Airey Neave MP – the best secretary of state Northern Ireland never had

Airey Neave masterminded Margaret Thatcher's election as Tory leader and thereby changed the course of British politics
Airey Neave masterminded Margaret Thatcher's election as Tory leader and thereby changed the course of British politics
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Historian GORDON LUCY remembers Airey Neave, who was murdered in the underground car park at the Palace of Westminster 40 years ago on March 30, 1979

In the early 1930s as an Eton schoolboy, Airey Neave visited Germany and was convinced of the inevitability of war. In preparation, he purchased and read the complete works of Clausewitz and joined the Territorial Army, perhaps to the detriment of his studies at Oxford.

The Airey Neave memorial stone at Merton College, Oxford University

The Airey Neave memorial stone at Merton College, Oxford University

In 1940 he was one of those who resolutely defended Calais in order to divert the Germans from Dunkirk, thereby facilitating the evacuation of the BEF. He was badly wounded and captured.

Sent to Spangenberg, he briefly escaped. Recaptured, he was questioned and tortured for 10 days by the Gestapo.

In January 1942 he became the first British officer to escape from Colditz, a camp for habitual escapers. Back in London he was recruited into MI9, the secret escape and evasion organisation, which enabled 2,198 RAF (and a similar number of American airmen) to evade capture and resume active service.

A fluent German speaker and a qualified barrister, he was appointed to the British War Crimes Executive at Nuremberg where he served the indictments on Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and other leading Nazis.

At a by-election in 1953 he entered Parliament where he found himself under-valued, under-employed and frustrated. During this period he wrote two books, one of which, ‘They Have Their Exits’, was an account of his escape from Colditz.

After a heart attack in 1959, the year in which he had finally secured junior office at the Air Ministry, Edward Heath is alleged to have told him he was ‘finished’. If so, Neave never mentioned it (which suggests this episode may never have happened) but after the leadership contest of 1975 Heath-ites claimed that Neave’s role was motivated by revenge.

What is clear is that after the two general elections of 1974 Neave decided that Heath was an electoral liability. Initially he considered backing William Whitelaw (who declined Neave’s support) and Edward du Cann (who dithered) but finally settled on Margaret Thatcher as his candidate.

During the war he had learned that women (and here he had Andrée de Jongh, a young Belgian woman whose biography he had penned in 1954, and Mary Lindell, an English woman, in mind) were at least as brave and decisive in action as men, and often more so. Ideology played no part in his choice because he was essentially an old-fashioned ‘One-Nation’ Tory.

A brilliant organiser and well versed in covert operations, Neave deployed these skills to great effect. At the very outset he told Roy Hattersley ‘My filly is going to win’ and orchestrated a masterly campaign of disinformation, telling Willie Whitelaw’s supporters that Ted needed a kick in the first ballot to get him to stand down: so vote for Margaret who will –of course –not win.’

Neave became head of her private office. He regarded Mrs Thatcher as ‘the most gifted politician in the Conservative Party and perhaps the most gifted politician for 25 years … the first real, idealistic politician for a long time … a philosopher as well as a politician’.

Offered any shadow post he wanted, he chose the Northern Ireland portfolio, the only job he ever wanted. He had a genuine sympathy for the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. In his estimation, terrorists were murderers and criminals and should be treated as such.

Unlike the NIO, he did not believe in the containment of terrorism (or ‘an acceptable level of violence’) but sought its military defeat through a combination of intelligence and undercover operations.

Asked if he was willing to talk to the IRA, his response was, ‘Yes, I’d say, “Come out with your hands up”.’

Politically, he had no time for devolution and thought power-sharing was unworkable. An integrationist, he favoured instead increased powers for local government within the context of continued direct rule.

In his final contribution to debate in the Commons on March 16 1979 he praised ‘the dedication and courage’ of the RUC.

On March 28 Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was defeated by a vote of no confidence. Just before three o’clock two days later a bomb planted by the INLA exploded under Neave’s car as he drove up the ramp of the Commons car park. He died in hospital an hour later.

Neave was murdered because the terrorists feared his effectiveness. Paul Routledge, who produced a biography of Neave in 2002, interviewed a member of the IRSP, the political mouthpiece of the INLA, who told Routledge that Neave ‘would have been very successful at that job [secretary of state for Northern Ireland]. He would have brought the armed struggle to its knees.’

Paying tribute to the man who masterminded her succession to the Tory leadership, Mrs Thatcher described him as ‘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. There’s no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph’.

Although Neave’s vision for Northern Ireland remained Conservative Party policy in the manifesto, unfortunately in reality Neave’s vision died with him.

Humphrey Atkins, the new secretary of state, was a slightly pompous but amiable lightweight who had hitherto made no impact on the political world. He was wholly incapable of filling Neave’s shoes and was easily bamboozled into futile attempts to revive devolution. Security policy remained more of the same, unnecessarily prolonging Northern Ireland’s agony for a further decade and more.

Masterminding Mrs Thatcher’s election as party leader remains Neave’s greatest achievement. Thereby he changed the course of British politics.