And yesterday British justice was found wanting when the European Court of Human Rights decided that Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann had been unnecessarily killed. For the families who have fought for seven years to uncover the truth behind death on the Rock, it was, as they claimed, "proof the government had blood on its hands".
Events leading to yesterday's political fall-out started a few months before the bloodshed in Gibraltar, when the IRA began plotting a massive bomb attack on the colony's changing of the guard ceremony. Unknown to the bombers, dispatched to Spain from where they were to launch the attack, British security services were on to them.
When three members of the team crossed Gibraltar's border with Spain for what turned out to be a reconnaissance trip, the SAS were on the colony, waiting. The British authorities have maintained the trio actually slipped into the Rock unnoticed that Sunday morning but were picked up by MI5 surveillance experts and Gibraltar police. They say Savage drove a car, which they believed contained a bomb, while Farrell and McCann crossed the border on foot.
That remains to this day one of the most hotly contested pieces of evidence in the case. But what is undeniable is that just before four that afternoon - just two or three minutes after SAS soldiers took control from the Gibraltar authorities - all three terrorists were brought down in a hail of 29 bullets, 16 pumped into Savage alone. A police siren sounded, and two soldiers leaped over a barrier as Farrell and McCann lay dying in the road leading to the Spanish border. A few seconds later and another volley of shots brought down Savage as he headed up an alleyway back towards the town.
Briefly, the government's account that the SAS had thwarted the trio's plans to devastate the colony with a large car bomb went largely unchallenged. But it soon emerged that although they were clearly bent on carnage at the time of the shootings, the trio were unarmed and there was no bomb. The planned attack was for two days later on 8 March and the explosives were later found in Spain.
It revived allegations, which first surfaced during the Stalker-Sampson inquiries into security force killings in Northern Ireland in 1982, that the government was operating a "shoot-to-kill policy".
Those claims were brought into sharp focus two months after the shootings when Thames Television produced Death on the Rock, a documentary which directly challenged the government and the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, with its investigation on both sides of the Gibraltar border. In particular, it produced new eye- witnesses who said the trio had been brought down without any warnings and that Farrell appeared to raising her arms as if in surrender.
Police and security sources then apparently briefed certain newspapers in an attempt to discredit the programme and in particular one of its key witnesse, Carmen Proetta. But the documentary was later exonerated by a public inquiry, and some of the newspapers paid out substantial libel damages to Mrs Proetta. Furthermore, her evidence was later supported by others at the formal inquest in Gibraltar later that year, into the shootings.
Stephen Bullock, a lawyer, described how two soldiers, with guns tucked down their jeans, ran by him, stopped and watched the killing of Farrell and McCann before running off and firing a "massive volley of shots" at Savage. A more contentious witness, who later withdrew his evidence, said that a soldier had stood on Savage's prostrate body and delivered a final coup de grace.
During the five-week inquest, 18 anonymous security service and SAS men, shielded from public view by screens, gave their account of events in what they had called "Operation Flavius". They maintained the terrorists had been seen to park a car in Convent Square, where the changing of the guard ceremony was to take place; they all believed or had been told it contained a remote control bomb and that the trio were armed with weapons and a detonator; they shouted warnings, but the three made suspicious movements as if going for weapons. Once a decision had been made to shoot, they shot to kill. Soldier "D" told the inquest that, faced with a wounded man saying "I surrender", he would continue to fire. The man might still be in a position to retaliate, he said.
But a vital omission at the inquest was any evidence from the Spanish police, involved since the previous November when it was known the IRA were planning an assault and, more crucially, involved in the surveillance of the bomb team on the Costa del Sol. The Spaniards maintained they had tailed the trio to the border on the fateful Sunday when they handed over the operation, to the British authorities.
Spanish officers later told the Independent that not only had they handed the three over at the border, but that the car bomb, which the government maintained Savage had driven over on the Sunday morning, was in fact driven over the previous day, casting severe doubts on the official version of events. If the security forces believed the car contained a bomb, why didn't they clear the area?
They also claimed that the shooting blew the chances of capturing at least two others involved in the plot - a woman reconnaissance expert using the name Mary Parkin and a man travelling with documents in the name of John Oakes.
In the end, the jury of 11 Gibraltar citizens had to decide between the account of the authorities, including some of the their own police officers, and that of independent witnesses. It took them more than eight hours and they split nine-two before bringing back the "lawful killing" verdict which was, in effect overturned yesterday.
Never before had the combined counter-terrorist activities of MI5 and the SAS been so exposed, and never before had the SAS been so pressed to justify its actions. But key issues remain unresolved. The European Court ruled that as the authorties had photographs of the trio, it should have been possible to arrest them at the border. It also ruled that the soldiers had been given wrong intelligence but had acted in good faith on that intelligence; the fault lay with those who briefed the soldiers had not allowed for any margin of error in that assessment.
We still do not know at what level - politically or militarily - the operation was sanctioned. We know only that Defence Ministers agreed to the use of the SAS and that Mr "O" - the very senior MI5 man responsible for the midnight briefing of the soldiers - had not set foot on the Rock. We know that the rules of engagement were also drawn up in London.
We also know that the investigation into the killings fell short of usual standards. The bodies and spent cartridges were removed without photographs or recordings. The victims' clothing was removed, no X-rays were taken, and no proper post mortem pictures taken. The pathologist was not shown forensic or ballistic reports. Statements were not taken from the officers until three weeks after the killings and no statements were taken from any independent witnesses of any substance.
Yesterday's decision may have decided that the rule of law was breached, but it has not ended the controversy.
The trail of blood that led
1988, 6 March: Three unarmed members of an IRA "active service unit", Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann and Sean Savage, are shot dead by SAS men in Gibraltar.
8 March: The day the IRA team had planned to explode a powerful car bomb near a military ceremony. Spanish police find a Semtex-laden white Ford Fiesta in an underground car park in Marbella.
16 March: Loyalist throws hand grenades at the funeral of the three at Milltown cemetery, Belfast, killing three men and injuring nearly 50.
19 March: At the funeral of one of those killed at the cemetery, two army corporals are pulled from their car and shot dead by the IRA.
28 April: Screening of the Thames TV documentary Death on the Rock, with witnesses saying that two of the bombers shot dead had been trying to surrender.
1 May: Maxie Proetta, a witness, says he believes Farrell and McCann raised their hands "in surprise" not surrender as his wife Carmen had told TV interviewers.
6 September: The inquest on the Gibraltar killings opens. 30 September: The coroner's jury decides the shootings were justified.
1989, January 26: Independent inquiry clears Death on the Rock of most serious criticisms.
1990, 18 September: Sir Peter Terry, British governor of Gibraltar, is shot and seriously wounded at his Staffordshire retirement home.
1991, 31 May: A High Court judge in Belfast refuses relatives of the three IRA members shot in Gibraltar a judicial review of a government decision blocking their compensation claims.
1993, 6 September: The European Commission on Human Rights announces it is prepared to investigate the Gibraltar shooting.
1994, 1 September: IRA ceasefire takes effect in Ulster.
12 October: Loyalist paramilitaries announce ceasefire.
1995, February 20: European Court of Human Rights starts its consideration of the Gibraltar shootings at the request of the families of the three IRA members shot dead.
27 September: Britain condemned by the court.
Aftermath of a bloody day on the Rock: How events unfolded for four key figures
Carmen Proetta, the key witness to challenge the Government's account of the Gibraltar killings, is still paying the price.
Yesterday she travelled to Ireland to pursue yet another law suit arising out of what appeared to be a campaign to discredit her organised by security sources. She was falsely accused of being involved in vice and drugs and of having anti-British views. "The Tart of Gib" screamed one Sun headline.
Now 51, she still works as a translator, as she did at the time her appearance on the Death on the Rock brought her unwanted fame. She lives in a modest bungalow bought with the pounds 300,000-plus damages she is estimated to have received from several British newspapers.
The man who conducted the inquest into the shootings was yesterday presiding over the usual business that dominates Gibraltar's criminal courts - motoring, drugs and drink offences.
Now 60, Mr Pizzarello is, as he was in 1988, the colony's magistrate and coroner. Initial concern from the families of the dead - that he was hamstrung by a lack of powers to subpoena witnesses and documents - subsided as his inquest revealed more about security service and SAS activity than had ever been made public.
However, despite a faultless summing-up of the case, he was accused of allowing the inquest to become adversarial rather than inquisitorial.
Sir Peter Terry Governor
The then governor of Gibraltar maintained a low profile both after the shooting and during the inquest.
His only comment, which came after the lawful killing verdict, was: "Even in this remote place, there is no place for terrorists." He paid a heavy price for this staement. In September 1990, IRA gunmen opened fire on Sir Peter's home in Staffordshire, wounding him in the head, injuring his wife, and narrowly missing his daughter.
Sir Peter knew he was at risk, but had been determined to lead a normal life. Now 69, Sir Peter and Lady Terry have since sold the house. Who's Who lists his recreation as golf and he is vice president of Re-Solv, a solvent abuse pressure group.
Roger Bolton TV Producer
Death on the Rock, the film broadcast in the This Week current affairs series, marked the turning point, not only in the case against the SAS soldiers, but also in the fortunes of the broadcaster Thames Television and the series editor Roger Bolton.
The industry heaped praise on the programme but the Government was less than impressed. Revenge came when Thames lost its London franchise under the 1990 Broadcasting Act and with that went This Week and many of its key staff.
Mr Bolton, however, remains a respected figure in factual programme-making and has since set up as a successful independent producer.