The Gibraltar and Milltown killings
The Gibraltar and Milltown killings



On of the most significant months of the conflict took place 35 years ago. In this article written for the tenth anniversary, Laura Friel looked back at the Gibraltar and Milltown killings.


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, Mairéad 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 Mairéad, Sean and Dan had been ruthlessly gunned down by a British assassination squad specially flown into Gibraltar to execute the ambush. For Mairéad 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 Mairéad. “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 Mairéad in an interview, “I’m oppressed as a woman, but I’m also oppressed because I’m Irish.”

On 9 March, Mairéad’s brother Terence and Sinn Féin’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 Mairéad, 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 Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, 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 Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh 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 . 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 courts.

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 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 nationalist dissent.

Ten years on and the British strategy of vilification and marginalisation hangs in tatters, swept aside by Sinn Féin’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.


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 Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Dan McCann in Gibraltar.

Monday 14 March: British Army shoot dead IRA Volunteer Kevin McCracken in Belfast, close to the Savage family home.

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 attack.

Wednesday 16 March: Loyalist gun and grenade attack during funeral of Mairéad, Sean and Dan, injures 60 mourners and kills three, Thomas McErlean from Divis, John Murray from Ormeau Road and IRA Volunteer Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh.

Thursday 17 March: Funeral of IRA Volunteer Kevin McCracken.

Saturday 19 March: Two undercover British soldiers drive into funeral of IRA Volunteer Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh; they are captured by mourners and later executed by IRA.

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