The long journey home
Gibraltar, the tenth anniversary
by Laura Friel
Saturday 5 March: RUC attack funerals of IRA Volunteers
Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley, who were killed in a
premature explosion in South Armagh.
Sunday 6 March: British SAS execute IRA Volunteers
Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann in
Monday 14 March: British Army shoot dead IRA Volunteer
Kevin McCracken in Belfast, close to the Savage family
Tuesday 15 March: Loyalists shoot dead Charles
McGrillen, Belfast Catholic, in a sectarian attack.
Wednesday 16 March: Kevin Mulligan, Belfast Catholic,
dies of injuries sustained in sectarian loyalist gun
Wednesday 16 March: Loyalist gun and grenade attack
during funeral of Mairead, Sean and Dan, injures 60
mourners and kills three, Thomas McErlean from Divis,
John Murray from Ormeau Road and IRA Volunteer Caoimhin
Thursday 17 March: Funeral of IRA Volunteer Kevin
Saturday 19 March: Two undercover British soldiers
drive into funeral of IRA Volunteer Caoimhin
MacBradaigh; they are captured by mourners and later
executed by IRA.
As darkness fell, it was an unusual crowd which
gathered at the junction of Kennedy Way in West
Belfast. It was Monday 14 March 1988. Beneath a
smattering of rain, several hundred people quietly
stood as the evening traffic rush gradually dispersed.
Babies in prams were swaddled in blankets against the
winter chill. Parents and children stood side by side.
There was none of the familiar chatter, no wry comments
nor cynical quips, as if even this last line of defence
had been breached. Later the silence of that night
would be remembered as strange, almost eerie. For eight
days, the bodies of three unarmed IRA Volunteers,
Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage, shot dead
by the British SAS, had lain in Gibraltar. Now they
were heading home. It had already been an arduous
journey and it wasn't over yet.
It had been International Women's Day on that sunny
Sunday afternoon when Mairead, Sean and Dan had been
ruthlessly gunned down by a British assassination squad
specially flown into Gibraltar to execute the ambush.
For Mairead the date would have been significant. Back
in Belfast many of her comrades and friends gathered
outside Maghaberry jail to mark the day with a picket
calling for an end to strip searching. As a former
Republican prisoner, the annual Women's Day picket
would have been a familiar event for Mairead. ``Everyone
tells me I'm a feminist. I just know I'm me and that I
think I'm as good as anyone else,'' said Mairead in an
interview, ``I'm oppressed as a woman, but I'm also
oppressed because I'm Irish.''
On 9 March, Mairead's brother Terence and Sinn Fein's
Joe Austin had travelled to Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop
of British imperialism on the Spanish peninsula, to
formally identify the bodies and arrange their return.
All scheduled flights from Gibraltar go to London.
Airport staff at Gatwick indicated they might refuse to
unload the coffins. To avoid further distress and
delay, a plane was chartered to carry the remains
directly to Ireland. At Dublin airport, persistent rain
could not deter thousands of mourners who waited
patiently to pay their last respects. It was a scene
often repeated as the cortege travelled through towns
and villages before arriving at Dundalk. It was 10pm.
At the border control zone scores of RUC personnel,
clad in full riot gear and brandishing batons and
plastic bullet guns, barred the way.
In the mid `80's, the RUC began a wilful campaign of
disruption and obstruction during funerals of
Republicans. Mourners were ritually forced to run the
gauntlet of riot clad RUC squadrons who besieged the
home of grieving families. Massive military deployments
of the RUC and British army often outnumbered people
attending the funeral. In open provocation, beret and
gloves, traditionally carried on the coffin of a fallen
Volunteer, would be snatched. A Tricolour draping a
coffin would be torn aside. Pallbearers were jostled,
relatives jeered, mourners batoned. But the forthcoming
funeral of the three Volunteers killed in Gibraltar
posed a dilemma for the RUC. Their ability to impose
their will at Republican funerals had already been
dramatically undermined in the summer of 1987.
Following a three day war of attrition, thousands of
mourners attending the funeral of Larry Marley thwarted
RUC tactics primarily by force of numbers. The RUC knew
tens of thousands could be expected to attend the
funeral of Mairead, Sean and Dan. On the eve of St.
Patrick's Day, under the noses of the world media,
batoning peaceful mourners just wouldn't be good PR.
In Belfast, reports of loyalist attacks and RUC
harassment as the funeral convoy travelled to the city
fuelled an already tense atmosphere. The RUC hijacking
and rerouting of the hearses away from Kennedy Way
angered mourners waiting to accompany the cortege into
West Belfast. Massive British troop deployments in
nationalist areas, particularly around the family homes
of the dead Volunteers, pushed anger into outrage. A
few streets from the home of Sean Savage, IRA Volunteer
Kevin McCracken was preparing to launch an attack when
he was shot dead by a British soldier. 24 hours before
the Gibraltar shootings, South Armagh had buried two of
its Volunteers, Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley who
died in a premature explosion. McCracken's death
brought the number of IRA Volunteers killed in a two
week period to six. It had been a fortnight of tragedy
and loss, but it wasn't to end there.
In Milltown cemetery, as mourners wound their way to
the Republican plot, the aspiration of burying their
three comrades in peace with dignity appeared to have
been realised. It had been a long day. The tactical
withdrawal of the British army and RUC, as twenty
thousand people poured into the streets of West
Belfast, ensured the funerals proceeded without
confrontation. But it was only the calm before the
storm. As the last of the three coffins was lowered
into the ground, the silence was shattered by a
loyalist grenade and gun attack. The horror in the
voice of an American TV commentator changed to
astonishment as unarmed mourners, instead of cowering,
ran to confront their assailant. UDA assassin Michael
Stone.was captured and disarmed by mourners; then the
RUC moved swiftly to rescue him. Three young men,
Thomas McErlean, John Murray and Caoimhin MacBradaigh,
an IRA Volunteer, lay dead. Sixty mourners were injured
with shrapnel and gunshot wounds.
``It was no coincidence,'' said a statement from the
IRA's Belfast Brigade, ``that the first republican
funeral to be unaccompanied by crown forces in 18 years
was the occasion for a carefully planned loyalist
attack.'' Three days later mourners at the funeral of
IRA Volunteer Caoimhin MacBradaigh would again come
under attack, this time by two armed undercover British
soldiers. 48 hours earlier the funeral of IRA Volunteer
Kevin McCracken had been allowed to proceed unmolested.
But the peace was to be short-lived.
It was shortly after noon on 19 March as the cortege
left St. Agnes' Chapel to walk the short distance to
Milltown cemetery. Suddenly, an unmarked car carrying
two men dressed in civilian clothing drove at speed
into the funeral procession. It appeared to be another
loyalist attack. One assailant brandished a handgun and
fired a shot. The two men were captured and disarmed by
members of the crowd. The assailants were identified as
British soldiers and executed by the IRA.
Ten years on and a great many questions remain
unanswered. In Milltown, the Republican leadership had
been the primary target, but Stone had been panicked
into retreating by the reaction of the crowd. Collusion
with loyalists had failed. Did the British army,
adopting the guise of another loyalist attack, decide
to finish the job themselves? In the aftermath, over
200 nationalists were arrested and interrogated by the
RUC, over 40 charged and over 30 convicted in non jury
27 September 1995, the European Court of Human Rights
found the British government guilty of violating the
right to life of Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean
Savage. The long legal battle waged by the families of
the Gibraltar Three which had began on that fateful
Sunday afternoon, culminated in a judgement 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.''
The SAS execution of three IRA Volunteers in Gibraltar
in 1988 spawned a series of tragic incidents, the
reverberations of which continued long after the event.
The demonisation which began with British tabloid
attempts to discredit independent witnesses to the
Gibraltar killings culminated in the show trails of the
Casement Accused. Attempts by the British government to
suppress the Thames Television expose of the British
army's account, ``Death on the Rock'' precipitated the
imposition of a broadcasting ban designed to gag all
Ten years on and the British strategy of vilification
and marginalisation hangs in tatters, swept aside by
Sinn Fein's electoral success and peace strategy. For
the families of the Gibraltar victims, the road to
justice has been long and hard. For northern
nationalists the journey is not yet over.