THE REACTION OF the-then Taoiseach Charles Haughey to the SAS killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar in March 1988, and his appeal to the British to avoid the return of their bodies to Dublin, is disclosed in previously confidential State Papers released today in Belfast.
Three unarmed IRA members on active service – Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell – were shot dead at point-blank range by the SAS in the British territory on 6 March 1988.
Haughey’s views are the subject of a confidential dispatch to the British Foreign Office by the British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Nicholas Fenn, dated 11 March 1988. Fenn reported on a ‘sombre’ hour-long meeting with the Taoiseach, saying:
He is suspicious, resentful and hyper-cautious on devolution [in Northern Ireland] but he seems still to be looking for a way forward. He stresses his high personal regard for the Prime Minister [Margaret Thatcher].
Referring to the recent catalogue of violence in the North, including the shooting of a young Catholic man, Aidan McAnespie at a border checkpoint, Fenn informed his boss, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe:
I spent an hour with the Taoiseach. He was preoccupied by the recent catalogue of horrors and was unable to rid himself of the notion that someone somewhere in the British government machine had been orchestrating this scenario. I told him roundly that this was nonsense and asked what motives we could possibly have.
The Ambassador explained to Haughey why it had been ‘impossible’ for the British government to respond to his demands over the Stalker/Sampson report [into allegations of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy in the RUC killing of six men in Armagh in 1982] and the rejection of the Birmingham Six appeal by the Court of Appeal.
Haughey said he understood this but contrasted the treatment of the Birmingham Six with the case of Private Ian Thain, a British soldier convicted of the murder of a civilian but released to rejoin his regiment after serving only two years in prison.
The two discussed the Gibraltar shootings, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and exclusion orders, with the Taoiseach telling Fenn: ”This series of events had to be set against the background of historic distrust.” In response, Fenn “urged greater efforts of both sides to nurture the Anglo-Irish relationship” and sought means to avoid “being taken by surprise” by the tyranny of events in the future.
As Fenn informed Howe:
The Taoiseach listened intently and nodded approval of the talks about talks with the Unionists.’ He made little comment on NI politics but ‘accepted the whole of the Agreement which he construed as leaving the initiative over devolution with the British government and the NI parties.
On the killing of the three IRA suspects at Gibraltar by the SAS on 6 March 1988, the Ambassador noted, Haughey was “impressed by the magnitude of the bomb and understood the fear that it might be detonated. He wasted no sympathy on the terrorists, but made the point that if ever it was allowed to appear that the security forces have sunk to the level of the terrorist, then the IRA have won that round.”
In conclusion, Haughey asked Fenn not to make an official report of their discussion. “He wanted to think aloud with me … This meant that he wanted to air his grievances. He is suspicious and distrustful but… seems still to be casting about for salvaging a relationship he knows he needs,” Fenn wrote.
The Gibraltar issue
Haughey’s hostility to any return of the remains of the Gibraltar Three to the Republic was the subject of correspondence between Charles Powell, private secretary to the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and RN Culshaw, his opposite number in the Foreign Office.
Writing to Powell on 10 March 1988, Culshaw revealed that Haughey had that afternoon “implored us personally through HM Ambassador in Dublin to ensure that the bodies of the three PIRA terrorists, shot in Gibraltar, were kept out of the Republic at all costs. He made it clear that he would not admit to this request in public.”
The Taoiseach’s first idea, the official revealed, was that, rather than the charter firm with which the victims’ families were negotiating, the RAF might fly the bodies direct to Belfast. “This proposal is clearly designed to solve a problem confronting Mr Haughey,” Culshaw quipped.
In response, Powell felt that, for the British, Haughey’s proposal had the attraction of scuppering the relatives’ plans. The three families wished the bodies of their loved ones taken to Dublin by chartered aircraft “in order that they might secure the maximum political advantage for Sinn Fein”.
Moreover, once the bodies were in the Republic, the families might secure a second post-mortem and, perhaps, induce the Irish authorities to instigate an inquest which could become a separate inquiry into the events at Gibraltar. However, both officials recognised it as ‘inconceivable’ that the services of the RAF could be used.
In a brief response, Culshaw ruled out the use of the RAF to fly the bodies home. “The problem with how to manage any issues in the Republic must be for Mr Haughey himself; after all, he has done a good deal to create them.”
The official added that he had discussed the matter with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “who entirely agrees”.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian, journalist and broadcaster and a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries