In September 1995 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled, by 10 votes to nine, that the killing of Daniel McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell was “unnecessary” and should have been arrested.
Behind the scenes, as files just released by the National Archives reveal, there was considerable debate among government ministers about how to react to Europe’s perceived meddling in the affairs of the British state as it struggled to combat Irish republican terrorism.
In September 1995, shortly before the ECHR was due to rule on the Gibraltar shootings, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Edward Oakden, wrote that the court was “deeply split” and the judgement could go “the wrong way”, meaning that the UK government would have to pay compensation to the relatives of the three IRA terrorists.
Mr Oakden wrote to the Prime Minister, John Major: “This is real banana skin territory and a gift to the so-called skeptics,” a reference to Eurosceptic Tory MPs like John Redwood, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Major for the leadership in the summer of 1995 and continued to criticise the growing trend towards EU integration.
Mr Oakden added: “If it finds against us I suspect ministers should get on the media straight away with a very robust defence, presumably repeating our conviction that the shootings were (as the coroner found) lawful killings and, given what the terrorists were already engaged in preparing, the action was fully justified.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, usually a Europhile, clearly took Mr Oakden’s advice, telling reporters in the immediate aftermath of the ruling: “We shall do nothing. We will pursue our right to fight terrorism to protect innocent people where we have jurisdiction, and we will not be swayed or deterred in any way by the ludicrous decisions of the Court.”
In May 1995 Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, wrote to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to stress how the case might impact on the fragile peace negotiations which were going on behind the scenes following the IRA’s August 1994 ceasefire.
Sir Patrick wrote: “All parties in the forthcoming political development talks in Northern Ireland can be expected to press for a Bill of Rights in some form and possibly for integration of the (European) Convention (on Human Rights).”
He therefore urged Mr Hurd to “ensure nothing is said or done by ministers to limit the government’s room to manouevre as we prepare for a resumption of political talks.”
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, addressed the subject of the “margin of appreciation” - the space for manoeuvre each nation is given under its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr Howard said: “It will be useful to have further detailed from officials to help us decide whether…we should initiate a debate on the margin of appreciation.”
John Gummer, who was the Environment Secretary at the time, railed at the European Convention, showing some of the anti-European tendencies which would later split the Conservative Party and lead to Brexit.
Mr Gummer wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “I am sure it is absolutely right that we should not incorporate the ECHR into UK domestic law, but is this enough? I understand the ECHR comes up for renegotiation in the autumn. I really do think we should reconsider whether we want to be bound by this body. I do not understand what advantage there is to Britain by being told corporal punishment in our schools or having other restrictions on our sovereignty.”
Corporal punishment had been banned in UK schools in 1986, four years after a ruling by the ECHR.
The three IRA terrorists - who were thought to be plotting a car bomb attack on a British military band which conducted a weekly ceremony outside the Governor General's residence in Gibraltar - were flown back to Ireland but their funeral became another atrocity in the long and bloody history of The Troubles.
A lone loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, used grenades and a gun to attack Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and mourners at Milltown cemetery.
The National Archives files also contain mention of another ECHR ruling which infuriated ministers - when the UK was ruled to have breached the convention by deporting a suspected IRA terrorist, John Gallagher, to the Republic of Ireland.
The IRA eventually broke their ceasefire in February 1996, by exploding a huge bomb in the Canary Wharf district of London.
A second ceasefire followed in 1997 and the Good Friday Agreement the following year finally brought the violence to an end.