Wednesday 17 July 2019

UK diplomat's murder on lonely Dublin road triggered State crisis

Bombing 40 years ago today caused massive shock but improved Anglo-Irish relations

The twisted remains of the car lie upended beside a huge crater after the explosion that killed Christopher Ewart-Biggs and civil servant Judith Cooke
The twisted remains of the car lie upended beside a huge crater after the explosion that killed Christopher Ewart-Biggs and civil servant Judith Cooke
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Shortly before 9.38am on Wednesday, July 21, 1976, a stately Jaguar car drove through the ornamental gates of Glencairn House in south County Dublin. By a quirk of fate, the driver, Brian O'Driscoll, turned right rather than left.

Just 317 yards down the road, a 200lb bomb, constructed by what was later described as "a South Armagh specialist" and hidden in a culvert under the road, was detonated by a three-man IRA terror gang as the car passed over it.

Christopher Ewart-Biggs
Christopher Ewart-Biggs

Christopher Ewart-Biggs (55), the newly appointed British Ambassador to Ireland, and 26-year-old British civil servant Judith Cooke were killed. Mr O'Driscoll and Brian Cubbon (57), the highest ranking civil-servant in Northern Ireland, were badly injured.

That morning, Ewart-Biggs was on his way to his first formal meeting with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Garret FitzGerald, at Iveagh House.

While it was just another atrocity in a long line perpetrated by the IRA, the assassination of Ewart-Biggs 40 years ago today was taken by the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the British Prime Minister James Callaghan as a direct and premeditated attack on both states.

Murphystown Road, now a busy thoroughfare on the Luas line, linking Leopardstown and Carrickmines, was then a winding country road in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. No houses were visible from the road, but behind ornamental gates was Glencairn House, built by New York's Tammany Hall chieftain 'Boss' Croker. A little further along was Glencairn Stud, owned by Sweepstakes owner Paddy McGrath, which is now largely The Gallops housing estate.

A crowd watches the wreck being taken away Photo: Matt Walsh/NPA/Independent collection
A crowd watches the wreck being taken away Photo: Matt Walsh/NPA/Independent collection

The British Ambassador's residence was probably totally unsuitable from a security point of view because the ambassador's car was vulnerable to attack no matter which way it turned as it left the tree-lined avenue leading to the public road.

Ewart-Biggs, an impressive-looking, Oxford-educated former British Army man who lost an eye at the battle of El Alamein in 1942, wore a distinctive smoked-glass monocle. Before his appointment to Dublin, he was a senior liaison officer between the British Foreign Office and the secret service agency MI6. This fact was used by IRA apologists to describe him as a 'spy' after his assassination.

He had been in Dublin only two weeks and the first reports of the bombing indicated, wrongly, that his wife had also been killed. But early that fateful morning, Jane Ewart-Biggs had left Glencairn to drive to Rosslare and catch the ferry to Fishguard. She was driving towards London, where she intended to buy some furniture for the ambassador's residence, when she heard the news of her husband's murder on the car radio.

She was put on a RAF plane and flown back to Baldonnel, where she was greeted by Garret FitzGerald and his wife Joan. She declined an offer from the Irish government of a State removal. But on the evening of her husband's murder, she issued a statement saying: "I would like to convey my grateful thanks for the kindliness which I have received from the Irish government and all their authorities after what has happened and to say how much this has helped me."

"We did what we could in the days that followed to make the situation as easy for her," Garret FitzGerald later told Irish Independent reporter Raymond Smith. "The task fell to me to prepare and deliver the homily at the memorial was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever had to perform.

"I knew that the tone and content of what I had to say could have a significant effect one way or the other on Anglo-Irish relations at a very delicate moment. I tried very hard to strike a note that would convey to the British people the deep sense of shame which I knew was shared by the vast majority of Irish men and women at what had happened."

At the service in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Dr FitzGerald emphasised that the assassination would strengthen, rather than weaken, Anglo-Irish relations.

"Your words about Judith and also about poor Christopher caught our feelings exactly," Brian Cubbon - who was recovering from his injuries in England - said in a letter to FitzGerald. "The violent men who contrived and carried out this atrocity are a terrible threat to both our countries and a common enemy."

Meanwhile, Liam Cosgrave and his Justice Minister, Paddy Cooney, moved to introduce the Offences against the State Amendment Act, allowing for terrorist suspects to be detained for questioning for seven days. Because the Dáil was in recess, this legislation was not introduced until it reconvened in the autumn, when the measure was strongly opposed by the Fianna Fáil opposition led by Jack Lynch.

President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh convened a meeting of the Council of State and, despite advice from two senior judges who said the measure was constitutional, he referred it to the Supreme Court. This led to Defence Minister Paddy Donegan calling the President a "thundering disgrace" and, after a political crisis, the resignation of both Donegan and the President.

In the years that followed, Jane Ewart-Biggs, instead of being bitter towards Ireland, dedicated herself to improving Anglo-Irish relations. Mrs Ewart-Biggs, who died in 1992, also established the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial prize for literature.

Thirteen suspected members of the IRA were arrested in the subsequent nationwide investigation, which involved hundreds of gardaí and detectives.

But no one has ever been convicted of the murder of Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

Irish Independent

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