Republican News · Thursday 14 August 2003

[An Phoblacht]

Bringing them home

The PJ McGrory Lecture


"I've spent 15 years trying not to do this. I believed in my head that if you didn't talk about it, you wouldn't think about it. Of course, that's not true." - Joe Austin on his journey to bring back the bodies of the Gibraltar Three
This year marked the 15th year of the West Belfast Festival and the 15th year of the tragic train of events which provided the inspiration for the community demonised and marginalised to assert its pride in its identity by instituting Féile an Phobail.

It began, of course, with the execution of Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann, all unarmed, by the SAS in Gibraltar and ended with the killing of two armed British Army corporals, David Howes and Derek Wood, by the IRA almost two weeks later after the men had driven into the funeral cortege of those killed by Michael Stone at Milltown Cemetery during the funeral of the three IRA volunteers. A total of nine people died during the period, with a further 68 wounded.

One of the small group of people instrumental in bringing the three volunteers home in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties was Sinn Féin's Joe Austin who, together with solicitor Barra McGrory, was a speaker at the annual PJ McGrory memorial lecture on Saturday.

Talking about the killing of Mairead, Sean and Dan, all of whom he know personally, particularly Sean and Dan, has never been easy for Joe Austin, and he clearly found this occasion emotionally difficult at times.

After an introduction by Robbie McVeigh in which McVeigh reminded the audience of the series of official lies which had accompanied the summary executions - talk of a gunfight with local police, of primed bombs, of warnings given and ignored, all untrue - Joe Austin spoke about the surreally difficult task he undertook, together with Mairead's brother, journeying to Gibraltar to bring the dead volunteers home to their families.

"I've spent 15 years trying not to do this," he said. "I believed in my head that if you didn't talk about it, you wouldn't think about it. Of course, that's not true."

He spent some time talking about Farrell, Savage and McCann as individuals because, as he said, "sometimes events can overtake the personalities in those events" and he wanted the community to remember the three as fully rounded people with unique characters, not only as people defined by the manner of their deaths.

"I think, like the Hunger Strikers, the people who died on the Rock, had they lived, would have been leaders in their communities, or this struggle, such was their importance, and I think the Brits had every reason to be frightened of them."

He recalled the confusion that surrounded the news that three "terrorists" had been shot dead in Gibraltar. It went through his mind that it was Palestinians and it was not until later that evening that the news began to filter through that the dead were members of the IRA.

Then began the task of bringing them home. Austin was given power of attorney, which meant that he could identify the bodies if the families were too distraught, and also it would offer him some protection from the inevitable harassment inflicted by the British authorities. But he added "no one person brought us home". The heroic efforts of many others, who had never sought acknowledgement or credit were also critically important.

The practical difficulties Austin and Farrell encountered were numerous and draining; trying to secure a funeral director in Gibraltar was one of the first. Not one undertaker on the Rock would openly offer any assistance.

Once the two had arrived in Malaga, Spain,, they drove to Gibraltar after escaping the press pack which awaited them. Once in the fanatically pro-British Gibraltar, the problems mounted. The airport staff, MoD civilians workers, would not handle the coffins, no airline would carry them and when the prospect of a charter flight became known, the airport staff said that they would not refuel the aircraft or load the coffins on to it. It was only the miraculous efforts of a Belfast travel agent which secured a plan.

Every step of the way, Austin and Farrell were obstructed. They were told, for example, that they could not go on to the naval base where the bodies were held without signing the Official Secrets Act. They refused but were eventually allowed on anyway.

In the teeth of all the petty cruelties and obstructions Austin remembers small, individuals acts of kindness which they were shown: the Spanish hotelier who offered them a room despite the risk of his hotel being attacked by drunken soldiers travelling across from the huge British garrison on the Rock; the Gibraltarian police officer who, forcibly, protected them from a particularly invasive photographer.

Like others who have gone through a trauma, Austin also recalls details which seem, of themselves, to be insignificant but which can assume symbolic importance and remain in the memory.

When they were taken in to see the bodies, he remembers that Dan "was on the floor, and he was wrapped in polythene. It was the polythene that you see on a building site". Sean was held in a morgue cabinet and in another room Mairead lay with a white sheet up to her chin. "She looked like she was sleeping," he said. "Her nose was swollen and I asked how her nose had been broken. I was told it was the impact of the fall when the gun shots hit her body."

As they left, walking along the long, dimly lit corridors of the naval base, dug deep into the mountainside, they were approached by the base Padre.

"His first words were; 'we didn't do this. These people came from London and murdered and they went back'. He asked for permission to say a prayer."

In his anger and grief just moments after seeing his sister lying dead, Farrell refused, but after a few minutes he acceded to the request. Similarly, a naval officer told the pair: "None of our people were involved in this.

They were outsiders."

Even in Spain, the harassment was fairly relentless. Farrell was arrested on a spurious charge at 4am and both men were thrown into a prison cell.

They were told to be prepared to appear in court the following day. When they duly arrived, they were greeted by a magistrate who apologised for the 'mistake' and released them. "You can work out what the arrest was about," Austin commented.

Still they faced the problem of airlifting out the bodies because of the MoD workers' obstruction. "At this stage we were frantic," recalled Joe.

"We were absolutely dependent on our people here to do what they had to do."

d those people came good. After a race against the clock that would not have looked out of place in a film, a plane was found. It landed and the coffins were loaded - despite the refusal of airport staff to load them and who spat and shouted abuse as the group passed by - with just minutes to spare.

Austin accompanied them alone. "All the seats had been removed from the plane except one; my seat. It took four hours to fly back. For four hours I sat talking to Sean, Mairead and Dan, and back I came."

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