How the killing of Tory MP Airey Neave still reverberates today, by his biographer, the veteran political reporter Paul Routledge.
At 2.58pm on March 30 1979, as MPs were leaving Westminster two days after a motion of no confidence had ended the premiership of James Callaghan, a dull boom echoed round New Palace Yard, below Big Ben.
The explosion was heard as far away as Trafalgar Square, and officials in the nearby Ministry of Defence exclaimed ‘That was a bomb!’ Police who rushed to the scene found smoke pouring from the blazing wreck of a blue Vauxhall Cavalier, stalled half-way up the ramp from an underground car park.
Inside was the blackened figure of a man, bleeding and unconscious, blown upright behind the steering wheel. He was unrecognisable, apart from the dark coat and striped trousers that were the dress of an old-fashioned Conservative member of Parliament.
It was Airey Neave, MP for Abingdon, war hero, Colditz escaper, Nuremberg prosecutor, secret service agent, proto-europhile and the man who gave us Margaret Thatcher. His ‘psy-ops’ campaign, drawing on intelligence experience, propelled her through the confusion of hesitant rivals into the Tory Party leadership.
On the eve of her general election launch, she had lost her most trusted adviser. The European project had lost a staunch supporter.
Why? Neave was assassinated by a hit squad from the little-known Irish National Liberation Army, a splinter group from the moribund Official IRA. He was targeted because he was the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, destined to wage all-out war against terrorists in Ulster, where the Troubles had been raging for years. And because he was not Roy Mason, who did the job for real but was guarded night and day. Neave was a soft target, of high propaganda value for militant republicanism.
So soft, that 40 years later no one has ever been convicted, jailed or even arrested for his murder. There was no White Paper on the affair, no public inquiry, no discreet briefing by the spooks about the killers, beyond a forensic description of how they did it, with a mercury tilt bomb of the kind frequently used by terrorists.
Nor, beyond fulsome obituaries, was there a rush to write the story. Diana, his widow, put out the word to the ‘writing classes’ that she did not want his biography to be written.
Obviously, I do not move in the same classes because no such prohibition reached me, so I began research on Public Servant, Secret Agent, The Elusive Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave in the late 1990s, while working at Westminster as political commentator for the Daily Mirror. It was a complex, at times scary, inquiry.
Let’s start at the beginning. Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave was born in De Vere Gardens, Knightsbridge, in 1916, the son of a noted entomologist. His family were Flemish-Normans, who came to England in the wake of William the Conqueror. They flourished – one grandfather was governor of the Bank of England, an uncle was a professional soldier who saw service in Ireland in the Troubles of 1920-22.
Young Airey was sent to prep schools and Eton, and went on to New College Oxford to read law. But not before his parents had sent him aged 17 to Germany to learn the language, where he saw first-hand the hideous reality of Hitlerism. He joined the Territorials while still an undergraduate, enlisted in the army at the outbreak of war, and was posted as a troop commander to France.
Severely wounded and captured in the fall of Calais, in 1940, he was taken to Thorn prisoner of war camp in Poland. He escaped from there, was recaptured and sent to Oflag IVc, better known as Colditz.
At his second attempt, he escaped successfully from there dressed as a German officer with Dutch army officer Toni Luteyn, who spoke German well. The pair travelled by train through Leipzig and Ulm before crossing the border through thick snow into neutral Switzerland.
This remarkable ‘home run’ made Neave something of a celebrity. Promoted in rank and into MI9, a division of MI6 (properly, the SIS) covering escape and evasion from occupied Europe and debriefing the ones who got away, he was firmly inside military intelligence. He never really left.
With the war over, Neave’s legal training took him to the Nuremberg trials, where he personally read the indictments to Nazi top brass, most of whom went to the gallows. He remained an officer in the TA/SAS until the early 1950s, when he realised his ambition to become Conservative MP at a by-election in 1952, beating Labour’s Ted Castle (husband of firebrand Barbara).
Even then, he maintained his close links with the security services, in dining groups in London’s clubland and secretive groups of businessmen and old sweats who thought Britain was going to the dogs, or communism, which was worse.
Neave was not a natural politician. Not much of a speaker, more of a conspirator behind the scenes. His brief, low-level ministerial career was cut short by a heart attack in 1959, after which Ted Heath reportedly told him he was ‘finished’, thereby making an enemy for life.
The antagonism was ironic, because they shared the same European vision. Neave supported the Schuman plan of 1950 for integration of coal and steel, arguing that the UK should engage ‘instead of standing sheepishly aside’.
In November 1971, he was among 356 MPs, a fifth of them Labour rebels, who voted for entry to the then-EEC, despite strong opposition in opinion polls.
But when Heath lost a second general election in October 1974, Neave became Thatcher’s campaign manager in the ensuing leadership contest. He treated it like a military operation – ‘psy-ops’ – bamboozling his fellow MPs (the only electors) into believing that she had no chance and they were only voting for her to get better-known figures like William Whitelaw into the fray.
The Iron Lady’s Iron Man even persuaded Thatcher to make a pro-Europe statement to pick off Heath supporters. Supposedly the most sophisticated electorate imaginable, the MPs fell for Neave’s professional guile, and the victorious Maggie made him head of her private office.
From there, it was an easy move to the job he coveted: Northern Ireland. Traditionally viewed as a political dead-end, this was his chosen battlefield. Here, he could achieve his long-standing ambition to take on an enemy and win, through a combination of arms and military intelligence.
The Provisional IRA and INLA feared him, in no small measure because Neave had been a PoW, like their ‘men behind the wire’ in Long Kesh who played a key role in the war against British troops in Ulster. He understood their weaknesses, their way of thinking. He had to go.
The soldier-politician knew he was in mortal danger, and almost how the hit would come. ‘If they do come for me, the one thing we can be sure of is they will not face me. They’re not soldier enough,’ he confided to a friend. And that was how it was.
The INLA, a small but particularly vicious breakaway from the Official IRA in 1972, despatched a ‘clean skin’ – a volunteer with no record, to do this one job – to London.
Thatcher was devastated by the killing, but soldiered on, quoting Neave – ‘There is work to be done’. Despite a hue and cry on both sides of the Irish Sea, intensive police inquiries failed to find the culprit/s. British police issued various photofits of villainous-looking suspects. Some were taken into custody and released, It was enough for one man to speak with an Irish accent and drink Guinness in the Westminster Arms to arouse suspicion.
But the trail went cold, and then the serial murder of prominent republicans, leaders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the political wing of INLA, began.
This was retribution. The first to die was John Turnley, a 44-year-old former British army officer, closely connected with the IRSP. He was gunned down by four local men, members of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association paramilitaries who suspected he was INLA. One of his assassins, Robert McConnell, confessed in court to working with British intelligence.
The next victim was Miriam Daly, a former IRSP member and prominent republican, bound hand and foot and executed in her own home by six bullets fired through a cushion. No one was ever arrested for her murder, though the UDA claimed responsibility.
Victims three and four were important IRSP figure Ronnie Bunting and Noel Lyttle, shot dead by ‘cool and calm’ gunmen wearing army-style green, ribbed pullovers. Again, the outlawed UDA was suspected, ‘acting on intelligence provided’.
Finally, there was a failed attempt to kill Bernadette McAliskey, later to become a Westminster MP. The plot was traced to yet another UDA unit linked to the security services. The IRSP was convinced that the Thatcher government, baulked of the prize of Neave’s killers, ordered these hits as revenge.
Writing the Neave biography, I went looking for the assassins. Through research with contacts made covering the Troubles, I was directed to a hotel in Belfast, and then ordered down to Cork. There, I was taken by car (‘keep your head down’) to a nondescript housing estate, where two men waited for interview. One had, rather ostentatiously, a handgun on the settee, the other, who wore a ski mask, claimed to have been part of the plot to kill Neave.
The assassins, he disclosed, were a three-man team of ‘sleepers’ who had only been marginally involved in republicanism and were unknown to the authorities.
For this one-off operation, the anonymous trio was drawn from north and south of the border. One was a college graduate and all were in their thirties. Armed with intelligence of Neave’s movements collected by a British sympathiser, they entered the UK via a third country, carrying explosives in a Perspex box.
Contrary to colourful reports of breaching Westminster security, the bomb had been fitted underneath the driver’s seat of the VYY 179-registered Cavalier with a magnet outside Neave’s home. The mercury-tilt device was primed to explode when the car went uphill. By the time it went off the bombers ‘were well gone’ and returned to Ireland, back to conventional lives, according to the man in the mask. ‘Anonymity was the only safety they had, and that was the only reason they could live normal lives,’ he said. If that is true, they would if still alive be pensioners well into their seventies.
Afterwards, the INLA gradually fell apart in a miasma of internal feuds and killings, degenerating into gangs involved in drug trafficking. Political activity, never very great, practically ceased. The British government closed the case, and with the advent of the Good Friday Agreement, the INLA also eventually pulled back from armed struggle.
But the story does not end there. After the dissident republican bomb explosion outside Derry/Londonderry courthouse only weeks ago, the party said: ‘While the IRSP do not believe that current conditions are conducive to armed activities, we have no inclination or wish to pass judgment on those who do. We have never condemned Republicans who express opposition to British rule via armed struggle, and we never will. The root cause of armed action remains our common enemy, British occupation itself.’
This is scarcely a final abjuration of violence, and some sources believe that INLA would do it again because this is their one claim to fame.
Their capacity to do so is rubbished by rival republicans.
Airey Neave may largely be forgotten but the circumstances that gave rise to his assassination are still with us, vividly manifest in the Irish backstop dispute. To update Thatcher, there is still work to be done, which is presumably why MI5 has 700 officers stationed in Belfast even today.
Paul Routledge worked for the Daily Mirror for around 20 years, after spending a similar period at the Times. He also worked on the Observer and Independent on Sunday. As well as Airey Neave, he has also written biographies of Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Arthur Scargill