06 January 2006

How Airey Neave's plan for Ulster came true

Belfast Telegraph

Eric Waugh
06 January 2006

During the lovely crisp weather we had over Christmas, we took ourselves off one day, far from the smoke. We stopped for lunch at a country hotel in Co Antrim.

"Nice place," said my son-in-law, as he looked round the galleried hall. "But a bit chilly."

"Yes," I said. "That gas fire's a poor substitute for the big log fire they always used to have."

"You know it then? " said he.

"Yes," I said, "from long ago. Popular spot for functions. This is the place I first interviewed Margaret Thatcher."

In fact the interview in question was in the summer of 1978.

It was during James Callaghan's premiership and Mrs Thatcher was still Leader of the Opposition, getting to know the country which, within a matter of months, she would govern.

Behind the lady, as we sat down, hovered a figure in tweeds with a lively, well-fleshed face. He had a sheaf of papers in one hand and it was he who had ushered us into the empty bedroom where the camera was set up.

His name was Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave, DSO, OBE, MC, TD, MP, old Etonian and a lawyer. He was wounded while serving with the Artillery in France in 1940, was taken prisoner but, in 1942, escaped from the reputedly escape-proof Colditz Castle in Saxony, disguised as a German officer.

When he got back to London, Churchill put him in charge of MI9, the new security office which was to organise the escape lines from Germany and France along which 35,000 Allied aircrew travelled to freedom. The system worked - brilliantly - because Neave knew all the tricks.

After the war, Neave practised as a barrister - at one time in the same chambers as Margaret Thatcher; he won the Abingdon seat near Oxford in a by-election in 1953 and later attached himself to the Thatcher camp, using his cunning to destroy Heath after his election defeat in 1974, and to win for the lady the Conservative leadership.

As a reward Mrs Thatcher made him head of her private office and eventually Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. His talents, though, were those he had developed in his distinguished wartime past: he was a plotter - and he was widely distrusted, even by many in his own party.

No doubt Mrs Thatcher felt his expertise in undercover work would fit him to take on the terrorists in Ulster. As such, he became a prime target for the wildest wing of the republican movement, the INLA, which is credited with placing the bomb in Neave's Vauxhall in the MPs' car park in the shadow of Big Ben, beneath the forecourt of Palace Yard.

When he drove his car up the ramp on March 30, 1979, the mercury in the tilt switch moved and activated the bomb. He died at once.

Inevitably, the nature of Neave's political ideas and his continuing close contact with the murky world of military intelligence led to speculation that the INLA murder had not been unassisted by sinister figures in the shadows. The CIA?

He was an unashamed integrationist and he made no secret of it.

His blueprint for Northern Ireland was anathema to Washington and to the Whitelaw wing in his own party. For Neave intended to resurrect the old machinery of local government by recreating the county councils.

They would have had restored the enhanced powers over schools, public health, housing, roads and other things they had lost. Otherwise Northern Ireland affairs would be represented at the centre in Westminster by its MPs and through the machinery of parliamentary committees. Stormont would have ceased to matter.

But neither major party at Westminster wanted integration. At bottom they were interested in means of divesting themselves of their Irish entanglement, not in devices which would cement it more firmly within the national structure.

So Neave's murder, however callous it may be to say it, was timely for many people other than the terrorists of the INLA. But Mrs Thatcher was cut to the quick and took the outrage very personally. Her own security was at once intensified.

Six years later she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement she thought, rather naively, would yield meaningful security concessions from Dublin.

The ultimate irony is that at this moment Northern Ireland is to be governed in most essentials just as he would have proposed. The county councils are to be brought back, old powers restored.

Stormont is nowhere and decisions of moment are taken in the House of Commons. True, we do have our Direct Rule Ministers: but they are cardboard figures who come and go, knowing that their Stormont visits are but a diverting interlude, a taste of office they otherwise might not have enjoyed.

Neave, whose outfit provided the packs of cards for prisoners-of-war which, when dipped in water, revealed detailed maps of escape routes, and Monopoly and chess boards which contained tiny compasses, German marks and forged passes, might well have reckoned it his crowning coup.

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