Mairéad Farrell

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Mairéad Farrell
Mairéad Farrell
Born3 March 1957
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died6 March 1988(1988-03-06) (aged 31)
Cause of deathInternal haemorrhaging caused by multiple bullet wounds[1]
Resting placeMilltown Cemetery, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Other namesMáiréad Ní Fhearghail / Ní Fhearail
RelativesMairéad Farrell (niece)

Mairéad Farrell (Irish: Máiréad Ní Fhearghail[2] or Mairéad Ní Fhearail)[3] (3 March 1957[citation needed] – 6 March 1988) was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). She was shot and killed by the British Army in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988.[4]

Early life[edit]

Farrell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland to a middle-class family with no link to militant Irish republicanism other than a grandfather who had been interned during the Irish War for Independence.[5] She grew up in West Belfast and was educated at Rathmore Convent School, Belfast.[6] At the age of 14 she was recruited into the Provisional IRA by Bobby Storey.[5] After leaving school at the age of 18, she was hired as a clerical worker for an insurance broker's office.[citation needed]

First term of IRA activity, 1975–1976[edit]

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 Northern Ireland.[citation needed] She was arrested by Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers within an hour of planting the bomb.[citation needed] Her boyfriend, Sean McDermott, was shot dead by an RUC reservist at a nearby housing estate.[citation needed] McDermott and two other members of the IRA active service unit had broken into a home,[why?] not realising it was the private residence of a policeman. The RUC officer shot McDermott dead; Doherty and another man[who?] escaped.[7][8]

At her trial, she refused to recognise the court as it was an institution of the British state.[8] She was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for explosives offences, firearms offences, and belonging to an illegal organisation.[9]

Imprisonment, 1976–1986[edit]

At Armagh prison, Farrell was the official Officer Commanding of the female IRA prisoners.[10]

When she arrived in Armagh, Farrell refused to wear a prison uniform in protest at the designation of republican 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.[11][12][13][14][15][16] After 13 months, 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.[17] It ended on 19 December, a day after the men's strike. The dirty protest ended in March 1981 as the prisoners' 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%).[18]

Second phase of IRA activity and subsequent death[edit]

Upon her release from prison in October 1986,[19] Farrell enrolled at Queen's University, Belfast for a course in Political Science and Economics. However, she dropped out of university to re-engage in IRA activity. The IRA sent her with Sean Savage and Daniel McCann to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar to plant a car bomb in a heavily populated town area. The target was the band and guard of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment during a weekly ceremonial changing of the guard in front of Governors' residence, on 8 March 1988. According to interrogated IRA members, Gibraltar had been selected as a target because it was a British possession that was in dispute, and that it was an area with lighter security measures than at that time had become endemic at British military installations elsewhere due to the IRA's campaign.[20]

The British Government's domestic intelligence service MI5 had become aware of their plan,[when?] and a detachment from the British Army was specifically deployed to Gibraltar[when?] to intercept the IRA team and prevent the attack.[20] Farrell, Savage and McCann were confronted by plainclothes soldiers from the Special Air Service Regiment whilst they were engaged in a reconnaissance in Gibraltar pending the delivery of the car bomb. Farrell was shot three times in the back and once in the face, her two accomplices were also killed in an operation code-named Operation Flavius by the British Government. Some witnesses to the shooting stated that Farrell and McCann had been shot while attempting to surrender, and while lying wounded on the ground.[20] The three IRA members were all found afterwards to be unarmed. Keys to a hire car found in Farrell's handbag led the Spanish Police, who had closely worked with the British security services in Operation Flavius, to the discovery across the border in Spain of five packages totalling 84 kg of Semtex explosive in a car which the IRA team had intended to subsequently drive into Gibraltar for the attack. 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.[20]

Gibraltar inquest[edit]

At the inquest into the deaths held in Gibraltar the jury returned a verdict of lawful killing by a 9–2 majority.[21] The coroner, in summing up 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 had been a "perverse verdict," and that it had gone against the weight of the evidence.[22]

Ms Proetta, an independent witness, told Thames Television, 'They [the 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.'[23]

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'.[23]

The researcher for Thames Television which made the programme Death on the Rock believed Ms Proetta's evidence as it matched another account they had received.[24] The scientific evidence provided by pathologist Professor Alan Watson also corroborated the evidence of Proetta, Bullock and a third witness, Josie Celecia.[23]

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.[25]

The report by Amnesty International stated that the inquest had 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.'[26]

European Court of Human Rights[edit]

The relatives of McCann, Savage and Farrell were dissatisfied with the response to their case in the British legal system,[27] so they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1995. The court found that the three had been unlawfully killed.[27] By a 10–9 majority it ruled that the human rights of the 'Gibraltar Three' had been 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.[28]

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[20]

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.'[29][30] Some newspapers reported the decision as a finding that the three had been unlawfully killed.[31][32][33]

The ECHR 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.[34]

The Court is not empowered to overrule national decisions or annul national laws.[35]

Related events[edit]

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.[36][37] Those attending the return of the bodies said that the security services were harassing them[38] 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.[39]

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.[19] 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 executed.[40]

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 9 pm at the Main Road house. The gunman opened fire through a window hitting Sir Peter at least nine 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 two high-velocity bullets were within millimetres of his brain.[41]

A few months before she was killed, Farrell had been interviewed for the documentary Mother Ireland, directed by Anne Crilly, which was subsequently deemed untransmittable due to the 1988 broadcasting restrictions. Channel 4 eventually screened the documentary on 11 April 1991, with Farrell's voice having been de-dubbed to comply with the restrictions.[42][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 comment[edit]

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 also[edit]


  1. ^ Rolston, Bill (2000). 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 9 November 2007.
  3. ^ "Tiocfaidh A Lá" (in Irish). An Phoblacht. 19 November 1999. Retrieved 9 November 2007.
  4. ^ Pg 300, Tírghrá, National Commemoration Centre, 2002. PB) ISBN 0-9542946-0-2
  5. ^ a b Bloom, Mia (2011). Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Hurst & Company, London. p. 94.
  6. ^ Families at War: Voices from the Troubles, Peter Taylor, BBC Books, 1989, page 33
  7. ^ Lost Lives pp637-638
  8. ^ a b Bloom, Mia (2011). Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Hurst & Company, London. p. 79.
  9. ^ Bloom, Mia (2011). Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Hurst & Company, London. pp. 79–80.
  10. ^ Bloom, Mia (2011). Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Hurst & Company, London. p. 80.
  11. ^ "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
  12. ^ Aretxaga, Begoña (2006). States of Terror. University of Nevada, Reno. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978-1-877802-57-7.
  13. ^ Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 229. ISBN 0-7475-3818-2.
  14. ^ Coogan, Tim (2000). The IRA. HarperCollins. p. 490. ISBN 978-0-00-653155-5.
  15. ^ Bishop, Patrick & Mallie, Eamonn (1987). The Provisional IRA. Corgi Books. p. 363. ISBN 0-552-13337-X.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Bowyer Bell, J. (1997). The Secret Army: The IRA. Transaction Publishers. p. 482. ISBN 1-56000-901-2.
  17. ^ Bloom, Mia (2011). Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Hurst & Company, London. p. 84.
  18. ^ " 22nd Dail - Cork North Central First Preference Votes".
  19. ^ a b English, Richard (2003). Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Pan Books. p. 257. ISBN 0-330-49388-4.
  20. ^ a b c d e "McCann and Others v United Kingdom". Archived from the original on 24 March 2015. Retrieved 15 December 2020.
  21. ^ "BBC News Story about the inquest to the killings".
  22. ^ State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8, pg. 203
  23. ^ a b c State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8, pg. 193
  24. ^ cited. The Windlesham/Rampton Report on Death on the Rock, p.92, par 85, Faber & Faber, London 1989.
  25. ^ State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8, pg. 201
  26. ^ United Kingdom: Investigating Lethal Shootings: The Gibraltar Inquest: Summary, p. iii. Amnesty International, April 1989.
  27. ^ a b State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8, pg. 191
  28. ^ "European Court of Human Rights Condemns Killings in Gibralter [sic] in 1988".
  29. ^ European Court of Human Rights, Judgement, paragraph 212, Strasbourg, France, 27 September 1995
  30. ^ State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969–1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8, pg. 204
  31. ^ "World News Briefs; Rights Court Says Britain Illegally Killed 3 in I.R.A." The New York Times. Associated Press. 28 September 1995.
  32. ^ "Newshound: Daily Northern Ireland news catalog - Irish News article". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 15 April 2008.
  33. ^ "Haughey govt helped SAS - Adams". The Irish Times.
  34. ^ "The IRA incident - ECHR review".
  35. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  36. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  37. ^ Adams G (2003). Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland ISBN 0-86322-330-3
  38. ^ An article In Republican News about the funerals
  39. ^ Belfast Murals[permanent dead link]
  40. ^ ""Judges free man jailed over IRA funeral murders" The Daily Telegraph". Archived from the original on 6 September 2004. Retrieved 6 September 2004.
  41. ^ "Millennium Index".
  42. ^ "Collections Search | BFI | British Film Institute".
  43. ^ TV Times, 6–12 April 1991, page 83
  44. ^ "Event celebrating the life of IRA member banned".
  45. ^ O'Connor, John (13 June 1989). "Television Review: An IRA Member from Several Angles". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 January 2007.

Further reading[edit]