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