Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian.
The bomb went off at 2.58pm. It is impossible ever to forget the haunting pictures of the misshapen pale blue Vauxhall Cavalier marooned on the ramp leading up from the underground car park of the House of Commons, surrounded by sheets of headed Commons writing-paper blowing gently in the breeze. Airey Neave, the second sitting MP to be murdered in the twentieth century, died some 40 minutes later in the nearby Westminster Hospital. His elegant, devoted wife Diana, who had been a fellow wartime spy, was by his bedside, having been brought from their flat a short distance away.
Margaret Thatcher heard the news of his death at the BBC where she was preparing to make an election broadcast at the start of the campaign precipitated two days earlier by the dramatic, one-vote defeat of the Callaghan government. She abandoned the broadcast at once and, after speaking to Jim Callaghan on the telephone, was driven to the Commons where, alone in her room, she composed a short, moving tribute to the man who had masterminded her campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party just over four years earlier. Never had his gift for dissimulation been used to greater effect. By giving out misleading figures grossly underestimating the true extent of her support, he lulled Edward Heath into a false sense of security and delivered a decisive victory to her.
Mrs Thatcher’s hand-written tribute was calm and measured. She wrote: “He was one of freedom’s warriors. No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong: but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It’s a rare combination of qualities”. Only Mrs T would have put it quite that way. But, indeed, no one was less flamboyant, less demonstrative than Airey Neave. In a profession noted for assertiveness and display, he kept to the shadows, as if for ever playing the part he had created for himself in MI9( a temporary wartime offshoot of MI6) after his escape from Colditz.
He smiled a lot, but never laughed. A highly regarded author of five books on the war (of which all but one are still in print), he much preferred writing to public speaking, at which he never excelled.Many were underwhelmed when they met him. Matthew Parris, who is not given to casual unkindness, found him “a faintly comical figure” when working before the 1979 election in Mrs Thatcher’s Private Office, of which Neave was nominally head, though Richard Ryder (now Lord Ryder of Wensum) actually ran it. There was nothing comical or light-hearted, however, about his approach to politics which he always took extremely seriously.
In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher gave fuller vent to the emotions which she had held back publicly at the time of his murder. She wrote of her “anger that this man – my friend – who had shrugged off so much danger in his life should be murdered by someone worse than the common criminal,” a person moreover who has never been brought to justice. Elsewhere, she reflected on his “inner self-confidence” and “serenity of spirit” about which he himself had written in one of his books. At no time, however, did she say very much about his work as her Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, the position which he had asked for in 1975 and which made him the target of terrorists belonging to the small, squalid, so-called Irish National Liberation Army, one of the splinter groups which for a time supplemented the activites of the IRA and delighted in trying to surpass its atrocities. Like his close friend Ian Gow, murdered by the IRA in 1990, he was heedless of danger and accepted no protection.
She gave him the post and then left him to get on with it, happy to be able to avoid thinking seriously about a subject which never throughout her career engaged her interest. Charles Moore’s brilliant biography brings out her detachment extremely well. He quotes her as saying privately much later that Neave “understood ‘the Irish factor’. He’d studied it”, as if that absolved her from the need to turn her mind it to it. That gave him a great deal of freedom in devising policy for Northern Ireland, but since Mrs T knew so little about it she felt no commitment to it. His policy died with him on this day 35 years ago.
The principal element of that policy was the complete extirpation of terrorism as the only basis for the restoration of lasting peace in Northern Ireland in a form compatible with the moral standards that ought to prevail in a democracy. By the late 1970s many, wearying of the conflict with the IRA after nearly ten years, were ready to compromise with it, mouthing the ghastly phrase “there can be no military solution”: some in both the Conservative and Labour Parties had already sought compromises with terrorism. Neave insisted that complete victory over the enemies of the state had to be secured to avoid the moral corrosion that a deal with it would involve.
He brought a vital new ingredient to the quest for victory, an insistence on the full deployment of the intelligence services with which he always had close connections. He spent much time with generals, senior policemen and spooks, in which I, as his political adviser, played no direct part.
A wholly misleading account of Neave’s preparations for the defeat of the IRA appears in the only biography of him so far written, Public Servant, Secret Agent, by the Labour-supporting journalist, Paul Routledge, which was published in 2002. In lurid terms, Routledge seeks to portray Neave as a man of the far right prepared to set aside the rule of law in a futile attempt to put the terrorists out of business.
In reality, Neave wanted to employ undercover methods in defence of democracy, just as he had during the war. Margaret Thatcher saw him correctly as a mainstream Tory: “I did not consider him ideologically a man of the right”. Norman Tebbit got to the truth in a review of Routledge’s book. “Had Neave lived,” he wrote in 2002, “the IRA would not today have victory in its grasp [placing Sinn Fein in the government of Northern Ireland] because there is no doubt that he would have continued to prosecute the war, using all the dark arts of intelligence and the secret state.” The revelation last month that the Northern Ireland Office sent secret letters to former members of the IRA assuring them that they would not be arrested is just the most recent indication of the humiliation that undefeated terrorists have inflicted on us. Neave’s policy would have spared us such indignities.
His policy had a second element on which he spent considerable time, though it was less important to him than the first. Others thought that only a devolved government with a special feature, power-sharing, that applied nowhere else in the country, could provide for the successful administration of the Province. Neave believed that a new system of local government delivered by one or more regional councils involving all parties could provide the services which truly needed to be overseen by locally elected representatives, as in the rest of the country. A commitment to that effect had been agreed for inclusion in the Conservative election manifesto which I discussed briefly with him for the last time in the morning of March 30.
The commitment was swiftly abandoned after the election, despite a clear undertaking which Neave had given to the Ulster Unionist Party. Mrs Thatcher disclaimed all knowledge of it. The broken promise destroyed all immediate prospects for the rebuilding the old alliance between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists, previously wrecked by Heath, which, then as now, is the only foundation on which the Union in its existing form can be made truly secure. The Conservative Party on its own will never become a force in Ulster politics.
Though no one foresaw it at the time, a policy that ended Ulster’s isolation and drew it into the mainstream of British life would have given the Tories a proper Unionist policy throughout the country after the 1979 election in which Scottish and Welsh Nationalists gained only two MPs apiece. Everywhere the patriotic instincts of the various parts of the nation could have given expression and fulfilment by Conservatives and Unionists, and enthusiasm for devolution overcome.
No one so far has conveyed adequately the extent of the loss that the country sustained on 30 March 1979. The 35th anniversary of Airey Neave’s murder is perhaps an appropriate moment to put that right.
Alistair Lexden was political adviser to Airey Neave from 1977 to 1979. Read more of his historical articles on his website.