SAS Rock deaths brought back to life
after 25 years

The details of the SAS’s killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988 are still deeply contested, according to a new play now showing in London.

The events that occurred in Gibraltar on March 8th, 1988, have slowly been brought back to life. The episode is known as Death on the Rock, after a TV documentary that was, for many, the defining account.

Mairead Farrell, Danny McCann and Seán Savage had planned to massacre the bandsmen of the Royal Anglian Regiment with a car bomb at the changing of the guard near the Governor’s house. Instead, they died in a hail of SAS gunfire, reports The Irish Times.

Titled Gibraltar , the play focuses not only on the killings but on the media coverage and the varying narratives that survive. Today, despite an inquest, a European Court of Human Rights ruling and acres of newsprint, every second of their final moments remains deeply contested.

“The thing that most people remember about it is Thames Television’s Death on the Rock programme,” says George Irving, the actor who plays Nick Hammond, a journalist who becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about the day.

A local jury found the killings lawful, although the European Court of Human Rights found otherwise. At the same time it rejected calls for damages by their families, given that the three “had been intending to plant a bomb”.

For many, says the paper, the defining witness was a Gibraltarian woman who said that “a man and a woman” – McCann and Farrell – had “raised their hands over their shoulders with open palms” but were shot by men who “jumped the barrier” that ran down the centre of the busy road.

Alistair Brett, who wrote the play, is a former Sunday Times lawyer who was deeply involved in contesting a legal action by the woman. He disputes her recollections. "It is uniformed coppers who jump out of the car, not the SAS,” Brett says in The Irish Times report.

Brett’s interpretation of events could be controversial. The woman secured a series of libel victories against tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.

“The play tries to say you can’t be sure of any version of events, regardless of where it comes from,” says the director, James Robert Carson.

With few exceptions, the British press did not distinguish itself, argues Brett.

Joining up with Brett as co-writer is former 'Casualty' script-writer, Sian Evans, in what the Hackney Post describes as "a brand new play based on a bloody moment in Gibraltarian history."

The production features a mixture of people who were caught up in the aftermath of the event. The dialogue, though mostly fictional, is informed by accounts both made in the court and later televised interviews.

The production asks each member of the audience to determine what’s more important: the truth or political expediency?

Brett explains that the play tackles these issues through the eyes of a journalist who believes in ethical journalism and is horrified by the Fleet Street over-reaction to Death on the Rock.

Blending contemporary TV broadcasts, police and coroner reports and speeches made in the House of Commons with fictional dialogue, the play examines the welter of media spin, accusation and counter accusation that surrounded the shootings and also examines the government and the intelligence services’s relationship with informants from the criminal underworld, says another report.

The play is now on at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, East London.