The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has blocked the release of Special Branch police reports from Gibraltar in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the 1967 referendum.
The secret file was the subject of a Freedom of Information request from the Gibraltar Chronicle, but following a ‘public interest test’ the FCO concluded that releasing the papers could “damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Gibraltar”.
The Special Branch reports are the second collection of papers on this period in Gibraltar’s history to be blocked for release in recent weeks, following the Cabinet Office’s decision to prevent disclosure of files on the Anglo-Spanish negotiations on the Rock which took place in 1966.
It suggests that despite the passing of almost 60 years, Whitehall sensitivities about this crucial period of Gibraltar’s history remain as acute as ever.
The file, which is still held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, covers the period 1967-1968, including the sovereignty referendum held on 10 September 1967, and the violent reaction to a letter published in 1968 in this newspaper by ‘The Doves’ (Los Palomos), a group of Gibraltarians advocating rapprochement with Spain.
Some Special Branch reports have been released to the public in the past, including documents from 1970 which showed the police investigated the bank accounts of two prominent Doves, Joseph and Juan Triay.
Explaining its decision to retain the document, the FCO cited two exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act; Section 27, covering relations between the UK and another state, and Section 31, relating to information which could prevent the police from effectively carrying out its duties.
In a statement, the FCO argued that the public interest in keeping the papers closed outweighed any potential benefit from disclosure.
It said: “We acknowledge that releasing this information would increase the public’s knowledge about UK relations with Gibraltar…However, Section 27 (1) (a) recognises that the effective conduct of international relations depends upon maintaining trust and confidence between governments. If the UK does not maintain this trust and confidence, its ability to protect and promote UK interests through international relations will be hampered.”
“Therefore disclosure of this information could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Gibraltar. The relationship is on-going and comments – even dating back some time – could be taken into account.”
In reaching its decision, the FCO also consulted with the Metropolitan Police Service, which advised that releasing the documents could “inadvertently disclose how UK police actions and methods are generally carried out” and was therefore exempted from public release under Section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite the British government’s reluctance to release Special Branch reports dating back to the 1967 referendum, it would not be the first time such reports have seen the light of day.
In January 2001, more than 100 files on Gibraltar from 1970 were released to The National Archives in London under the 30-year rule.
They included a file of Special Branch reports compiled by Fred Llambias, the Gibraltarian Deputy Commissioner of Police and Head of Special Branch at the time.
Llambias’s secret reports were mainly intended for the Governor but were frequently copied to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London who took an active interest in political developments on the Rock.
The file, dated just a few years after the 1967 referendum, showed that Special Branch in Gibraltar closely monitored the activities of the ‘Dove’ group of Gibraltarians; their movements, bank accounts and even their correspondence.
Many of Llambias’s reports are attributed to an unnamed “delicate and reliable source” who appears to have been close to the Triay brothers.
However not everyone in Whitehall was convinced by the reliability of Llambias’s reports, with one FCO official commenting that: “We in London…have long been aware of the limits of Llambias’s critical ability, if not indeed his objectivity, in assessing political information”.
The official also believed it was wrong to treat the “Dove cell” as if it were “a cloak-and-dagger conspiracy”.
But Ian Ellison, who worked with the Governor in Gibraltar, told London that Llambias was “basically a hard-working and loyal policeman, whose routine police work is excellent, for example in obtaining information about the Triays’ movements and plans” but who was “not trained to assess public opinion or to interpret developments outside of Gibraltar”.
The file, which has been available to view at the archives in London for 14 years, also revealed that Llambias was in contact with Juan Gil Lazaro, a Spanish Special Branch officer, and that Gil visited Gibraltar to pass on information.