Ireland secretly reassured Britain it would not go to European Court over Gibraltar killings

State Papers show Fianna Fáil government had misgivings about inquest’s limited mandate

The Irish government secretly reassured the British government in 1988 it would not take a case to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the outcome of an inquest into the shooting dead of three IRA members in Gibraltar that year.

However, when then Northern secretary Tom King heard taoiseach Charles Haughey intended to call for a judicial inquiry into the verdict, he warned if Haughey wanted to encounter difficulties in his relationship with prime minister Margaret Thatcher "Gibraltar was the area where this was most likely to happen".

In a meeting with a senior Irish official, King argued the inquest had been properly conducted, reached its verdict and that closed the matter. He said the events disclosed a “cock-up” by soldiers rather than a “conspiracy”, adding if the taoiseach called for an inquiry it would create “great difficulties”.

Newly-released records from the Department of An Taoiseach show the Fianna Fáil government had misgivings about the inquest’s limited mandate, particularly in terms of ascertaining how the three unarmed IRA members were shot dead by SAS soldiers.


However, those concerns did not extend to taking a case to Strasbourg.

The IRA active service unit of Seán Savage (24), Mairéad Farrell (31) and Daniel McCann (30) had arrived in Spain in March 1988 using false passports and had carried out reconnaissance of the tiny British protectorate with the intention of detonating a 62.5 kg Semtex bomb during a weekly parade of 60 soldiers.

An undercover SAS unit shot the three dead on March 6th as they walked away from a car they had parked in the area. Soldiers later testified they believed that the republicans were about to detonate a remote-controlled bomb and that the three IRA personnel were armed.

However, the car contained no explosives – the car containing the Semtex was later found near Malaga – and the three IRA members were unarmed.

One eyewitness said after the shooting he saw one of the three being shot as he lay on the ground but he retracted his evidence at the inquest. There were accusations this was part of a hidden shoot-to-kill policy being pursued by Thatcher’s government against the IRA.

The parents of the three IRA members wrote to Haughey in May requesting a personal meeting with him to discuss the Irish government’s intentions in the aftermath of the killings.

A memo from a senior official in the taoiseach’s department advised against a meeting: “I do not believe that a meeting at this time would achieve very much”.

A hand-written note on the memo records that no "No reply is needed at this stage. Dermot Gallagher [then assistant secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs] is arranging for an official to call on the families".

Nonchalant attitude

After the inquest returned a verdict of “lawful killing”, Irish and British officials engaged in frequent contact on the outcome and its implications.

The British ambassador in Dublin Nicholas Fenn met with Noel Dorr, the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, in October and showed him a statement from a Spanish police officer that showed the force had lost track of the three in Spain. This countered the argument, said Fenn, that the three suspects were traced all the way to the border with Gibraltar and could have been picked up by police.

Dorr pointed out to Fenn a contradiction in the account of the SAS unit.

“Many people saw a problem about reconciling the behaviour of the SAS who shot the three in the apparent belief that they could set off a bomb at any minute with the rather nonchalant attitude in relation to clearing people away from the area around the supposed bomb itself.

“Fenn acknowledged this point but said that, having seen the same intelligence himself, as was available to the SAS, he could confirm that they did believe there was a bomb that could be detonated.”

Dorr went on to say Haughey would probably feel it necessary to issue a statement after reading the account of the Irish government’s official observer Donagh McDonagh.

He said the fairness and merit of the inquest would be acknowledged but its limitations also pointed out. “The statement would, therefore, probably call for a public inquiry.”

Fenn replied that such a call would be “unlikely to prosper” and would not be well received in London. He also argued that it could not be said there was any “cover-up”.

Dorr added the “question of action by the Government to take a case to Strasbourg would not arise” despite “considerable political pressure on this issue”.

On the same day, another senior diplomat Seán Ó hUiginn met with King in Belfast to tell him Haughey would call for a judicial inquiry.

Excellent impression

The coded telex from Ó hUiginn in Belfast stated: “Mr King said that if the Taoiseach wanted to encounter difficulty with Mrs Thatcher, Gibraltar was the area where this was most likely to happen.

“The inquest had been full and open . . . The soldiers had not only attended but clearly their demeanour had made an excellent impression on the jury. The evidence had shown that it was a ‘cock-up’ rather than a conspiracy”.

Ó hUiginn reassured King that there was no intention of taking the case to Strasbourg despite calls to do so, but said Haughey “could not altogether ignore the calls made by the opposition spokesmen for a judicial inquiry”.

He added: “Mr King’s general attitude was to advise us in a friendly way to be very wary of the issue which was extremely sensitive in British political terms . . . There was a danger that the wrong kind of statement could be interpreted . . . as reflecting a sympathy for people undoubtedly engaged in terrorism”.

In the event, the families of the three IRA members took a case to the human rights court in Strasbourg, which in 1995 found against the British government.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times