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Mairéad Farrell
Mairéad Farrell
Mairéad Farrell
Born 3 March 1957
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died 6 March 1988(1988-03-06) (aged 31)
Cause of death Internal haemorrhaging caused by multiple bullet wounds[1]
Place of burial Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Other names Máiréad Ní Fhearghail / Ní Fhearail
Religion Roman Catholicism

Mairéad Farrell (Irish language:Máiréad Ní Fhearghail [2] or Mairéad Ní Fhearail;[3] 3 March 1957 - 6 March 1988) was an Irish volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). She was killed by Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers during Operation Flavius, a British Army operation to prevent a bombing in Gibraltar.[4]

Early lifeEdit

Farrell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland to a middle class family with no link to militant Irish republicanism other than a grandfather who was interned during the Irish War for Independence. She was educated at Rathmore Grammar School, Belfast which she left, aged 18, to work in an insurance broker's office. She met an IRA volunteer named Bobby Storey, who persuaded her to join the Provisional IRA.[4][5]

First term of IRA activity, 1975-1976Edit

On 1 March 1976, the British Government revoked Special Category Status for prisoners convicted from this date under anti-terrorism legislation. In response, the IRA instigated a wave of bombings and shootings across Northern Ireland; younger members such as Farrell were asked to participate. On 5 April 1976, along with Kieran Doherty and Sean McDermott, she attempted to plant a bomb at the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry, as that hotel had often been used by British soldiers on temporary duty to Ireland. She was arrested by Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers within an hour of planting the bomb. Her boyfriend Sean McDermott was shot dead by an RUC Reservist at a nearby housing estate. McDermott and two other members of the IRA active service unit had broken into a home not realising it was the private residence of a policeman. The RUC officer shot McDermott dead; Keiran Doherty and another man escaped.[6]

At her trial she refused to recognise the court as it was an institution of the British state and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for explosives offences to be served in Armagh Women's Prison.

Imprisonment, 1976-1986Edit

When she arrived in Armagh Gaol, Farrell refused to wear a prison uniform in protest at the designation of paramilitary prisoners as criminals. She was the first woman to do so, and the second person after Kieran Nugent, a prisoner in the H-Blocks of HMP Maze. Farrell instigated a dirty protest in February 1980. This meant that prisoners refused to slop-out and would smear excrement and menstrual material on the walls of their cells instead of risking being attacked by the guards while slopping out.[7][8][9][10][11][12] On 1 December Farrell, along with Mary Doyle and Mairead Nugent, began a hunger strike in Armagh prison to coincide with the one already taking place in Long Kesh. It ended on 19 December, a day after the men's strike. The dirty protest ended in March 1981 as the prisoner's rights' campaign was focused on the hunger strike being undertaken by Bobby Sands, leader of IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks. She was one of the H-Block/Armagh prisoners to stand for election in the Republic of Ireland in the 1981 General Election, standing in Cork North Central and polling 2,751 votes (6.05%).[13]

Second term of IRA activity, 1986-1988Edit

Upon her release from prison in October 1986,[14] Farrell enrolled at Queen's University, Belfast for a course in Political Science and Economics. She dropped out of university however to play a larger role in the IRA's armed campaign. The IRA sent her with Sean Savage and Daniel McCann to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar to plant a bomb in the town area. The target was the band and guard of the First Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment during a weekly ceremonial changing of the guard in front of Governors' residence, on 8 March 1988. [15]

Shell petrol station, Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar

The Shell garage in Gibraltar

British MI5 was made aware of their plan and the SAS was deployed to prevent the bombing.[16] Farrell and her two partners were shot dead (see Operation Flavius). Farrell was shot three times in the back and once in the face, Savage and McCann were shot by the SAS whilst walking towards the frontier with Spain, at the Shell filling station on Winston Churchill Avenue. Some witnesses to the shooting stated that Farrell and McCann were shot while attempting to surrender and while lying wounded on the ground.[17]

No radio to remotely control a bomb was found on the bodies, nor was there a bomb in the car in Gibraltar which had been identified as belonging to the team.[18] Keys to a car found in Farrell's handbag led to the discovery in Spain of five packages totalling 84 kg of Semtex explosive. These packages had four separate detonators attached. Around this was packed 200 rounds of ammunition as shrapnel. There were two timers, marked 10 hrs 45 mins and 11 hrs 15 mins respectively, but they were not primed or connected.[19]

According to the details of the briefing given to the soldiers quoted in the ECtHR report: "Use of a remote-control device was considered to be far more likely since it was safer from the point of view of the terrorist who could get away from the bomb before it exploded and was more controllable than a timer which once activated was virtually impossible to stop."[20] The operation that resulted in Farrell's and her companions' deaths took place on a Sunday - the changing of the guard occurred on Tuesdays, meaning that even if there were a remotely controlled device it would not have been activated as the arrest happened.[21]

At the inquest, soldiers "A", "B", "C" and "D" stated that they were told at the briefing that the device would be radio-controlled.[22] "Soldier C" said that "E" stressed to them that it would be a "button job".[22]

The Gibraltar inquestEdit

At the inquest into the deaths held in Gibraltar the jury returned a verdict of lawful killing by a 9-2 majority.[23] The coroner in summing up of the evidence to the jury told them to avoid an open verdict. The 9-2 verdict is the smallest majority allowed. Paddy McGrory, lawyer for Amnesty International, believed that it was a 'perverse verdict,'and that it went against the weight of the evidence.[24]

Ms Proetta, an independent witness, told Thames Television, ‘They [security forces] didn’t do anything ... they just went and shot these people. That’s all. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t scream, they didn’t shout, they didn’t do anything. These people were turning their heads back to see what was happening and when they saw these men had guns in their hands they put their hands up. It looked like the man was protecting the girl because he stood in front of her, but there was no chance. I mean they went to the floor immediately, they dropped.’[25]

Stephen Bullock, a lawyer by profession, who was 150 metres from the shooting, and another independent witness saw Dan McCann falling backwards with his hands at shoulder height. At the inquest into the killings Bullock stated, ‘I think with one step he could have actually touched the person he was shooting’.[25]

The researcher for Thames Television which made the programme Death on the Rock believed Ms Proetta’s evidence as it coincided with another account they had received.[26] The scientific evidence provided by pathologist Professor Alan Watson also corroborated the evidence of Proetta, Bullock and a third witness Josie Celecia.[25]

Five independent civil liberty organisations have criticised many aspects of the proceedings during the inquest, and have called for further inquiries into the killings in Gibraltar. They are the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Inquest the National Council for Civil Liberties (London), the International League for Human Rights (New York) and Amnesty International.[27]

The report by Amnesty International stated that the inquest failed to answer ‘the fundamental issue … whether the fatal shootings were caused by what happened in the street, or whether the authorities planned in advance for the three to be shot dead.’[28]

European Court of Human RightsEdit

The relatives of McCann, Savage and Farrell were dissatisfied with the response to their case in the British legal system,[29] so they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1995. The court found that the three had been unlawfully killed.[29] By a 10-9 majority it ruled that the human rights of the 'Gibraltar Three' were infringed in breach of Article 2 - right to life, of the European Convention on Human Rights and criticised the authorities for lack of appropriate care in the control and organisation of the arrest operation.[citation needed]

In sum, having regard to the decision not to prevent the suspects from travelling into Gibraltar, to the failure of the authorities to make sufficient allowances for the possibility that their intelligence assessments might, in some respects at least, be erroneous and to the automatic recourse to lethal force when the soldiers opened fire, the Court is not persuaded that the killing of the three terrorists constituted the use of force which was no more than absolutely necessary in defence of persons from unlawful violence within the meaning of Article 2(2)(a) of the Convention[30]

In the Judgement the court said that the actions of the authorities lacked 'the degree of caution in the use of firearms to be expected from law enforcement personnel in a democratic society.'[31][32] Some newspapers reported the decision as a finding that the three were unlawfully killed.[33][34][35] The ECtHR also ruled that the three had been engaged in an act of terrorism, and consequently dismissed unanimously the applicants’ claims for damages, for costs and expenses incurred in the Gibraltar Inquest and the remainder of the claims for just satisfaction.[36]

The Court is not empowered to overrule national decisions or annul national laws.[37]

Related eventsEdit

In the aftermath of the shooting on Gibraltar, violence escalated in the Belfast area and resulted in at least six further deaths. The three bodies were returned to Belfast on 14 March. That evening an IRA sniper, Kevin McCracken, was shot dead in Norglen Crescent, Turf Lodge, Belfast while preparing to attack British soldiers.[38][39] Those attending the return of the bodies said that the security services were harassing them[40] and that he was attacking the security services to deflect their attention. According to witnesses, McCracken was beaten while lying wounded by members of the security services.[41]

At the funeral of the 'Gibraltar Three' on 16 March, three mourners were killed in a gun and grenade attack by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone in the Milltown Cemetery attack.

At the funeral of IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh on 19 March - one of the three men killed three days earlier by Michael Stone - two British Army corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, drove into the funeral cortège, apparently by accident but mourners evidently feared an attack similar to Stone's was taking place.[14] Scenes relayed on television showed the two corporals being cornered by black taxis and dragged from their car before being taken away to be beaten, stripped, and then shot.[42]

On 10 September 1990, the IRA attempted to kill Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Terry at his Staffordshire home. Terry had been a prime target since his days as Governor of Gibraltar, where he signed the documents allowing the SAS to pursue IRA members. The attack took place at 9pm at the Main Road house. The gunman opened fire through a window hitting Sir Peter at least 9 times and injuring his wife near one of her eyes. The couple's daughter was found to be suffering from shock. Terry's face had to be rebuilt as the shots shattered his face and 2 high-velocity bullets were within millimetres of his brain.[43]

In 2008 Sinn Féin asked to hold an International Women's Day event in the Long Gallery at Stormont commemorating Farrell. The Assembly Commission which runs the Stormont estate ruled that it could not go ahead.[44]

Media commentEdit

The New York Times, reviewing a Frontline documentary examining the circumstances of Farrell's death, stated: "Mairead Farrell might be dismissed as some wild-eyed fanatic except that part of her life has been preserved in several home movies and a television interview taped shortly before her death. What emerges is a portrait of a soft-spoken, attractive woman determined to end what she perceived as the injustices surrounding her everyday life.... The program leaves us pondering the obvious conclusion: "To the people of Falls Road she was a patriot. To the British she was a terrorist. To her family she was a victim of Irish history.""[45]

See alsoEdit


  1. Rolston, Bill. Unfinished Business: State Killings and the Quest for Truth. Beyond the Pale Publications. p. 155. ISBN 1-900960-09-5. 
  2. "Beirt idirnáisiúnaí a chronófar" (in Irish). An Phoblacht. 8 May 1997. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  3. "Tiocfaidh A Lá" (in Irish). An Phoblacht. 19 November 1999. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Pg 300, Tírghrá, National Commemoration Centre, 2002. PB) ISBN 0-9542946-0-2
  5. Biog of Mairead
  6. Lost Lives pp637-638
  7. "A very serious situation arose in Armagh Prison on 7 February 1980. There were serious allegations from the women that they were beaten by male officers. They then escalated their 'no work' protest to follow the example of the men in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh, in the 'No wash' 'No slop-out' protest. They were then locked up 23 hours a day in their cells. The soiled cells were left dirty for the first six months." Hard Times, Armagh Gaol 1971-1986, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-223-4
  8. Aretxaga, Begoña (2006). States of Terror. University of Nevada, Reno. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978-1-877802-57-7. 
  9. Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 229. ISBN 0-7475-3818-2. 
  10. Coogan, Tim (2000). The IRA. Harper Collins. p. 490. ISBN 978-0-00-653155-5. 
  11. Bishop, Patrick & Mallie, Eamonn (1987). The Provisional IRA. Corgi Books. p. 363. ISBN 0-552-13337-X. 
  12. Bowyer Bell, J. (1997). The Secret Army: The IRA. Transaction Publishers. p. 482. ISBN 1-56000-901-2. 
  13. showing 1st preference results for 1981 election
  14. 14.0 14.1 English, Richard (2003). Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Pan Books. p. 257. ISBN 0-330-49388-4. 
  15. ECtHR review: Paras 13 and 17
  16. ECtHR review: Para 15 and 17(b)
  17. paragraphs 70-72
  18. ECtHR review: Para 113
  19. ECtHR review: Para 98 -99
  20. ECtHR review: Para 24
  21. Rolston, Bill. Unfinished Business: State Killings and the Quest for Truth. Beyond the Pale Publications. pp. 155–156. ISBN 1-900960-09-5. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 ECtHR review: Paras 26-29
  23. BBC News Story about the inquest to the killings
  24. State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 , pg. 203
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 , pg. 193
  26. cited. The Windlesham/Rampton Report on Death on the Rock, p.92, par 85, Faber & Faber, London 1989.
  27. State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 , pg. 201
  28. United Kingdom: Investigating Lethal Shootings: The Gibraltar Inquest: Summary, p. iii. Amnesty International, April 1989.
  29. 29.0 29.1 State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 , pg. 191
  30. Judgement of the Court, Section 213
  31. European Court of Human Rights, Judgement, paragraph 212, Strasbourg, France, 27 September 1995
  32. State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 , pg. 204
  33. New York Times
  34. Shooting similar to Gibraltar IRA deaths
  35. Haughey govt helped SAS - Adams
  36. Summary and full judgement by the ECtHR
  37. "Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved 2008-04-13. 
  38. CAIN:Sutton Index of Deaths
  39. Adams G (2003). Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland ISBN 0-86322-330-3
  40. An article In Republican News about the funerals
  41. Belfast Murals
  42. "Judges free man jailed over IRA funeral murders" The Daily Telegraph
  43. IRA gun attack on ex Governor
  44. Event celebrating the life of IRA member banned
  45. O'Connor, John (1989-06-13). "Television Review: An IRA Member from Several Angles". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-25. 

Further readingEdit

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