Belfast Telegraph

Why murdered MP Airey Neave chose to be Thatcher's man in Northern Ireland

The Conservative politician was assassinated in an INLA car bomb at the Houses of Parliament in 1979. The author of a new biography, Patrick Bishop, tells David O'Dornan that, had he lived, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary would have considered the peace process as a surrender

Airey Neave MP
Airey Neave MP
The remains of Neave’s car after INLA bomb at Westminster
Airey Neave MP electioneering with future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Patrick Bishop's book about the Tory grandee
Author Patrick Bishop

On March 30, 1979 a car bomb exploded at the heart of the British Government. Conservative MP Airey Neave was killed as he drove from the House of Commons underground car park in a murder that sent shockwaves through the Establishment and was later admitted by the INLA.

It marked a dramatic end for a man who led a dramatic life.

As a soldier, he was the first British officer to escape from Colditz during the Second World War, using the codename 'Saturday'.

As a politician, he chose to be the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher and was set to occupy the role proper before his untimely death.

Now author Patrick Bishop, one of Britain's leading historians, has explored Neave's remarkable life in his new biography, The Man Who Was Saturday.

Q. You leaned on two versions of who Neave was: the public persona from his published memoirs and how he wanted to be viewed, but also you had access to his unpublished private diaries. Was there a dichotomy between the two?

A. Yes, it's like any of us, I suppose, you have a kind of view that you present to the outside world and then you have your own thoughts about how your life is going.

As a biographer, diaries are quite tricky. Some diaries are just written for public consumption, people write them to reinforce a view of themselves as they want to be remembered, or reinforce their own self-image.

But you can tell whether a diary is the real deal or not; whether it's a genuinely reflective document that examines fairly ruthlessly and mercilessly his own motivations and actions, and his fall into that category.

So, it was fortunate that I had the public face that he presented and his own private reflections on who he was and what he was doing.

Q. Neave was a much-celebrated war hero who escaped from Colditz and was awarded a Military Cross. He was well-educated, he had careers as a soldier, a lawyer, a spy and a politician, so people might be surprised to learn that there was a fragility to him. Insecurities, plagued by doubts, haunted by a sense of failure - it's a side to him that you are bringing to the surface, would that be fair to say?

A. I think it's true of all us, but it's particularly interesting that that truism is reinforced when it's someone who outwardly appears to be confident, successful and unflappable, so in a way it's quite reassuring to know that even someone who is born into the Establishment, who ultimately is a success, is plagued by the same doubts as everyone else.

Q. You came to like him despite his faults. What did you admire most about him?

A. He was a decent man underneath his slightly kind of stiff exterior. He cared about things and people. Something that I didn't know about was that he was heavily involved in refugee work and had a lasting interest in refugees, again something that I think was formed by his wartime experiences.

He was incredibly energetic. It's quite interesting going into the life of an MP, for a lot of the time he was basically a foot soldier in the Tory party and he had a couple of lowly ministerial jobs, but it was quite interesting following the life of a constituency MP at a time when Brexit was going on and the politicians now are more reviled than they have ever been.

They were pretty reviled back then, in the Sixties and Seventies; he's constantly bemoaning the fact that the public hold politicians in very low esteem, but they have fallen even further since then.

But what you come to realise is that, actually, if you take the job seriously, which I think most of them do, it's a lot of work and not actually a huge amount of reward.

And he certainly fell into the category of very dedicated, hard-working politician, so it was a bit of a corrective to the cynical view we have of MPs, that they are all in it for themselves, lining their pockets with expenses and basically not following the wishes of the people who voted for them.

Q. He was the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is not a job coveted by many, but he was offered his pick by Thatcher and he chose it himself. You say he saw it as a challenge and wanted to make his mark on history?

A. Yes, but in that chapter about how he got the job, what struck me in the diaries is that he's got no interest in Northern Ireland. It wasn't one of his specialist subjects, if you like.

In fact, the few mentions he makes of what's going on in Northern Ireland are pretty derogatory about the unionists.

This was about the time of the Ulster Workers' Council strike and the first Sunningdale and the first attempts to bring a grand political solution to the problem.

He doesn't exhibit much interest in it and, when he does mention the unionists, it's in pretty derogatory terms. He says they look like a bunch of gangsters in the House of Commons.

But the conversion to unionism is very sudden and people, his family in particular, wrestled with trying to understand why it was that he chose, as you say, this very difficult job which at that particular time showed no signs of offering any kind of political reward.

And their explanation - and one I think I'd go along with - is that he saw it as a kind of last battle in his ongoing lifetime campaign against totalitarianism and oppression versus freedom.

He identified the republican paramilitaries as the same sort of people he had been fighting in the Second World War. He wasn't a Cold War warrior, particularly, but he identified them with anti-democratic, primitive oppression.

And, yet, even then he was a man of imagination. He didn't give the enemy any credit for patriotism, or for idealism, he just saw them as bad guys who had to be defeated.

You can't really present him as anything other than a hardliner, but even then inside the Conservative Party he was considered to be too inflexible, and when Thatcher actually did come to power, his successor Humphrey Atkins abandoned Neave's key policies, like regional councils.

Q. As we know, no one was ever brought to justice for his killing and the INLA admitted responsibility. The fact that no one was convicted for his death, allied to files on his murder being closed and, despite your best efforts, Freedom of Information attempts were refused for national security reasons, can you see how that might fuel conspiracy theories perhaps? You also write about a suggestion of collusion with regards to figures in Callaghan's Government leaking information. What's your take on all of that?

A. The collusion thing, I think, is completely fanciful and I think it was a story that resulted from some policeman under investigation, and I think they floated that as something that could aid them in their situation.

But I don't believe that, I don't think they got any inside help with the House of Commons. I don't believe the bomb was planted in the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, I think the truth of the continued official secrecy is that's just the way they do it.

You must know yourself that they basically claim that everything is either closed because of national security considerations, or that this case is still open and it may be at some future date it is live again, in which case it will interfere with a successful prosecution.

But I don't believe that, I think it's just the British Establishment's obsessive secrecy, which is a blanket condition. I don't think it's particularly significant in this case.

Having said that, of course, it then does inevitably, when you've got a case like this one, it gives rise to all sorts of fanciful theories, one being that perhaps they are trying to hide the identities, or that an informant is now a public figure. Who knows? I have no idea, but it certainly doesn't help their case.

Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has given an undertaking in the House of Commons that he will brief the family on what is known about the investigation.

They weren't told anything. Their mother may have been told, but she is long dead, but they certainly haven't been told anything about the progress of the investigation, why it came to nothing and so forth.

Q. I'm interested, given the time you have spent researching this particular case, in what your view is on the issue of policing the past and the legacy of the Troubles. We see the case of 'Soldier F', a Bloody Sunday soldier, being brought to court, yet you write of Harry Flynn being a suspect in the Neave case and now living a nice life in the sunshine in Spain. It's difficult territory isn't it?

A. It is, but I think the lesson is, unless you treat everyone equally, then it's just perpetuating the problem and it pushes the day further down the line when people will actually get any closure and the healing process will be completed.

I don't hold any brief for soldiers who shoot down innocent, non-threatening demonstrators, and I certainly don't hold any brief for people who blow up politicians.

Both issues ought to be addressed in the same manner and with the same rigour, and I think that's what sticks in people's craws.

Q. When you have read through his diaries in the detail and the level that you have, you're almost in someone's head to an extent. What do you think Neave might have made of events and how they transpired in the 40 years since in terms of the peace process?

A. Of course, you do think about these things, and I think he would, like a lot of Tories, he would have found the peace process pretty... I think he would have accepted it, but grudgingly. I think he would not have thought it was an ideal solution. I think he would have probably thought it was a surrender. Like a lot of people around that time, he believed the IRA were on the back foot.

A lot of people I spoke to when I was doing this book, Tory politicians, said that was a golden opportunity we had and one more push and the whole thing would have collapsed, then we could get into a peace process which wasn't tainted by the participation of the people who had been doing the violence.

Now, you can sympathise with that view, but on the other hand, history is full of cases of military men saying if they had been given the resources, if only we had kept our nerve a little longer, then we would have won the war.

Q. And on the political landscape we have now, Brexit and so on?

A. On Europe, he was a European, a one-nation Tory, he supported Heath's campaign to get us into Europe and I think, again shaped by the Second World War, he would have thought that the European project was a necessary, fundamental thing that had to be done in order to prevent a Third World War.

But he was also a very staunch defender of the rights of Parliament against the executive and he was an old-fashioned patriot. I think that the way that rights flowed away from Britain and towards Brussels would have given him quite a lot of concern, and I'm completely speculating, but I think he would have been on the Leave side of the party if he was still alive.

Q. You live between the UK and France, so you must have a view on Brexit yourself?

A. Well, I'm a Brexiteer, but I see it in historical terms. I think going into the EU was for mercenary, economic reasons; we went in to get a market, we didn't go in there to be part of a European political project.

So, I regard it as being a sort of aberration, really. It's not to say a bad thing, so I was a mild Brexiteer initially, but given the reaction of the political Establishment and the liberal Establishment to the democratic decision, that has now pushed me further and further into the Brexit camp. Having been mildly pro-Leave initially, I'm now firmly of the view, for all sorts of reasons which actually don't really have to do with Europe any more, for the fundamental democratic reasons we have to leave.

Q. The DUP, of course, seem to have a large say in things. What's your view on that?

A. It's interesting that, up to now, little attention has actually been focused on the DUP. Of course, in the arithmetic of the thing they loom very large, but why are the DUP doing it?

They are by no means representative of the whole population of Northern Ireland. You have 18 MPs, 10 of whom are DUP. I think they are going to find a lot of people will be asking, when this is finally over, how is it that this ancient historical issue is still able to exert such an influence on British politics?

And I think the unionists might find themselves under a lot of scrutiny by mainland voters and politicians who actually really don't know much about, or care much about, what's going on in Northern Ireland. I think this is going to get their attention, and possibly not in a very positive way for unionists.

The Man Who Was Saturday by Patrick Bishop is published by William Collins, priced £20

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