; that then he too went down in ‘a fusillade of shots’. Behind McCann and Farrell, she also saw a fifth man with what looked like a gun; then a man with fairish hair crouched over the bodies with his hands clasped together at waist level, seemingly pointing a gun. She heard more shots. (Josie Celecia, whose husband took the photographs, made a similar observation in court: that she too saw a man standing over the bodies with his hands clasped together, his arms outstretched, pointing downwards, and that she heard bangs – bangs which the soldiers’ counsel suggested came from the shooting of Savage.) Proetta then saw a second car draw up, this time on the same side of the road as the petrol station, and men in plain clothes got out and started arguing and ‘gesticulating’ at the fairish man, who was pulled into the second car by someone in a dark jacket and driven away.
It is worth recalling Stephen Bullock, the English lawyer strolling with his wife and child. He saw a police car stuck in traffic next to him on Smith Dorrien Avenue. He thought its siren sounded at the same time as shooting started. When he looked in the direction of the Shell station he saw a gunman firing rapidly from the edge of the road at another man, three or four feet away on the pavement, who was falling backwards with his hands raised above shoulder height. Something which looked like a heap of clothes was already on the ground.
The siren, however, may not have been a mistake. Perhaps it formed some part of the arrest plan. Shortly before the shooting started a man with a pistol stuck down his jeans pushed past Bullock, saying, ‘Excuse me’, and then went on to meet a man similarly dressed and also armed, who was standing near the corner. The men looked at the shooting at the Shell station, and then ran off towards Landport Lane. They were probably Soldiers C and D. Bullock remembers that the man who pushed past looked back at the police car. ‘He seemed to have some sort of interest in what the police car was doing.’
And what was that car doing?
Soldiers A and B said that they approached McCann and Farrell from behind by walking briskly along the pavement after them. They have always insisted that they were still on the pavement, side by side, when they opened fire and stayed there throughout the shooting. But if we add the accounts of these eye-witnesses to the forensic evidence – the little, that is, that survives – then at least the opening rounds came from gunmen firing from the road, not the pavement. This small difference poses large questions. Could gunmen have arrived by car? Where did Policemen P, Q and R come from? Were they not, perhaps, in the positions that they told the court? Somebody began shooting from the road not the pavement, and if, as the forensic evidence suggests, Farrell had turned to face them, then there would have been no mystery about the movements of her hand: she would have been clearly in view of the gunmen.
On the morning of 30 September the coroner summed up the evidence to the members of the jury and urged them to avoid the ambiguity of an open verdict. They should decide whether Savage, Farrell and McCann had been killed lawfully, ‘that is justifiable, reasonable homicide’, or unlawfully, ‘that is unlawful homicide’. If they were to conclude that any of the three – though only Savage was mentioned by name – had been shot on the ground simply to ‘finish them off’, then that would be murder.
The jury left the court at 11.30 a.m. to consider its verdict and reappeared again at 5.20 p.m. to say it had been unable to agree a decision. The coroner then told the members of the jury that they were ‘reaching the edge’ of a reasonable time to produce one, and said he would expect to see them again at 7 p.m. To some observers in the court, this sounded like a deadline. At 7.15 p.m. the jury returned again, and the foreman rose to say it had reached a verdict of lawful killing by a majority of nine to two, the smallest majority allowed.
This was hardly a vote of confidence in the behaviour of the British army on 6 March. None the less jubilation erupted in London among members and supporters of the British government. The reaction of Mr Jerry Hayes, Conservative Member of Parliament for Harlow and secretary of his party’s back bench committee on Northern Ireland, was typical. ‘This is wonderful news for those brave young men in the SAS who daily put their lives at risk to protect our democracy,’ he told the Daily Telegraph. After all: ‘What greater inquiry could one have than an independent inquest in an independent colony?’
That was two months ago now. Today in England another inquiry still continues – the inquiry into how Thames Television came to make its documentary, ‘Death on the Rock’. The television company itself instigated this inquiry to appease the government; there was talk that the government might deprive the company of its broadcasting franchise. Already it has lasted twice as long as the inquest itself and its two investigators – Lord Windlesham and Mr Richard Rampton – are still taking evidence. Rampton is a barrister, a Queen’s Counsel. Windlesham is a Conservative peer, a former government minister in Northern Ireland and the author of a book entitled Broadcasting in a Free Society: they have been charged to discover if the programme was ‘responsible’ and if it ‘performed a public service by contributing information and insight on a controversial matter of public concern’.
What really happened in Gibraltar on 6 March? Many of us who gathered under the Levanter cloud still wonder. Everyone had theories which to a greater or lesser extent conflicted with the story in court. Here is mine.
Nothing in the IRA’s history suggests an overwhelming fear of killing innocent civilians, neither are its members suicidal martyrs in the Japanese or Islamic Fundamentalist tradition. The British expected a timed bomb to be driven in and set on Monday evening, and possibly even a blocking-car or some last-minute reconnaissance the day before. A reconnaissance would need at the most two people. To find all three in town on Sunday was a complete surprise, but, as in the old Chinese maxim, no military plan survives contact with the enemy. Over weeks or months the British had devised a plan for a move at the last moment, to catch bombers and their bomb together. The surveillance by this stage would need to be extremely thorough, but then, with the bomb already in Gibraltar and an arrest minutes away, the consequences of watchers being spotted by the bombers would hardly matter. They might make a run for the border and be cut off as they crossed the runway. But could anyone have expected to watch all three on the Sunday, watch them return to Spain, await their re-arrival on Monday? Operation Flavius does not seem to have prepared for that contingency; three bombers and no bomb is amateur behaviour. But how could the man who ran the operation trust that it would still work on the intended day? The bombers looked very ‘surveillance-aware’. Perhaps they’d discovered they were being watched; perhaps they would abort the mission. An enormous effort, which had received the highest government sanction, would be thrown away. Whether the British believed the Renault contained a bomb or not, the three would have to be arrested in whatever meaning of the word. But if there was no bomb in Gibraltar, evidence for a trial would be thin.
So what really did happen in Gibraltar on 6 March? A case of mistaken belief? An operation that went wrong? A carefully created opportunity that was too good to miss? Today in Scotland, a new chant rises from the terraces of Glasgow Rangers football club: ‘SAS, bang-bang-bang, SAS, bang-bang-bang.’
The gun on the ground is a .38 Smith and Wesson, the gun of the Gibraltar police, and not a 9mm Browning, the gun of the SAS soldier.
Photographs © Robert Frerck, Tim Bishop, Douglas Celecia; maps and diagrams by Peter Covill