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In March of 1988, British Intelligence became aware of an IRA plot to attack a parade of British military bands in Gibraltar. An SAS unit was tasked with intercepting the IRA cell. The SAS mission was code-named 'Operation Flavius'. Whilst the SAS were called in as executors it can be revealed now that the whole operation was in fact governed by MI6.



There is and never will be any real hard credible evidence contained in the Security Service files that MI6 countenanced or assisted a “shoot-to-kill” policy in Northern Ireland. Instead the policy, once a target was established and authorisation granted, became a “shoot-to-kill-on-sight.”


This became evident in 1988 in the aptly named ‘Operation Flavius’ that would lead to the murder of three members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army commonly known as PIRA.


The operation was named after a character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Flavius was a tribune (an official elected by the people to protect their rights) who condemned the plebeians for their fickleness in cheering Caesar, when once they cheered for Caesar’s enemy Pompey. Flavius is punished along with Murellus for removing the decorations from Caesar’s statues during Caesar’s triumphal parade. There would be no punishment for MI6 but promotion for those who carried out the orders.


In Gibraltar, as on the rest of the European Continent, MI6 (and occasionally MI5) had the lead counter-PIRA intelligence role which frankly it failed to possess within the United Kingdom.


On 6th March 1988, three members of a PIRA active service unit, Sean Savage, Danny McCann and Mairead Farrell, who it is said, were preparing an attack were shot dead in Gibraltar by military personnel in civilian clothes. Their ratio behind the murders was the belief that the PIRA were about to detonate a car bomb by remote control “and/or draw their weapons.”


The order to ‘shoot to kill’ was given by Margaret Thatcher in person in an operation very similar to the murder of Osama Bin Laden. At all material times the Prime Minister was hearing direct reports from the SAS and MI6 officers in Gibraltar.


After the shots were fired rather than a calm exit and planned retreat confusion arose which highlighted the concerns of the then Opposition to expose the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy ironically one that the Conservative Government had inherited from the Labour Party.


BBC4 Radio News reported at 7am the following day: “It is now known that the three people shot and killed by Security Forces in Gibraltar yesterday were members of the Provisional IRA. It is thought they were challenged while trying to leave Gibraltar after planting a huge car bomb in the centre of the colony.”


That was a lie.


After the news, the Armed Forces Minister, Ian Stewart, interviewed on the Radio 4 Today show, congratulated the Gibraltar Government and said: “There was a car bomb found which has been defused.”


That was a lie.


All of the morning papers also reported that a bomb had been found and that the terrorists had been armed.


That was a lie.


Some papers claimed that there had been a shoot-out.


That was also a lie.


Later that day, however, when a top MI6 officer reported to the Foreign Office that the newspaper version of events would “lead to enhanced troubles with the IRA as it was clearly false and could easily be taken apart,” the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, gave a different version of the deaths:

“On their way to the Spanish Border, they were challenged by the Security Forces. When challenged they made movements which led the military personnel operating in support of the Gibraltar Police to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat. In the light of this response, they were shot. Those killed were subsequently found not to have been carrying arms.”


Howe confirmed that no car bomb had been discovered in Gibraltar.


This was however, an exercise in how the media would support the Security Services and accepts ‘as gospel’ their version of events and even promoting such to the public. In order to create more news the media would subsequently ‘turn’ on the Security Services and challenge the very version of facts that the papers themselves had promoted.


Savage and McCann had been under surveillance for some time since intelligence had revealed that they were preparing for a ‘continental operation.’ MI6 files reported that the very much introverted Savage was “probably PIRA’s most effective and experienced bomb-maker.”


It is somewhat strange because a subsequent obituary described him as a “quiet and single minded individual who neither drank nor smoked and rarely socialised,” and surveillance evidenced him attending Mass regularly and helped his parents care for his Down syndrome brother.

McCann, who was by far labelled extrovert, was known to be a good family man and, according to the MI6 files, a “devout Catholic who liked nothing better than a bit of craic at the local pub.” MI6 also had McCann down as an experienced cold hearted, ruthless hit man who had killed “at least 26 people.”


A stamp on his passport showed that in Mid-November 1987 he had been at La Linea border crossing between Spain and Gibraltar. This was used and reported to Margaret Thatcher as the “intelligence that suggested a car bombing was being planned.”


By this time MI6 had discovered that the unit had gained a third member “Siobhan O’Hanlon, an explosives expert, devout Catholic and committed feminist who would always insist on doing her share of the digging when hiding weapons.”



On 25th November 1987, F5 branch recently incorporated in C Branch the department within MI5 that dealt with protective security and counter subversion sent a telex to the Gibraltar authorities warning them of the “potential danger of PIRA attack on Gibraltar.”


The Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Peter Terry, and his First Minister Sir Joshua Hassan held a meeting the next day and concluded that the PIRA “probably intended to bomb the ceremonial changing of the guard that would involve up to 50 soldiers and bandsmen.”


That finding, however, was seriously flawed when a top MI6 agent noted on the file that “this intelligence is in serious doubt since the Guard Room is currently being renovated and changing of the guard ceremony is nearly always cancelled and there are road works along the route of the procession. Check this intelligence.”

On 15th December 1987, three officers from MI5 department F5/0 responsible for counter subversion and three A4 branch officers who are surveillance experts observing targets from vehicles, on foot and from fixed posts, visited Gibraltar. A top MI6 officer was with them who had noted on the file that the intelligence so far was suspect. A4 officers are known to "interfere with property" by breaking and entering, with the authorisation of the Home Secretary. The MI6 officer present was aware of reports of their targeting individuals who are clearly not subversive, and made a point of stating that the intelligence gathered had to be checked. The officer noted in the MI6 report that it was best to adopt the policy of “checking facts before they became facts in case of unnecessary casualties”.


The MI6 officer, however, noted that, if there was any danger, it would be in the New Year when the changing of the guard ceremonies would resume.


By January 1988, a total of 32 A4 officers were present in Gibraltar making the MI6 officer note “We have enough here for three football teams. Let’s hope there are no own goals.”

This whole operation had the personal attention of Mrs Thatcher who held her own ‘control centre’ and received briefings, mostly without the knowledge of her Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary. It was the decision of Mrs Thatcher, who was a trained lawyer, not to seek the intervention of the Spanish Authorities because, as she told the MI6 officer at a meeting at 10 Downing Street on 14th February 1988, “If we have them arrested they will be subject only to minor charges. No, they must be allowed to travel to Gibraltar with explosives if necessary. They are only at liberty in England because of the lack of admissible evidence. This is our chance to strike a real blow and the risk is worthwhile.”


The Director of MI5, MI6 and the Governor of Gibraltar, whilst having reservations, dared not countermand the orders of Margaret Thatcher.



The strategy, though, as ordered by Mrs Thatcher would require expert personnel and was extremely dangerous because the PIRA were highly motivated and would have no hesitation in killing anyone that stood in their way. The deployment of officers who were ‘licensed to kill’ would require a further sanction from Mrs Thatcher, who gave such without hesitation.


On 18th February 1988, the SAS with a number of MI6 officers, under the command of the top MI6 officer, arrived in Gibraltar and began joint exercises with the Gibraltar Police and A4 officers. The MI6 lead officer noted in the file “The Gibraltar Police has never in its history fired a shot in anger. We cannot rely upon them for other than manpower support.”


On 20th February 1988, Siobhan O’Hanlon was spotted at the La Linea border crossing. She was kept under strict surveillance as she walked into Gibraltar, studied a poster announcing the resumption of the changing of the guard, and then entered the cathedral. She was seen kneeling and praying and she then lit a candle.

On 21st February 1988, she phoned McCann to say in essence she had very good news and would stay until 23rd February 1988, which was the date when the changing of the guard ceremony would resume. Based upon this phone call, Mrs Thatcher and the Governor of Gibraltar gave permission for the ceremony to proceed. The MI6 officer noted to Mrs Thatcher in a recorded phone call in the file “Ma’am it’s impossible for McCann to arrive here on time unless he hires a private jet so the risks of hitting the first ceremony are minimal.”


The A4 surveillance team were in abundance at the ceremony and noted O’Hanlon there, who remained expressionless throughout the ceremony. Over 100 surveillance photographs were taken and sent to Mrs Thatcher.

O’Hanlon left Gibraltar but phoned McCann just before saying “Everything went bloody great today.”


On 24th February 1988 she became aware of Spanish Security Services who were nowhere near as expert as A4 and left for Northern Ireland playing no further part in the matter saving her life.


O’Hanlon was quickly replaced by Mairead Farrell, who was described by A4 as “small, determined, angry, ready to sacrifice her life and anyone else’s to her cause, ready for whatever comes her way.” In fact, during the so called ‘dirty protest’ at the Maze Prison, Farrell had been an officer prisoner commanding thirty PIRA female prisoners.



On 4th March 1988, McCann, Savage and Farrell were noted at Malaga airport. Within a matter of hours the ‘command group’ was established at The Convent, the Office of the Governor General and 123 mixed officers, all with radio control which could be heard by Mrs Thatcher at any time.



Mrs Thatcher personally telephoned the Spanish Security Services, the DSE, and specifically, in her usual manner, ordered them not to follow the three. The DSE were not certain but Mrs Thatcher said that only a few days earlier O’Hanlon had spotted the DSE officers tailing her and left. “I do not want a repetition. These must be dealt with accordingly,” were her words.


The result was the usual serious errors.


The lead MI6 officer made a note in the file that “Ma’am has this wrong. We must ask the DSE to follow them or run the risk of losing them.” But the lady was not for turning. The Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzales, agreed with Thatcher but then, as the MI6 officer noted in the file: “Well he would, wouldn’t he. The Spanish want to get back in NATO’s good books. Not tailing these will lead to potential irreversible trouble.”

The MI6 officer ordered A4 surveillance to set up an observation post overlooking the Spanish border in the hope of detecting the arrival of McCann, Savage and Farrell, but with some 25,000 people crossing on Sundays it was no surprise that, as the MI6 officer had predicted, the three were “lost until 6th March when they turned up.”


Savage had, in fact, crossed the border at 5.00am approximately on 6th March 1988. At 12.50pm Savage parked the Renault car he was driving near the assembly point for the changing of the guard ceremony due to take place on the morning of Tuesday, 8th March 1988.


McCann and Farrell crossed the border on foot and were observed entering Gibraltar at 2.25pm.

At 3.10pm McCann, Savage and Farrell were seen sitting on a park bench looking “intently” at the Renault parked by Savage. It was this observation that cost them their lives. The Gibraltar Commissioner, on the orders of Mrs Thatcher, signed “warrants of detention for McCann, Savage and Farrell”.


Meanwhile, the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit made a hurried inspection of the car and reported back to London that “an old arial on the car might be part of a radio controlled detonation system.” The MI6 lead officer hurriedly requested a more detailed analysis and asked the EOD Officer to report to London that the “old arial may just be an arial and requires detailed examination before presumptions can be made.”


But it was too late.


As McCann, Savage and Farrell approached the outskirts of Gibraltar, they spotted the team keeping them under surveillance. The SAS officers believed that McCann, Savage and Farrell were about to detonate the bomb. SAS Major TT sought permission to shoot, to which Mrs Thatcher replied “Do not miss.”


There is no evidence that the killing was premeditated since McCann, Savage and Farrell could have been killed at any time even in Spain, where Felipe Gonzales was more than willing to oblige Mrs Thatcher.


In the Flavius Operation Room everyone was stunned. This was the “worst possible outcome ever” noted the MI6 lead agent. Within one hour all A4 officers left Gibraltar followed by the three SAS officers, of whom only the SAS Major TT fired the fatal shots.


The fact that McCann, Savage and Farrell were killed rather than simply arrested derived from the total incompetence and incompleteness of the intelligence and that Mrs Thatcher, a politician not a trained agent, was leading the operation.

All the ingredients were there to suggest that McCann, Savage and Farrell would commit an atrocity and kill anyone who got in their way.


The actual plan in Gibraltar was a decoy. The Provisional IRA had created a situation allowing the Security Services the possibilities of believing the target was Gibraltar. The lead MI6 officer had warned of caution and “to check the facts before they became facts that we act upon.” Mrs Thatcher was fresh from her Falkland glory and was not afraid of controversy.


A Ford Fiesta was found in an underground car park in Marbella rented by Savage and contained 64 kilos of explosives, 200 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition and a timing mechanism.

Mrs Thatcher subsequently wrote a memo to Sir Patrick Walker, the new Director of MI5, saying “How do we know that the Renault car in Gibraltar was not simply reserving a space for the Fiesta laden with explosives?”


The Ford Fiesta car was found because, despite Mrs Thatcher ordering Felipe Gonzales’ Security Services DSE not to follow McCann, Savage and Farrell, they were, in fact, followed by Spain’s elite anti-terrorist squad to the border on 6th March 1988.


Apparently, Mrs Thatcher had forgotten the golden rule of the English Bar to be precise. The Security Services did not follow McCann, Savage and Farrell. The elite anti-terrorist squad did, thus saving many lives. But it was not enough to save the lives of McCann, Savage and Farrell, who were shot on the direct simultaneous command of Margaret Thatcher.


On 30th September 1988 the jury at the inquest in Gibraltar ruled by nine to two (two believing murder) that McCann, Savage and Farrell had been “lawfully killed.”


Mrs Thatcher wrote to the Director General asking him to pass on her “warm appreciation” to the members of the Security Services who had given evidence at the Gibraltar inquest and to “the Service as a whole for its part in thwarting an action which would have caused untold loss of life.”


The Director General replied that in recent months the Service had received “much ill-founded public criticism” and that the letter from the Prime Minister was thus “particularly valued.”


But then Mrs Thatcher would never admit a mistake.