"Death on the Rock": 21 years later and still the official version lives on

Looking back on the shooting of three IRA members by an SAS squad on the streets of Gibraltar

Many of us have recently been re-living a key event of 1989, with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I remember it clearly, but an event in the previous year, 1988, is etched even more sharply in my mind: the shooting of three IRA members by an SAS squad on the streets of Gibraltar.  As Director of Programmes at Thames Television at the time, I had approved the making of a documentary about the killings by the This Week team: “Death on the Rock”. It was a serious investigation that challenged the official version of events and quite an argument ensued. 

Last month, Christopher Andrew, Professor of History at Cambridge and a leading expert on intelligence services, published “The Defence of the Realm”, a massive official history of MI5.  A number of his enthusiastic reviewers suggested he had shed new light on the Gibraltar affair.  I decided to check. 

To my surprise, and disappointment, I found that, not only had he almost nothing to add to what was already well-known, but he clung tenaciously to the official version of events.  Indeed, he avoided any mention of the SAS by name – preferring the term “military team” – on the grounds of official secrecy: given that the SAS was referred to repeatedly in the public inquest into the deaths this does seem an excessive slamming of the stable door. 

Even more puzzling were his references to “Thames Television’s World in Action team” when ‘World in Action’ was in fact This Week’s friendly rival from the Granada stable.  Nowhere in the voluminous media coverage of the Gibraltar affair is World in Action ever mentioned, whereas of course This Week is mentioned hundreds of times.  Yet Professor Andrew names World in Action twice and This Week not at all. Perhaps Professor Andrew is not quite as reliable in the rest of his 851-page book as his reviewers would have us believe.

What actually happened in Gibraltar in 1988?  For at least five months, British intelligence had been aware of an IRA plot to bomb an Army parade ground in the heart of Gibraltar, where a regular parade took place on Tuesdays.  British and Spanish intelligence, working closely together, tracked the bombers as they travelled back and forth between Northern Ireland, Spain and Gibraltar.  Their phones were tapped, their false identities were well known and their movements were followed in minute detail.  Operation Flavius was designed to catch them in flagrante.

The parade area was being renovated and the bombing was delayed for some weeks.  The female member of the IRA unit, Siobhan O’Hanlon, was replaced by Mairead Farrell barely a fortnight before the attack was finally due to take place, on Tuesday March 8th.  By then a huge force, 250-strong, was in place to intercept the bombers: comprised of Gibraltar police, MI5 officers and an SAS team who were designated to seize or kill Farrell and her two collaborators, Danny McCann – a notorious gunman – and Sean Savage – a top IRA bomb-maker. 

On the morning of Sunday, March 6th, Savage drove a white Renault across the border from Spain to grab a parking space close to where the Tuesday parade was due to finish.  He waited nearby until his two colleagues – who had crossed from Spain by foot – joined him, and then they headed back towards the border. Savage separated from the other two after they had walked more than a mile from the parked Renault, over hilly terrain.

As they parted, a police siren sounded.  SAS soldiers leaped from cars waiting opposite a Shell petrol station, and vaulted the road’s central barrier.  Two of them shot Farrell and McCann repeatedly, killing them instantly, and two others chased after Savage, cutting him down with a fusillade of at least 16 shots.

Initial reports – clearly based on official briefings – referred to the IRA unit being challenged before being shot, and to an enormous car bomb: 500 pounds of explosives.  A government minister talked of a car bomb having been found and defused.  It was only on the Monday afternoon that the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, announced that the IRA team had been unarmed and that there was no car bomb.  The real car bomb – which would have displaced the Renault on the morning of March 8th – was later found in a Spanish car park.

For the government, there were two problems: why were unarmed combatants shot, and why did they presume the Renault was car bomb when it wasn’t? The official version, which Andrew follows faithfully, is that Spanish intelligence did not track the bombers on the way to Gibraltar; that by the time Savage was recognized, there was only time for a cursory inspection of the parked car; that this persuaded those running the operation that it contained a bomb; that MI5 and the Army were convinced it might be detonated remotely – a “button job”; that the police car siren had been accidentally activated; that the SAS soldiers perceived “threatening movements” when they challenged the bombers; and that they could not then stop shooting till all danger of a “button” being pressed by wounded or dying terrorists had been eliminated.

Researchers from This Week flew out to Spain and Gibraltar.  They were told explicitly by the Spanish authorities, on the record, that the bombers had been followed right up to the border, with Spanish intelligence in constant touch with MI5.  Four witnesses were interviewed by This Week: of those who could have heard challenges or seen threatening movements, none did, whilst at least one interviewee thought that Farrell and McCann were trying to surrender when they were shot.

Another witness, never directly in contact with This Week, supplied a written account of one soldier standing with his foot on Savage’s chest whilst firing.  Although he later tried to withdraw his account, the inquest coroner insisted that his statement be considered by the jury, as it chimed so closely with a pathologist’s evidence that the attack on Savage had been frenzied and at very close range, with bullets bouncing off the ground.

The only support at the inquest for the British claim that Spanish intelligence did not follow the IRA unit to the border came in an unsigned statement in English (a language he did not speak) from a junior Spanish officer, who subsequently repudiated it.

The Spanish intelligence failure was the weakest element in the official story alongside the “button” theory. There would have been justifiable grounds for criticism if Savage had been deliberately allowed to drive the Renault to its parking place and it had actually contained a bomb.  However, even if the 70-strong surveillance team only spotted it when he parked, they had ample opportunity to secure the location and prevent any casualties, after the bombers had walked away from the scene.  Yet there was no attempt to cordon off the area until twenty minutes after the shootings.

The “button” theory relies upon one officer’s “hurried inspection” of the Renault (Andrew’s words).  But the Sunday Times subsequently reported that two other, more junior, officers were convinced there was no bomb in the car: it sat too high on its rear axle for any significant weight to be in it – apparently their judgement was over-ruled. 

Remote detonation would anyway have required a sophisticated aerial: yet the Renault’s was the cheapest possible, and there had never been an instance of the IRA triggering a car bomb other than with a timer or by remote control whilst in line of sight.   Even if the SAS soldiers were utterly convinced of the “button” theory – as they swore at the inquest – the would-be bombers were too distant from the car to detonate it remotely.

The soldiers could not explain why targets with no weapons and no bomb to detonate would make “threatening” movements.  Nor could they explain why Savage – the bomb-maker and so the likeliest to have a “button” – had failed to trigger the supposed bomb whilst he was being chased, after his colleagues had been shot.

As control of the operation was passed back and forth between the Gibraltar police and MI5, the police siren was sounded that immediately preceded the shootings.  The police inspector who claimed responsibility – and insisted he had nothing to do with the massive security operation – later turned out to have been the officer in charge of three of the policemen deeply engaged in Operation Flavius

Similarly, the only independent witness who claimed to have heard warnings from the SAS soldiers turned out to be an off-duty police officer whose police officer brother was also closely involved in the operation.

Andrews mention none of this, which is established and on the record.

Instead, Andrew argues that at the HQ of Operation Flavius there was surprise when news of the shootings came through, because press releases announcing arrests had been prepared.  This strikes me as disingenuous.  Who sends in the SAS to carry out arrests?  In any case, if the “button” scenario was genuinely believed, it was inevitable that Farrell, McCann and Savage would be shot dead, whether or not they made “threatening” movements, and whether or not they tried to surrender.  The case of Jean Charles de Menezes is a reminder: where a bomb might be detonated by a “button”, armed police will keep shooting till no risk remains.

The official version survived the inquest, though only a bare majority of jurors supported the verdict of lawful homicide.  But This Week, which had been bitterly attacked by ministers, the Ministry of Defence and much of Fleet Street for “Death on the Rock”, found itself under renewed assault when the anonymous witness who had seen Savage being shot repeatedly at close range claimed at the inquest that he had been pressured by This Week to make his statement (a claim he later withdrew, and for which there was not a shred of evidence).

Thames Television set up a special inquiry, led by a former cabinet minister, Lord Windlesham, and a leading QC, Richard Rampton.  They overwhelmingly vindicated “Death on the Rock” – not that you would gather this from Andrew, who chose instead to quote, out of context, one tiny phrase of criticism from page 107 of their extensive report: a shameful selectivity from any historian, let alone a Cambridge professor.

“Death on the Rock” won two major awards as best documentary of 1988, but Thames was to become a victim of a new method of awarding ITV franchises in 1991.  The common wisdom is that there was a connection between the programme and the franchise loss.  There is no doubt that the new system – foolish and deliberately destructive – was vindictively brought in by the Thatcher government to punish ITV for its supposed excesses and errors.  However, there is equally no doubt that Thames could have retained its franchise if it had not misjudged its bidding tactics in the franchise auction.

I leave to others to judge the worth of the rest of “The Defence of the Realm”.  However, based on the six pages on Gibraltar, my confidence in the favourable reviews is not high.  Few will have sympathy for the IRA bombers cut down before they could execute a horrible atrocity.  But the implausible and self-contradictory account offered by officials in 1988 surely deserves a more sceptical retrospective view 21 years after the event than Andrew offers: a wasted opportunity.

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. He is a director of Kingsbridge Capital Advisors, and a supervisory board member of two German cable companies.