In 1987 Savage and Daniel McCann shoot and kill two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers at Belfast docks. He is also the leader of an IRA attack that places a car bomb beneath the car of John McMichael, an Ulster loyalist paramilitary, in Lisburn in December 1987. McMichael dies of his injuries two hours after the blast.
In March 1988, Savage and McCann, along with another Provisional IRA member, Mairéad Farrell, are sent to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar to plant a bomb in the town area targeting a British Army band which parades weekly in front of The Convent, the official Governors’ residence. However, the British Government acquires information about the intended attack and specially dispatches a British Army detachment there to intercept it, in an operation that it code-names Operation Flavius.
On March 6, 1988 Savage, McCann and Farrell enter Gibraltar from across the Spanish border to carry out a reconnaissance of the target. Having conducted it, they are leaving Gibraltar on foot approaching the Spanish border in two separate parties, when Savage sees McCann and Farrell up ahead being confronted and shot dead by soldiers from the Special Air Service regiment. He turns around and flees, running back into Gibraltar town, closely pursued on foot by another SAS soldier. After a 300-yard chase the soldier catches up with Savage and shoots him dead beneath a beech tree in Smith Dorrien Avenue. Civilian witnesses to the incident state afterwards that Savage is repeatedly fired upon by the soldier that had run him down while he is lying on the ground seemingly incapacitated.
The IRA team is subsequently found to be unarmed at the time of their deaths. A hire car rented by them, converted into a car bomb containing 140 lbs. of Semtex, with a device timed to go off during the changing of the guard ceremony in Gibraltar, is found two days later by the Spanish Police, who had assisted the British Government in tracking the IRA team’s movements in its territory before it had entered Gibraltar.
The bodies of Savage, Farrell and McCann are repatriated to Northern Ireland, where a collective IRA-sponsored funeral is held for them on March 16, 1988 at the IRA plot in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast. As the coffins are being lowered into the ground Michael Stone, an Ulster loyalist paramilitary, stages a single-handed attack upon the ceremony, throwing grenades and firing a handgun at mourners. The funeral immediately descends into chaos. One group of mourners pursues the retreating attacker, who continues to throw grenades and fire bullets, through the cemetery grounds. Three of the unarmed mourners are killed and scores are injured. Stone retreats onto the adjoining M1 motorway, where he is arrested.
A Gibraltar inquest into the deaths of Savage, McCann and Farrell concludes the three had been lawfully killed. In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights rules that the human rights of the three were infringed, and criticizes the British authorities for lack of control in the arrest operation. They also rule that the three had been engaged in an act of terrorism, and consequently dismissed unanimously the applicants’ claims for damages, for costs and expenses incurred in the Gibraltar Inquest and the remainder of the claims for just satisfaction.
A British television documentary, Death on the Rock (1988), is produced and broadcast about the failed IRA operation in Gibraltar, examining the details of the events, and raising doubts about aspects of the British Government’s statements about the circumstances of the shootings of the IRA team, and questioning whether excessive force had been used in the confrontation in line with persistent rumours in the British media at that time of a “Shoot to Kill” strategy being used against the Provisional IRA by the British Government.