WHEN it shot dead three members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army in Gibraltar in March, was a unit of Britain's elite Special Air Service fulfilling the terms of a ``license to kill?'' Or was the operation just bungled? These are key questions in an inquest into the three deaths. The inquest has opened on the Rock against a background of intensifying dispute about how IRA bombers Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann, and Sean Savage died in a hail of gunfire from a seven-man SAS unit.
The inquest is being held by Felix Pizzarello, a respected Gibraltar coroner, before an 11-man jury. Some key witnesses, including the SAS men and a top British security official, all unnamed, have given evidence from behind a thick curtain.
Britain forced to get tough
The case is of great political importance in Britain.
In recent months the IRA has stepped up its campaign of violence, which is avowedly aimed at driving British troops out of Northern Ireland and unifying the island. Just this past week, the IRA claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on the home of Northern Ireland's top civil servant, Kenneth Bloomfield. The British government has thus been forced to respond with tougher antiterrorist measures. The IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, and some politicians in the Irish Republic believe London is using a shoot-to-kill policy, of which the SAS operation in Gibraltar was an early example.
Patrick McGrory, a solicitor from Northern Ireland who is representing the families of the dead IRA members, has called the SAS ``a priesthood of violence.'' He accuses the British authorities of trying to cover up what was from the beginning a plan to kill the IRA members.
Military experts note that SAS men are seldom used to make arrests. Normally, these experts says, SAS units attempt to finish off any attack they stage by killing their targets.
It is part of Britain's official case that this did not happen on this occasion. The government claims that attempts were made to arrest the IRA trio before the SAS opened fire.
[A witness identified as the tactical commander of the SAS forces on the ground in Gibraltar told the court that he instructed his men to issue a warning to the IRA trio. But he also told them they could dispense with this warning if it seemed likely to jeopardize the operation.]
Mr. McGrory has pointed to the fact that the three terrorists received a total of at least 27 bullets in their heads, backs, and chests. A pathologist giving evidence to the inquest said the two men and one woman appeared to have died in a ``frenzied attack.''
Official witnesses have denied this. They cite, instead, ``errors'' made by intelligence units before the shooting. For example, it was thought that the bombers were armed. They were not. Nor did the car they had parked in Gibralter contain a bomb, although another left across the border in Spain carried 140 pounds of explosives.
The role of the SAS in fighting IRA violence has remained sensitive since the regiment was first deployed in Northern Ireland 12 years ago. Its highly trained members operate undercover. It is thought that there are more SAS soldiers in the province than the 100 or so admitted by the authorities.
On Aug. 30, as final arrangements for the Gibraltar inquest were being made, an SAS unit killed three IRA members in an ambush in Northern Ireland.
`Soldiers A to G'
The inquest in Gibraltar is attracting widespread attention. This is partly because of the bizarre courtroom arrangements. (The SAS men are called ``Soldiers A to G,'' and the intelligence officer ``Mr. O.'')
More important, the outcome may have a considerable impact on Britain's foreign relations. It might, for example, affect official American attitudes toward British policy in Ireland. Britain's ties with Spain may also be affected, since the SAS received help from the Spanish authorities in tracking the bombers.
An inquest jury operating under Gibraltar (i.e. British) law has a choice of four verdicts: accidental killing (seen as an improbable finding), lawful killing, unlawful killing, or ``open.''
If the jury decides on ``lawful killing,'' controversy will probably die down. If the result is ``open,'' argument is bound to continue. But if the jury opts for ``unlawful killing,'' the British authorities are likely to be faced with deep embarrassment.
Anti-IRA security operations are justified by the claim that they are carried out to uphold the law. But this raises the question that Britons perennially ask about British security measures: How can the law be upheld when it is transgressed?
Among the questions that the security authorities are having to face is why, if they thought the car in which the bombers entered Gibraltar from Spain was carrying explosives, it was not stopped at the frontier.
McGrory has asked if it was reasonable for the SAS to think the IRA squad, by using a radio device, could have detonated explosives in a car parked some 2 kilometers away from where they were shot.
Lawyers representing Britain have set out to narrow the range of questioning. McGrory's tactics have been to try to broaden that range as much as possible.