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Tuesday 17 July 2018

Envoy's murder exploited

Bernard Purcell

Whitehall sought to use Irish guilt over killing for its own purposes

BRITISH officials tried to exploit what they saw as Irish guilt and shame over the murder of UK ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

The monocled ambassador, a decorated veteran of El Alamein, was killed by a bomb near his residence in Sandyford, Dublin, on July 21, 1976, along with Judith Cook, an official from the Northern Ireland Office. He had held the post for only 12 days.

Files now released in London contain 1976 correspondence between the British embassy in Dublin, the Foreign Office in Whitehall and the Northern Ireland Office.

In the correspondence, British officials explore how Irish guilt could be manipulated to get the then Fine Gael and Labour coalition government to drop a case against Britain at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over alleged torture and interrogation of suspects in the North and also a pending criminal trial of eight plain-clothes British SAS soldiers arrested in the Republic.

Following a meeting to discuss how best to use the tragedy, John Hickman, an official at the British embassy in Dublin, wrote: "Even if the traumatic effect of the assassination on Irish opinion fades or proves in the main temporary, I cannot imagine a better time than the present for the Irish government to bring itself to make some specific gesture of goodwill towards Britain. In my view, the biggest single benefit which we could expect to derive from the Irish people's sense of shame and responsibility for the murder of a British ambassador would be a decision not to pursue the case at Strasbourg."

However, he thought it unlikely they would get their desired concessions on border overflights or "hot pursuit" across the border: "The Irish government are not going to respond by giving us carte blanche to overfly the whole length of the Border, let alone to operate across it on land.

"The sort of limited concessions which they might make would be no doubt of some military value but the overall benefit would certainly not be comparable in political terms to the removal of HMG being nagged and pilloried over the state case for a long time to come at Strasbourg."

Exploiting Ireland's sense of shock and shame at the Ewart-Biggs murder, Whitehall billed the Department of Foreign Affairs for all the costs of his funeral.

The files also reveal private exchanges over the Irish government's wishes to make ex gratia payments to the Ewart-Biggs and Cook families. A special supplementary estimate for the payments, totalling ?65,000, was quietly voted through in the Dail.

The Department of Foreign Affairs official responsible for handling what was seen to be a matter of the utmost sensitivity was Joe Small, who several years later became ambassador to Britain.

When it was pointed out that any payment to Mrs Ewart-Biggs (who did not wish to receive any money) would affect her civil service widow's benefit and pension, Ireland responded by offering a sum to pay for the continuing education of her young children.

AJ Hunter in the Foreign Office's personnel department told embassy officials in Dublin - in particular, John Hickman - to affect embarrassment at this but to raise the question of British government costs as well.

The list of British official expenses extended far beyond funeral costs to the cost of the ambassador's car and the official wreath for Judith Cook.

Hunter advised that the British expenses be quietly slipped to the Department of Foreign Affairs as it might not be possible stop embarrassing questions being asked in the House of Commons about the use of British taxpayers' funds for the expenses.

Hunter said the Foreign Office was cash-strapped and noted of the Irish offer to the families: "The Irish clearly intend it as a gesture to help expiate their failure to protect the ambassador, hope it will be accepted and indeed might take it amiss if it is not accepted."

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