Analysis: just who was Airey Neave, the British politician assassinated 40 years ago this week by the INLA?

By Stephen KellyLiverpool Hope University

Next weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of spook turned politician Airey Neave by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). On March 30th 1979, the Conservative Party MP and Margaret Thatcher’s shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was blown up by a devastating car bomb attack in Westminster.

By the standards of the day, Neave was a remarkable figure. On the one hand, he was a public figure: war-hero, writer, barrister and politician. He had escaped from Colditz, a Nazi prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. The author of five semi-autobiographical books, Neave established a practice at the bar and was the Conservative Party MP for Abington from1953. 

But on the other hand, he was an elusive and secretive individual, retaining close links to the British Secret Intelligence Service throughout his adult life. During the Second World War, he worked for MI9, a subsidiary of MI6, later holding the rank of commanding officer of the Intelligence School 9, Territorial Army (TA).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Brainstorm contributor Stephen Kelly discusses the life and death of Airey Neave

Neave’s greatest contribution to political life came in the autumn of his career, following his promotion as shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1975. His appointment to Thatcher’s shadow cabinet, in the wake of her election as leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975, had important ramifications for the Conservative Party’s Northern Ireland policy. 

From the moment he took up his new shadow cabinet portfolio, Neave’s "first priority", as he noted in April 1978, was to defeat Republican terrorism. Although often preoccupied by security related issues, and despite misguided arguments to the contrary, Neave remained committed to finding a workable solution in the hope of ending direct rule in Northern Ireland. 

As a pragmatist, confronted by the political reality that the mainstream political parties in Northern Ireland could not agree on the terms of devolution, he instead championed reform of local government in Northern Ireland as an interim measure. By initially supporting the establishment of his so-called "Council of State", subsequently followed by a proposal to create one or more Regional Councils in Northern Ireland, Neave sought to end, as he phrased it in November 1977, the "civil servants’ paradise" which existed under direct rule.

Conspiracy theories continue to be linked with Neave’s murder to this day

Unfortunately, Neave’s assassination by the INLA robbed him of the opportunity to implement his proposals to reform local government in Northern Ireland. On the day of his murder, Neave commenced his working day like any other. Following breakfast, he left his flat at Westminster Gardens, got into his powder-blue Vauxhall Cavalier saloon and made the short journey to the Palace of Westminster.

His morning was spent preparing for the forthcoming British general election (scheduled for May 3rd) and dealing with day-to-day constituency matters. Following lunch, he decided to stop for the day and return home to spend time with his wife Diana. Neave chatted to colleagues in the members’ lobby before taking the lift to the five-floor underground car park to pick up his car.

At 2.58pm, an enormous explosion engulfed New Palace Yard. Soon after, as Neave’s first biographer Paul Routledge wrote, smoke was seen billowing from the smouldering wreckage of a Vauxhall car on the ramp leading up from the MP’s underground carpark. It was a "haunting image", with sheets of headed House of Commons writing paper "blowing gently in the breeze", recalled Lord Lexden, Neave’s former political advisor on Northern Ireland. 

The remains of Airey Neave's car after the bomb attack. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CO/Getty Images

Police officers rushed to the scene and came upon an unidentifiable man, dressed in a black coat and striped trousers. Initially, the victim was believed to be Alan Lee Williams, the Labour MP. Surveying the burning wreckage, the mangled frame of the car and the glassless windows, it was apparent that some type of bomb had exploded. "He’s still alive! Clear the area!", a policeman shouted. Within minutes, an ambulance crew arrived to find the still unidentified figure, who was breathing, slumped over the steering wheel, his face burned beyond recognition. 

A doctor, nurse and firefighters soon joined the entourage before Neave, with his right leg blown off below the knee, was eventually freed after half an hour. He was quickly taken to Westminster Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. But it was too late and he died on the operating table.

Thatcher received news of Neave’s murder while preparing for a party political general election broadcast at BBC headquarters. Her first thought was reportedly "please God, don’t let it be Airey". When it was confirmed that Neave was indeed the victim Thatcher was described as "numb with shock". Later that day she informed a BBC reporter that "some devils got him and they must never, never, never be allowed to triumph, they must never prevail". 

Airey Neave with Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Getty Images

Following Neave’s murder, attention immediately turned to who had perpetrated this brutal crime. Initially, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) claimed responsibility, but the real perpetrators were the INLA. Formed in 1975 with a pledge to establish a "republican and socialist" state, the movement had previously been known as the People’s Liberation Army, which sprang up in late 1974, when the Official IRA attacked members of the newly formed Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). At the time of Neave’s death, it was believed that the INLA had approximately 60 active members.  

The INLA basked in the publicly following Neave’s murder. A spokesperson for the terrorist organisation said that Neave’s assassination "had a tonic effect in Northern Ireland where there had been celebrations in Belfast, [and] a recruiting boom for the INLA." According to an INLA source, Neave was "specially selected for assassination" because he was "well known for his rabid militarist calls for more repression against the Irish people."

Plans to assassinate Neave were carried out with military precision. In the weeks leading up to his murder, a dossier was compiled on him establishing "his habits and routine". According to declassified British Home Office (HO) records, the INLA headquarters and chief of general staff gave the go ahead to assassinate Neave on receiving confirmation of the fall of the Labour government

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, Eimear Lowe and Tommie Gorman report on the end of the INLA's armed struggle in 2009

Apparently, the murder was led by a lone INLA volunteer. Using a magnet, the perpetrator attached the bomb underneath Neave’s car when it was parked in the House of Commons car park. According to HO intelligence, the bomb was planted under Neave’s car while it was parked outside his home. Wherever the bomb was attached, police investigations confirmed that two switching devices were used, the first a watch and the second a mercury switch, attached to one kilo of TNT. 

Conspiracy theories continue to be linked with Neave’s murder to this day. In 1986, Enoch Powell, Ulster Unionist MP for South Down from 1974 to 1987, alleged American involvement in the death of Neave. Powell believed that Neave’s death was part of an American/CIA master-plan to help secure a united Ireland, in return for Ireland joining NATO. 

Indeed, Neave’s death continues to drum up controversy. In 2014, a Channel 4 programme Utopia used news footage of Neave’s murder in its fictional thriller. In this programme, Neave was also apparently depicted as a heavy drinker, involved in several shady political deals. In the media storm that followed, Channel 4 was heavily criticised for allegedly defaming Neave’s memory.

Neave’s assassination by the INLA robbed him of the opportunity to implement his proposals to reform local government in Northern Ireland

While Neave’s murder was a deep personal blow to Thatcher, she was determined to win the British general election in his memory. Significantly and despite misguided arguments to the contrary, the Conservative Party did have an agreed strategy on Northern Ireland following Neave’s murder. In Neave’s absence, Thatcher turned to the Conservative Research Department (CRD), chiefly Christopher Patten, Adam Ridley and Alistair Cooke, and her shadow cabinet colleagues William Whitelaw and Francis Pym, for advice on Northern Ireland policy. 

In a handwritten letter dated April 10th 1979, Thatcher reassured then British prime minister James Callaghan that despite the "tragic events that have happened", the Conservative Party had not changed it’s "stance on Northern Ireland matters in any way". She reaffirmed that the Conservative Party remained committed to Neave’s "Irish section in the manifesto", which he had written some three to four hours before he was assassinated. "Naturally", she wrote, "we would not wish to change it". 

The following day, the Conservative Party published its official general election manifesto. The two paragraphs that dealt with Northern Ireland remained loyal to Neave’s previous stance. Regarding security, the Conservative Party made a commitment to defeat terrorism and to restore law and order in Northern Ireland. On Northern Ireland’s political future, in line with Neave’s proposal for reform of local government in Northern Ireland, the manifesto noted that "in the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected Regional Councils with a wide range of powers over local services".

The Conservative Party pulled off a resounding general election victory under Thatcher’s leadership. The party won 339 seats, with the Labour Party claiming 269. When the Thatchers arrived at No. 10 Downing Street, a journalist asked how she felt. Apart from quoting St. Francis of Assisi and a reference to her father Alfred Roberts, her final words were about her former shadow cabinet colleague and friend. Quoting Neave, "whom we hoped to bring here with us", Thatcher said "there is now work to be done".

This article is sourced from the author’s forthcoming monograph, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party and the Northern Ireland conflict, 1975-1990 (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Dr Stephen Kelly is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the Department of History and Politics at Liverpool Hope University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ