The gunshots that had terrible echoes across Ireland

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The name of Gibraltar will forever be associated with one of the darkest and most traumatic periods of the Northern Ireland troubles, when for a time violence seemed to be spiralling completely out of control.

The SAS killings of three IRA members in Gibraltar not only sparked off intense international controversy but also led on to an extraordinary and unprecedented cycle of death and brutality. Even people who had believed themselves inured to violence were shocked and unsettled by the events of the time.

It is still remembered, often with a shudder, as an almost unreal period of instability and polarisation, in both political and security terms. The incident happened in an atmosphere of deep Anglo-Irish disagreement over issues such as the Stalker affair and the Birmingham Six.

The Gibraltar shootings led to intense debate and argument over how far the state should be allowed to go to protect itself and its citizens. Some argued that the three IRA members were planning to set off a bomb designed to cause multiple deaths and deserved all they got; others responded that the state should not itself descend to using terrorist methods.

Between these two poles controversy raged about the details of the killings and on whether or not there had been a premeditated plan to kill the IRA members and a subsequent official cover-up. Sustained media interest kept such questions alive and, with television programmes such as Death on the Rock, itself became the subject of controversy.

The three killed were elevated to instant martyrdom. Hundreds were at Dublin airport as their bodies were flown in, and thousands lined the route as they were driven to Belfast.

Thousands more attended the funeral in west Belfast, but in Milltown cemetery mayhem broke out when a lone loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, attacked mourners with handguns and grenades. Three men were killed before an incensed crowd overpowered him and beat him unconscious.

One of those killed was a member of the IRA, and when his funeral took place a car carrying two British army corporals drove into the cortege. Mourners besieged the car, assuming that its occupants were loyalists intent on a Stone-style attack.

In a frenzied attack the soldiers were dragged out of the car, stripped and beaten and shortly afterwards cold-bloodedly killed. The fact that both the Stone attack and much of the incident involving the corporals were shown on television heightened community tensions.

That time has had many legal follow-ups. Michael Stone, who became a hero to young loyalists, was jailed for life. Still in prison, he says now that he supports the peace process and disavows his former behaviour.

The incident that led to the death of the corporals resulted in 34 men and youths appearing in court. Most of those convicted have since been freed, but many nationalist elements claim a miscarriage of justice occurred when three men were jailed for life. A campaign for their release is still going on, with the support of sources such as the Catholic church and the Irish government and a number of human rights bodies.

The Gibraltar killings themselves have repeatedly returned to the headlines as the relatives of the dead pursued the case through the courts. In republican circles the dead continue to be revered as heroes.

Other traces of Gibraltar linger on. The Royal Ulster Constabulary Assistant Chief Constable, Brian Fitzsimons, who was one of 29 service personnel killed when a Chinook helicopter crashed in Scotland last year, is said to have been closely involved in the SAS operation.

Siobhan O'Hanlon, who is Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams's secretary, has been alleged in some British newspapers to have been involved in the Gibraltar incident. In the past year she has acted as notetaker at many meetings between Sinn Fein and British ministers.

Yesterday's decision may well have more legal sequels. The 3,400 victims of the troubles include about 240 killed by troops and around 50 killed by the RUC. Sinn Fein is already encouraging relatives of the dead to institute proceedings against the authorities. Many were awaiting the final Gibraltar judgment before doing so.