Death on the Rock revisited

© US Navy Photo Wikimedia
MUAMMAR AL-GADDAFI: Provided assistance to the IRA by supplying material for their use.

WITH the current security alerts all over Europe due to fear of terrorist attack and the ongoing activities of both Spanish and Gibraltarian authorities to detect potential threats, I decided to revisit the IRA plan to explode a bomb in Gibraltar back in 1988 and to see whether there were any links to any other country which might explain the reason for choosing Gibraltar as a potential target.

There has been a huge amount of controversy about the events that led up to the shooting of three members of the Irish Republican Army in 1988 with accusations of incompetence on the part of the British authorities, inefficiency by the Spanish, obfuscation and even misdirection by the British government and the printing of untruths by the press immediately after.

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The first question that needs to be asked is where did the IRA get its arms and explosives from and the answer goes back to the 1970s where, apart from traditional support from Irish American sources, the group made contact with Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi who was, to say the least, a maverick and decided to assist the organisation by supplying material for their use.

As early as 1973, the Irish government seized the Claudia which contained five tons of munitions and weapons sent by the Libyans for the use of the IRA. It is believed however that three additional shipments plus as much as $5 million got through and helped the IRA to undertake their campaign of terror in Ulster and mainland UK.

This all came to an abrupt end in 1976 when Gaddafi broke off all contact with the IRA and had nothing more to do with them until the early 1980s when he decided to back the IRA again especially as relationships with the UK had deteriorated dramatically. It is estimated that in 1985 and 1986, four enormous shipments of up-to-date arms and ammunition including surface to air missiles, arrived in Ireland and at one stage the IRA were said to have had ‘an embarrassment of riches’.

Just one consignment was intercepted, on this occasion by the French, who boarded and seized the MV Eksund which carried more than 120 tons of armaments. On each of the two occasions that vessels were stopped, senior IRA officers were found to be on board.

One of the reasons that Gaddafi wanted to support the IRA was because Britain had allowed the US Air Force to use bases in the UK as starting points for attacks on both Benghazi and Tripoli in 1986 and he certainly had a wish to see Britain suffer the consequences of its actions.

So turning to Gibraltar, the question is why would the IRA focus its attention on what was a tiny British Colony sitting opposite the Maghreb States and the closest British point to Libya? From my research it seems likely that the operation was undertaken either at the request of the Colonel or as a gesture of thanks for all of the support that he had given. 

The British authorities were very lucky that they became aware of the planned attack months in advance when a supposedly retired member of the IRA let drop to another member that he was off to Spain on ‘a recce’ which clearly meant that he was going to be undertaking a review of an area for a potential attack and this would most likely target Gibraltar. Unfortunately for the IRA the man he mentioned it to in passing was an informer and the British authorities were alerted.

There has been some disagreement about how the IRA planned the attack but it appears more than likely that an Irish woman, who did not take part in the actual attack, spent a great deal of time visiting Gibraltar and working out the plan.

All of the time, she was under surveillance and as the three-person gang arrived in Spain, so were they. On the day they were killed, it was believed that they were intending to plant a car bomb near the assembly point for the British regiment which was to take part in the changing of the guard outside the Convent (the Governor’s Official Residence). The targets were clearly British; Gibraltarian casualties would have been unfortunate but acceptable.

In the event one member of the ‘gang’ parked a white Renault 5 at the assembly point and walked off whilst the other two walked into Gibraltar having left their car on the Spanish side.

It was decided that this was the actual attack and a decision was made to ‘neutralise’ those responsible and the result was that all three senior IRA members were shot as they were heading back towards the border.

Controversy still rages over whether this was a simple planned execution or whether the SAS members who undertook the shooting genuinely believed that they were about to detonate the explosives remotely.

Upon investigation, it turned out that neither car contained the explosives and it was assumed that the Renault had been parked to reserve a space so that the real bomb could be driven in to Gibraltar for the next changing of the guard.

Once again, there was element of luck in the fact that three car keys were found on the bodies and having received permission from the Spanish authorities to search the car in Spain, a ticket from a parking garage in Marbella was found.

It was this third car that was parked up in Marbella which was full of explosives and would have caused untold suffering and multiple deaths if it had ever been taken onto the Rock.


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