September 26, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Northern Ireland in 1979

6 min read
The Northern Ireland troubles reached a fever pitch in 1979 with the assassinations of Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten

Northern Ireland had been riven with sectarian conflicts between Catholics and Protestants since the province was carved out of the newly independent Ireland in 1922. In the mid-1960s, a civil rights movement spearheaded by Catholic Republicans met stiff resistance from the Protestant-dominated government in Stormont – the centre of political power in Northern Ireland. The situation deteriorated rapidly and by 1969, the British Army was sent in to restore order. After the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, two decades of sectarian terrorism followed with countless tit-for-tat killings. Stormont was shut down and direct rule imposed from Westminster through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Things went from bad to worse. The year 1979 was an especially traumatic year.

The Shankhill Butchers

February 1979 saw life sentences handed out to the notoriously bloody ‘Shankhill Butchers’. These eleven men linked to the Protestant terrorist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were implicated in 19 grisly murders. It’s hard to convey today how appalling these crimes were. Think of a mash up between The Godfather and Silence of the Lambs and you’re getting close. The Shankhill Butchers seized random Catholics off the streets and employing a range of knives tortured and eviscerated their victims, then slashed their throats before dumping the bodies.

Even by the standards of the time, this was pure horror. But the fear inspired by the leader of the gang, Lenny Murphy, led most people to keep quiet. Even when the Shankhill Butchers accidentally picked up Protestants, mistaking them for Catholics, and killed them – the cover up continued. A cover up some have argued extended to the police and intelligence services. This is of course contested.

One man, 24-year-old Gerard McLaverty, was driven to a disused doctor’s surgery, beaten with sticks and his wrists slashed – then dumped in a back alley. Incredibly he survived and was able to identify the butchers and testify against them. After the ceasefire of 1994, William Moore – a butcher who’d been involved in eleven murders – was released. Then after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Robert “Basher” Bates, who’d pleaded guilty to ten murders, was let out of prison. Back in 1979, both men had been told they would never taste freedom again.

Northern Ireland terrorism gets more audacious in 1979

In March, the Irish Republican Army assassinated the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Richard Sykes. On the very same day, the IRA exploded a total of 24 bombs across Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, London’s man in the province, was Roy Mason. A pugnacious ex-miner on the right of the Labour Party. He governed with an iron hand that irked Irish nationalist MPs in Westminster. They abstained in a vote of confidence in the Labour government contributing to the fall of Labour in 1979 – and the Tories coming to power.

One of Mason’s biggest fans was his opposite number on the Tory benches – the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Airey Neave had one of those backstories you don’t get in British politics anymore. He had been captured by the Germans during the Second World War. Then escaped from the infamous Colditz castle prison – the subject of a BBC drama series in the 1970s. Then Neave served on the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried and executed leading Nazis.

He was a firm favourite of Thatcher, managing her private office. On 30 March 1979, she was just over a month away from becoming Prime Minister. Neave would then be in charge of Northern Ireland. But that never happened. Because on that date, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) blew Neave up in his car with a bomb planted underneath his vehicle. Incredibly, the explosion happened in the Palace of Westminster car park.

The assassination of Lord Mountbatten

The killings continued on both sides throughout the year. By August, Thatcher had been Prime Minister for over three months. Humphrey Atkins was the new secretary of state. On the 22nd of that month, he rejected an offer from the Governor of New York to chair talks between Atkins and the Irish Foreign Minister. The British were annoyed by a US State Department decision three weeks earlier to half a private arms shipment from the US to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Irish American politicians in Congress – such as Ted Kennedy – wanted to pressure Thatcher into adopting a new approach to the Northern Ireland problem.

But all of this was overshadowed on 27 August 1979 when the unthinkable happened. Lord Louis Mountbatten, a prominent member of the Royal Family, cousin of the Queen and last Viceroy of India was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was fishing with a group just off the coast of Mullaghmore, county Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland. A booby-trap bomb on his boat killed Mountbatten, Lady Brabourne (aged 82), Mountbatten’s grandson Nicholas Knatchbull (14) and a member of the crew, Paul Maxwell (aged 15). The killer was later apprehended who unfortunately shared my surname: Thomas McMahon. In 1998, he was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

On the same day, 18 British soldiers were killed at Warrenpoint in County Down. This was the British Army’s biggest loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland.

DISCOVER: The Specials in Northern Ireland

Bad times to be Irish

Many Irish people had emigrated to the United Kingdom – and obviously to the United States – in search of work for over a hundred years. The Irish diaspora ranged from those in low-skilled jobs to the professions and even into politics. I’m half Irish (but born in London and with a very pukka English accent) and I can’t claim to have suffered terrible discrimination in the 1970s. Though at one school I was nicknamed “Paddy” though that may have been just as much as result of a famous Irish equestrian show jumper Paddy McMahon who was well known at the time – as opposed to being a bit Irish.

However, I discovered in recent years that my father – who was completely Irish in every way – did encounter some bigotry. This undoubtedly flared up after terrible terrorist atrocities like the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. People would feel they had a license to let rip with anti-Irish comments. And I’ve no doubt that Irish people were physically attacked, denied jobs and cold-shouldered in their communities.

What irked me at the time was the “jokes” about “paddys” on TV. So-called comedians who’d kick off with gags starting with “there was this paddy right…”. And the moral of the story was that Irish people are incredibly thick. I think there were many English people in the 1970s of average intelligence who genuinely believed they were a cut above Irish people.

Sadly we never visited my many relatives in Northern Ireland because of “The Troubles”. Though my Irish grandmother would return from trips there with music books full of Irish songs for me to play on the piano. Even though she was a staunch Republican, she made sure I could play both the Catholic and Protestant classics.

I only had direct contact with one terrorist attack. On the first of January 1975, the IRA blew up the Metropolitan Waterworks pumping station on the Woodford New Road near where I lived. I was in bed at the time when I heard the bang and called to my family wondering what it was. Even at the age of 12, I knew in my gut it was a bomb. Not a firework. Not a car exhaust. The loud bang was only one thing. And for one night, the Northern Ireland troubles came to our neighbourhood.

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