Saturday 18 January 2020

When does a terrorist become a 'freedom fighter' and statesman?

The terror attack on Westminster last week recalled the murder of a Conservative MP and the vicious campaign of the IRA
Fearsome symmetry: Airey Neave's bombed-out car in the Palace of Westminster in 1979
Fearsome symmetry: Airey Neave's bombed-out car in the Palace of Westminster in 1979
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Last Wednesday, in the House of Commons in London, before she set out her engagements for the day, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her condolences to the family and colleagues of the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.

"Of course, we do not condone or justify the path he took in the earlier part of his life, and we should never forget that or the victims of terrorism," she said. She went on to refer to the "indispensable role" McGuinness played in bringing the republican movement away from violence to peaceful and democratic means and to building a better Northern Ireland.

Within hours the Prime Minister would flee under armed guard from the Palace of Westminster after a modern-day terrorist drove along Westminster Bridge, killing three people (another died later), then proceeded into the grounds of the House of Commons where he murdered a police officer, before the UK Defence Secretary's protection officer shot him dead.

War record: Airey Neave's mugshot taken in Colditz POW camp in 1941
War record: Airey Neave's mugshot taken in Colditz POW camp in 1941

So, at what point does a terrorist become a statesman? Perhaps the answer is when he is regarded as a 'freedom fighter', according to the particular view of Gerry Adams.


At 2:59pm on March 30, 1979, a loud explosion was heard outside the House of Commons, near the top of a concrete ramp leading up from a supposedly secure underground parking area reserved for Members of Parliament. In the smoke and confusion, emergency workers found the wreckage of a metallic blue Vauxhall Cavalier. The force of the blast buckled the hood and the roof, and bloodied shards of windshield glass were later retrieved on the street 40 metres away. By any standard, it was an act of terrorism.

Close collaborators: Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher. After his assassination, she said she felt 'like a puppet whose strings have been cut'
Close collaborators: Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher. After his assassination, she said she felt 'like a puppet whose strings have been cut'

People close to the scene saw a man, still breathing, trapped behind the wheel of the car. His face was burned beyond recognition, and both his legs were severed.

The victim, who died in hospital an hour later, was the 63-year-old soldier, lawyer and Conservative MP, Airey Neave, at the time shadow Northern Ireland secretary, widely expected to be the new Northern Ireland Secretary of State.

The Blitz aside, the murder of Airey Neave was the most serious assault on Britain's parliament since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Last Wednesday, 38 years later, the actions of Khalid Masood, a middle-aged radicalised Muslim convert, served as a stark reminder of the murder of Airey Neave, not least because both terrorist-related atrocities culminated a matter of metres from each other.


In April 1979, the leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher (she would be elected prime minister for the first time in a general election five weeks later) expressed grief and horror at the "contemptible assassination" of Airey Neave.

In a statement reminiscent of those we heard last week, Mrs Thatcher added: "We do not expect these things to happen in this country, but somehow they have happened here."

She said Airey Neave had asked whether he could work in Northern Ireland. "He loved it, felt that he was beginning to understand the sensitivities of the people, felt he had a contribution to make and wanted to continue with it."

Also in words reminiscent of expressions last week, she added: "Tragically, he fell victim to a group of people who, because they were unable to conquer men's hearts and minds by persuasion, turned to killing and murder. We condemn them with all the power and strength at our command."

The group referred to was the Irish National Liberation Army, the INLA, a small and even more vicious offshoot of the IRA.

The INLA would not claim responsibility for almost six months, saying in a statement: "In March, retired terrorist and supporter of capital punishment, Airey Neave, got a taste of his own medicine when an INLA unit pulled off the operation of the decade and blew him to bits inside the 'impregnable' Palace of Westminster. The nauseous Margaret Thatcher snivelled on television that he was an 'incalculable loss' - and so he was - to the British ruling class."


The man the INLA described as a "terrorist," Airey Neave was almost single-handedly the influence behind the scenes to usher in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. "I feel like a puppet whose strings have been cut," she said after his murder.

Writer Christopher Sandford has said that one of the "unanticipated benefits" of World War II was the body of battle-hardened ex-servicemen coming into power at Westminster in the 1960s and 1970s: "But even among such exalted company, Airey Neave was something special."

Neave volunteered for service after war was declared in 1939 and in short order found himself operating behind the lines in northern France: "By all accounts, Neave took on the Nazis with the same brisk, no-nonsense style that he later brought to his dealings with the Irish extremists," according to Sandford.

He was wounded and captured, escaped and was recaptured before being taken to Colditz, a supposedly impenetrable gothic castle between Dresden and Leipzig. He made another break in January 1942, this time to become the first British officer to successfully affect a 'home run' from Colditz.


In the immediate aftermath of his murder, there was no reference to Airey Neave in Dail Eireann, according to the official record, although statements of condemnation were issued by the Government and leaders of the Opposition.

He was, however, referred to in disparaging terms in the years that preceded his death.

The first reference to his murder in the Dail came from Sile de Valera, then a Fianna Fail TD and niece of the party's founder, during a Department of Foreign Affairs estimates debate.

Her contribution provides certain context and indicates something of the thinking at a level in Fianna Fail at the time.

In May 31, 1979, she said: "The Minister referred to the new British Prime Minister and said that she had asked for time to consider the position on the North. I wonder if this is an excuse to hold off making any final decision, or is it an excuse to do nothing policy, or is it even an excuse to maintain the status quo? If this is an excuse to maintain the status quo there is a real danger because the British Prime Minister's colleague, Mr Airey Neave, shortly before his death, said that Britain's main interest in the North was that it was a military base. That was the reason why Britain was interested in holding on to the Six Counties. Here again we see the selfish British interests with regard to the Six Counties."

There was further, more critical reference to Neave prior to his murder.

During a resumed National Emergency motion debate, in September 1976, related to the 'armed conflict' in the North, Fianna Fail TD David Andrews called for Airey Neave not to be appointed Northern Ireland secretary.

Andrews was not to foresee the assassination of Neave, of course.

In that debate, however, he also rounded on the then Minister Conor Cruise O'Brien: "I appreciate that the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs would be more at home with his British Establishment friends than possibly in Dail Eireann… but when I hear people like Airey Neave and company, the arch-conservatives, praising the present Irish Government for legislation to be introduced into this House, my hackles rise.

"I understand that the arch-conservative in the British Opposition, Airey Neave, immediately after the great women's peace march in Belfast wanted to put the boot in, in traditional British fashion to the extreme organisations, possibly to the ruination of the wonderful peace movement. This is the sort of mistake British politicians have made in this country over the years and they never learn by their mistakes. We do not want lectures from them. If we are to do our own thing in this House, we will do it on our own account. My strongest advice to Mrs Thatcher if and when she becomes British Prime Minister is to drop Mr Airey Neave as spokesman on the North."

It should be noted, in fairness, that the debate had resumed on an amendment proposed by then Fianna Fail leader, Jack Lynch, directing the Government to, among other things, take all necessary and appropriate steps to combat and defeat subversion and the activities of unlawful organisations.

Indeed, during that debate, the Fianna Fail TD Seamus Brennan said: "The Government must accept the inevitable. The word 'republican' is anathema to them. They seek to give the impression that it is synonymous with violence. The result of all this is that the word 'republicans' is used very often in referring to subversives and paramilitaries. Fianna Fail are the republican party in this country but we abhor violence. It has no place in our policy.

"That is why we object strenuously to the efforts being made to associate the word 'republican' with violence and terrorism."


In the aftermath of Neave's murder, a question was raised in the House of Commons as to the level of co-operation between the two governments.

The Conservative MP, Sir John Alec Briggs-Davison, while acknowledging the "neighbourly sympathy" expressed, asked the Home Secretary whether the Government were in "full and continuous contact with the Government in Dublin about the security of the whole of the British Isles against the common enemy of constitutional democracy in the United Kingdom and in the Republic alike." He was so assured.

Since events last Wednesday, discussion in the UK has also moved on to security at Westminster, again as it did after the death of Airey Neave.

For example, questions were asked back then as to whether there were adequate alarm systems, sufficient trained personnel, the potential danger from precision-guided munitions falling into the wrong hands from NATO and Warsaw Pact armies and disparity between the potential threat and the resources available to the police.

A notable contribution was also made by the SDLP MP Gerry Fitt: "As an Irishman who believes in the unity of Ireland, I should like to express my revulsion and horror at the terrible tragedy that took place last Friday. I would like to say, from the floor of this House - again as one who believes in a united Ireland - that I will not live in a united Ireland brought about by the commission of such terrible crimes."

In 1985, reference to security measures in the UK was forcefully debated in the Dail during a Fianna Fail private members' motion, at a time when Fine Gael was in power..

Specifically, Fianna Fail sought Dail Eireann to condemn the UK's Prevention of Terrorism Act as discriminatory against Irish citizens.

In a contribution, the Fianna Fail TD, John Wilson said: "Somebody walking down the Strand or Oxford Street on St Patrick's Day wearing the shamrock in his lapel is in grave danger under this Act which says that 'any person who in a public place wears any item of dress or wears, carries, or displays any article, in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable apprehension...'"


In the White House at St Patrick's Weekend, after he presented shamrock to the President, Enda Kenny made a speech that he felt should have been better noted at home. The speech was lauded by international media as an indictment of Donald Trump's immigration policy, specifically the US ban on immigrants from certain Muslim states.

"Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans," the Taoiseach said.

It was a speech that could have been made in the Dail in the mid-1980s.

Ireland's immigrants helped build the UK too.

In 1985, there was an attempt to introduce a landing card requirement in the UK. This card, to be issued to Irish citizens, stated that it was issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which Fianna Fail's Gerry Collins told the Dail "can only mean that the authorities regard every person issued with one as a potential terrorist".


The Prevention of Terrorism Act came into force in November 1974. It was introduced by the British government as a temporary measure, responding to the Birmingham pub bombings, which were carried out by the Provisional IRA and caused the deaths of 21 people and injured 182 others.

In the 1985 Dail debate, the then Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Barry referred to certain terrorism acts with which Martin McGuinness has been since been associated.

He said: "In the face of further terrorist violence in Britain, including the murder of Mr Airey Neave, the bomb attacks at Hyde Park and at Harrods and, most recently, the attempted assassination of the British Cabinet at Brighton, the Act has been renewed and has become a semi-permanent feature of British criminal legislation. It is important to note, therefore, that the terrorism of the Provisional IRA led to this Act and has kept this Act in force."

In a further Dail debate, in 1988, related to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, specifically on official reports on a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland, the then Fine Gael minister John Kelly reinforced Peter Barry's point: "Acts of terrorism have been perpetrated on the soil of the neighbouring island, not just by Irish groups but by others as well. Nevertheless, the Irish connection alone amounts to a frightful record.

"Merely from my memory - and I am certainly forgetting some episodes - let me remind the House of the Birmingham bombings themselves in which 21 innocent people died, of the Oxford Street bombing, of the murder of Airey Neave, of the murder of Norris McWhirter, of the Guildford pub bombing, of the motorway coach bombing, of the Winchester barracks bombing, of the bombing of ceremonial cavalry men and their horses, of the periodical campaigns of letter bombing and of the Brighton Hotel bombing which was aimed at the British people's elected leader."


In the months and years after his murder, conspiracy theories have abounded about the death of Airey Neave, the most interesting of which is a theory that MI5 and the CIA worked together to be rid of him.

The chief exponent of this theory was Enoch Powell, who maintained for many years that the CIA had assassinated not only Neave but also Lord Mountbatten, the reason being that Neave was determined to keep Northern Ireland as part of the UK and the US administration wanted a united Ireland as a member of the Western defence alliance.

For all the conspiracy theories, however, it is now generally accepted that the INLA was responsible. It is also accepted that the assassination has a profound influence on Margaret Thatcher's approach to Northern Ireland.

No one was ever charged with the murder of Airey Neave, and the relevant papers are marked as "Closed and Retained" in the British national archives.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss