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9 March 2006 Edition

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Remembering the Past


Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Seán Savage

Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Seán Savage

Death on Gibraltar

On the 6 March 1988, three unarmed Irish citizens were shot dead at close range by undercover operatives of the notorious British SAS, as they walked along a public street on the island of Gibraltar. This summary execution of three IRA Volunteers spawned a series of tragic incidents, the reverberations of which continued long after the event.

The three Volunteers- Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Seán Savage were unarmed and had been under surveillance for some time by both the British secret services and Spanish. It is clear from all the evidence that they were lulled into a carefully-laid trap with the aim of killing them.

Mairéad Farrell was born in Belfast in 1957. She was a brilliant student who excelled at her exams. But she had already thought deeply on her future and at the age of 18 she joined the Irish Republcan Army.

It wasn't long before Farrell was imprisoned at Armagh Jail. She went on to become Officer Commanding sentenced republican women prisoners. On 1 December 1980 Mairéad Farrell, Mary Doyle and Mary Nugent went on Hunger Strike, alongside their fellow prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. It was while in the hospital wing on the night of 18 December that Farrell and her comrades first heard that the Hunger Strike in the H-Blocks was over. Only after confirmation from their O/C on 19 December, Mairéad Farrell and her comrades decided to call off their Hunger Strike.

Dan McCann was born on 30 November 1957. He was first imprisoned in 1973 and on three subsequent occasions. From 1979 to 1981 he was in prison 'on the blanket' during the campaign for political status. He was the target of British Army death threats and an assassination attempt by unionist paramilitaries.

Seán Savage was born on the 26 January 1965. A dedicated IRA volunteer he was known for his solitary nature. He was studying for his A levels when imprisoned on remand in 1982 on the word of an informer who subsequently retracted. He joined Oglaigh na hÉireann at the age of 17.

The killings on Gibraltar were immediately followed by a massive cover-up, with lies from the British Ministry of Defence falsely stating that a suspected bomb had been found in Gibraltar. The SAS claimed that all three reached for hidden detonators when challenged to surrender and that only minimum force had been used. However, the wounds received by the three spoke for themselves. Mairéad Farrell was shot five times, twice in the head, three times in the body. The bullets to the head were fired into her face and exited under her left ear and at the back of her neck. The three bullets that were fired into the middle of her back exited in the region of her left breast. Her heart and liver were pulped, her spinal column fractured and her chest cavity was awash with two litres of blood. Dan McCann was shot four times, twice in the head and twice in the back. The two shots to his back caused damage to his liver, heart and left lung. The two shots to his head caused multiple fractures, laceration of the left cerebral hemisphere and extensive brain damage.

Seán Savage was shot at least 16 times. He suffered 29 separate injuries. His arm was broken and he had various wounds on his torso. Five bullets entered his back and his lung was severely damaged. Four bullets entered his head and he had multiple damage to the brain and skull.

Following the killing, a process of disinformation and demonisation began with British tabloids attempting to discredit an independent witnesse to the shootings, Carmen Proetta. Of all the civilian eyewitnesses to the Gibraltar assassinations, Proetta's evidence was some of the most damning for the British government and the SAS.

Proetta said she had seen McCann and Farrell shot without warning with their hands in the air. As soon as her evidence became publicly known, she was subjected to a campaign of threats and a barrage of media lies. The pressure on her was so enormous, that despite being one of the most strongly determined of the witnesses to speak out, she told the inquest: "Let me tell you one thing, sir, if this had happened again I would not be here to give evidence."

For no other reason than that she had inconvenient testimony, the press, particularly the Murdoch-owned press, viciously attacked her. The Sunday Times launched a series of articles purporting to show that her story was untrue and saying that other witnesses had called her testimony ridiculous. This, like virtually every word published by The Sunday Times about Gibraltar, was a pack of lies.

On the 27 September 1995, the European Court of Human Rights found the British government guilty of violating the right to life of Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Seán Savage. The long legal battle waged by the families of the Gibraltar Three, which began on that fateful Sunday afternoon, culminated in a judgment delivered seven years later. It was the first time the Court had found a violation of Article 2 of the Convention. The British government cannot escape, said the Belfast-based Committee for the Administration of Justice, "the fact that the oldest human rights court in the world has found the state shot to death three unarmed people at a time when they posed no threat to anyone.''

For eight days, the bodies of three unarmed IRA Volunteers, Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann and Seán Savage, shot dead by the British SAS, lay in Gibraltar until their fateful journey home.

Next week: The Gibraltar Three funerals

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