By Irish political journalist JOHN COULTER
THE three unarmed Provisional IRA members shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar two decades ago were allegedly sacrificed to prevent a loyalist no-warning bombing campaign in the Republic, according to well-placed security sources.
Thursday, March 6th marks the 20th anniversary of three of the most controversial killings of the Troubles when IRA members Mairead Farrell, aged 31; Sean Savage, 23, and Danny McCann, 30, were reportedly ‘finished off’ by British undercover soldiers.
The British plan to trap the three Provos, known as Operation Flavius, had been implemented for some months when the trio was confronted along Winston Churchill Avenue on The Rock near the Spanish border in 1988.
It is believed a fourth member of the IRA team, a woman, escaped the SAS ambush, which occurred a matter of months after the SAS ambushed and killed eight members of the IRA’s feared East Tyrone brigade in the Armagh village of Loughgall in Northern Ireland.
The Gibraltar gang was believed to have been planning to bomb a British Army band playing at the ceremonial changing of the guard.
Even two decades later, the Rock killings spark controversy over allegations the IRA gang was surrendering when its members were shot dead.
Unlike Loughgall in May ’87, the March ’88 IRA team was unarmed and republicans have queried why the trio could not have been captured alive.
Savage was walking 100 yards behind Farrell and McCann when he was shot in the back as he attempted to run away and was shot again as he lay on the ground. Farrell was shot five times, McCann four.
At the time, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said of the IRA trio: ‘When challenged, they made movements which led the military personnel operating in support of the Gibraltar police to conclude that their own lives were under threat. In the light of this response, they were shot dead.’
But 20 years later, a full scale row has erupted in the Northern Assembly over Sinn Fein plans to commemorate Farrell under the guise of international women’s day.
This sparked a rival Democratic Unionist Party motion to commemorate the SAS.
Sinn Fein president and West Belfast MP Gerry Adams has suggested the British Prime Minister in ’88, Maggie Thatcher, knew of the plan to eliminate the Gibraltar Three.
However, there have also been allegations the Dublin administration gave the green light to the British plot to ‘take out’ the Provo gang.
A security source has claimed that Dublin feared a loyalist backlash against the Republic if the Gibraltar gang succeeded in bombing British targets abroad.
Unionists were already up in arms in ’88 over the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November ’85 at Hillsborough between Thatcher and then Taioseach Garret Fitzgerald.
The Protestant protest campaign against the agreement had seen loyalists flock to the ranks of death squads such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association as well as the more recently formed Ulster Resistance.
The security source said: ‘The last thing Dublin wanted then was for the loyalists to protest against the accord by bombing the South as they did in 1974 at Monaghan and in Dublin itself.
‘At that time, too, King Rat (Billy Wright) and the Jackal (Robin Jackson) were known to be active in the Mid Ulster UVF.
The Jackal was one of the key loyalist figures suspected of masterminding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
‘While London had the financial clout to soak up an intensive IRA bombing campaign either in Britain or in Northern Ireland, the Republic simply did not have the cash to pay for sustained loyalist bombings.
‘Dublin was also smart enough to realise that London, and especially the Thatcher Cabinet, had not forgiven the IRA for bombing the Tory party conference in Brighton in which five people died.
‘Dublin must have realised the operation against the Gibraltar IRA unit was a bit of ‘pay back’ from the British for Brighton and other bombings in Britain.
‘That’s why I firmly believe that Dublin conveniently looked the other way when the SAS decided to take out Farrell and her mates.
‘Given the slaughter of more than 30 people in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974, what’s three or four dead Provisionals?
‘The Dublin authorities certainly did not want a bunch of loyalists wrecking Southern Irish cities, towns and tourist spots.
‘Loyalists had calculated they could bring Dublin to its knees within a fortnight with a sustained no warning bombing campaign,’ said the security source.
The death of Mairead Farrell was the first of 13 killings in March 1988, making it one of the most blood thirsty months of the decade.
The Gibraltar killings of Farrell, Savage and McCann set in motion a chain of events which included the Milltown cemetery massacre in which three people died, and the ambush on two Army corporals in Belfast.
Just over a week after the Rock ambush, Belfast IRA man Kevin McCracken was shot by a soldier on March 14 in Turf Lodge.
The following day, a UDA death squad murdered Catholic father and trade unionist Charles McGrillen. Former UDA godfather Jim Craig was linked to the murder.
The next day, March 16, Catholic mechanic Kevin Mulligan died from injuries he received from a UDA death squad in July 1987. He had been shot with a shotgun in the stomach and back.
Later that day, March 16, Michael Stone launched his lone gun and grenade attack on mourners attending the funerals of the Gibraltar Three at Milltown.
Three men were killed, Thomas McErlean, John Murray and IRA man Caoimhin MacBradaigh.
Two days later, the IRA murdered Protestant chemist shop worker Gillian Johnston at Legg near the Fermanagh town of Belleek.
The killings continued the following day, March 19, when two Army corporals from the Royal Corps of Signals, were mistaken for SAS men when they drove into the funeral cortege for IRA man MacBradaigh in Belfast.
After being pulled from their car, Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes were taken to waste ground, stripped and shot dead.
The sequence of events was filmed by an Army surveillance helicopter and the film showed gory footage of the actual deaths of the soldiers as they were shot by IRA gunmen.
The death toll reached 13 when two days later, RUC officer Clive Graham was shot in the head by an IRA gunman at a vehicle checkpoint in the Creggan area of Derry.
As well as the 20th anniversary of the people named above, March 2008 also marks the 15th anniversary of two other brutal incidents during the Troubles.
In March 1993, two children – three-year-old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry – died when the IRA exploded bombs in litter bins in a crowded shopping precinct in Warrington near Liverpool.
Also that month, at Castlerock in Co Derry, the UDA shot dead four Catholic workmen – James McKenna, James Kelly, Noel Kane and Gerry Dalrymple.