Savage was the leader of an IRA attack that placed a booby-trap car bomb beneath the car of John McMichael, an Ulster loyalist paramilitary, in Lisburn in December 1987. McMichael died of his injuries two hours after the blast.
In March 1988, Savage and McCann, along with another Provisional IRA member Mairéad Farrell, were sent to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar to plant a bomb in the town area targeting a British Army band which paraded weekly in front of the Governors' residence. However, the British Government had acquired information about the intended attack and specially dispatched a British Army detachment there to intercept it, in an operation that it code-named Operation Flavius. On 6 March 1988 Savage, McCann and Farrell entered Gibraltar from across the Spanish border to carry out a reconnaissance of the target. Having conducted it, they were leaving Gibraltar on foot approaching the Spanish border in two separate parties, when Savage saw ahead at eyesight distance McCann and Farrell being confronted and shot dead by soldiers from the Special Air Service Regiment. Savage turned about and fled, running back into Gibraltar town, closely pursued on foot by another SAS soldier, who after a 300 yard chase caught up with Savage and shot him dead beneath a beech tree in Smith Dorrien Avenue. Civilian witnesses to the incident stated afterwards that Savage was repeatedly fired upon by the soldier that had run him down whilst he was lying on the ground seemingly incapacitated.
The IRA team was subsequently found to be unarmed at the time of their deaths. A hire car rented by them, converted into a car bomb containing 140 lb (64 kg) of Semtex, with a device timed to go off during the changing of the guard ceremony in Gibraltar, was found two days later by the Spanish Police, whom had assisted the British Government in tracking the IRA team's movements in its territory before it had entered Gibraltar.
Milltown Cemetery attack
Savage's body, along with Farrell and McCann's were repatriated to Northern Ireland, where a collective IRA-sponsored funeral was held for them on 16 March 1988 at the IRA plot in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast. As the coffins were being lowered into the ground an Ulster loyalist paramilitary staged a single-handed attack upon the ceremony, throwing hand grenades and firing a handgun at the crowd of mourners. The funeral immediately descended into chaotic scenes, with a mob of mourners pursuing the attacker in a running fight through the cemetery's grounds, as he continued to throw handgrenades and fire bullets at them. Three mourners from the crowd were killed and scores injured.
A Gibraltar inquest into the deaths of Savage, McCann and Farrell concluded the three had been lawfully killed. In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the human rights of the three were infringed, and criticized the British authorities for lack of control in the arrest operation. They 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.
A British television documentary, Death on the Rock (1988) was produced and broadcast about the failed IRA operation in Gibraltar, examining the details of the events, and raising doubts about aspects of the British Government's statements about the circumstances of the shootings of the IRA team, and questioning whether excessive force had been used in the confrontation in line with persistent rumours in the British media at that time of a "Shoot to Kill" strategy being used against the Provisional IRA by the British Government.
- Blood & Rage - A Cultural History of Terrorism, Michael Burleigh, 2008, p332, ISBN 978-0-00-724127-9
- "Gibraltar: The truth" Belfast Telegraph
- Wood, Ian S (2006). Crimes of Loyalty: a History of the UDA. Edinburgh University Press. p.128. Google Books. Retrieved 6 April 2011
- PEADAR WHELAN Tribute to IRA Volunteers on the Rock An Phoblacht 6 March 2008
- ECHR Ruling on the killings
- "1988: IRA gang shot dead in Gibraltar", BBC News
- Film of the funeral of Savage, and the Milltown Cemetery attack, BBC News report 16 March 1988. Published on Youtube 14 February 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7CVzVBBP0M
- 'The funeral murders: unpicking one of the darkest chapters in the Northern Ireland conflict', 'Daily Telegraph',18 March 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/politics/funeral-murders-unpicking-one-darkest-chapters-northern-ireland/
- Death on the Rock, The Museum of Broadcast Communications.