Britain won a major victory Friday in its fight against the outlawed Irish Republican Army as a coroner’s jury decided that British SAS commandos acted within the law when they shot to death three unarmed IRA guerrillas.
The jury in the British colony of Gibraltar voted 9 to 2 for a verdict of lawful killing, deliberating for more than six hours on the manner in which the three--Mairead Farrell, 31; Daniel McCann, 30, and Sean Savage, 25--met their deaths.
“The government naturally welcomes the jury’s finding, which speaks for itself,” a British government spokesman said.
“This is a vindication of British policy,” said Ian Gow, a Conservative member of Parliament.
Patrick McGrory, a lawyer for the guerrillas’ relatives, had charged that the three had been victims of a British “shoot-to-kill” policy against the IRA.
The guerrillas’ families told reporters after the verdict that there is blood on the hands of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s legal political wing, said, “The inquest verdict reflects the pro-British ethos of Gibraltar . . . and no doubt, some frantic behind-the-scenes activity by the British intelligence services.”
Four plainclothes commandos of Britain’s elite Special Air Services pumped 27 bullets into the three guerrillas in an attack on a busy Gibraltar street March 6.
The deaths sparked an outcry among politicians in the Irish Republic and rioting in Northern Ireland, where the IRA is fighting to end British rule.
Testifying at the inquest from behind a curtain to shield their identities, the soldiers and their commanders said they fired because they feared the three were about to detonate a car bomb.
British officials said the guerrillas were planning to park a car packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives near the Gibraltar governor’s mansion, timing it to explode during a changing of the guard ceremony that attracts a large number of spectators. But the guerrillas had not planted a bomb and carried neither detonators nor weapons.
Coroner Felix Pizzarello had urged the 11-man jury not to return an open verdict but to reach a conclusion of either justifiable homicide or unlawful killing.
Summing up four weeks of hearings, he told the jury it had to consider whether the commandos had used reasonable force.
He said jurors should consider Savage’s death separately from the shooting of Farrell and McCann.
Pathologists’ testimony had suggested that Savage, hit by 16 bullets, was shot again as he lay dying. One pathologist described his shooting as a “frenzied attack.”
“If you were to find that he was shot on the ground in the head after being effectively put out of action, then that itself would be murder,” Pizzarello told the jury.
The IRA said the guerrillas were on “active service,” a term used to describe a guerrilla mission.
Two days after the shootings, a car linked to the guerrillas was found packed with explosives and timing equipment across the border in Spain.
The seven commandos and officers, identified only as witnesses “A” to “G,” said they had acted under official rules of engagement and had planned to arrest the IRA squad.