Historian GORDON LUCY recalls the assassination of Earl Mountbatten of Burma in August 1979
Earl Mountbatten of Burma was an iconic figure who was variously supreme commander in South East Asia during the Second World War, the last viceroy and first governor-general of India, first sea lord and finally chief of the defence staff.
A grandson and godson of Queen Victoria, Mountbatten was an uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh, a second cousin once removed of the Queen, and a formative influence on the Prince of Wales, his great nephew.
From 1960 onwards it was his custom to holiday during the month of August at Classiebawn Castle near Mullaghmore in Co Sligo.
The current house was commissioned by Lord Palmerston, the 19th-century foreign secretary and prime minister, although he did not live to see its completion.
A property his wife had inherited, Mountbatten clearly fell in love with the place and loved to invite close family and friends there. The future King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, to whom Mountbatten was something of a mentor, was a regular visitor to Mullaghmore throughout the 1960s.
With the onset of PIRA’s campaign of terrorism, in the early 1970s the Garda advised Mounbatten that he could continue to holiday in Co Sligo and offered reassurance about his safety: ‘We cannot show the white flag to the IRA and although we do not think there is any real danger, we feel obliged to assure you that as many men as are needed will be applied to the task.’
In 1972 he had a 12-man guard, raised to 15 in 1973 and 28 in 1974.
In 1985 Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten’s official biographer, posed the question why was he murdered in 1979 when he could have been targeted at any time since 1970, observing that ‘each season Mountbatten became more remote from the power which he had once wielded’.
The three explanations suggest themselves. First, the PIRA sought to test the mettle of the newly elected prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Secondly the Provos may have been irritated at being upstaged by the INLA’s murder of Airey Neave in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster and wished to mount their own ‘spectacular’.
Finally, PIRA recognised that ‘spectaculars’ had much greater political impact than routine acts of terrorism.
The Provos had formed the opinion that the Garda security surrounding Moutbatten was sloppy and amateurish and that Shadow V, Mountbatten’s 29-foot fishing boat, in which Mountbatten, his family and friends sailed most days, was left unguarded for long stretches. In 2009 a retired Garda detective claimed the security in retrospect was ‘farcical’ and that Mountbatten was ‘a sitting duck’.
On August 27 1979 Mountbatten went lobster-potting on board Shadow V. He was accompanied by Lord and Lady Brabourne, Mountbatten’s son-in-law and daughter; Lord Brabourne’s mother; Lord and Lady Brabourne’s 14-year-old twin sons Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull, and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old pupil of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, who helped crew the boat.
The night before a Provo had attached a radio-controlled 50-pound bomb to the unguarded boat.
When the boat was a few hundred yards from the shore the bomb was detonated. Paul Maxwell and Nicholas Knatchbull were killed; and the 83-year-old Dowager Lady Brabourne was fatally injured.
Timothy Knatchbull was seriously injured. Lord and Lady Brabourne were badly hurt. According to some accounts Mountbatten, then aged 79, was killed instantly by the blast but others suggest that he was pulled alive from the water but died of his injuries before being brought ashore.
That same day, approximately 100 miles away, at Narrow Water Castle, between Newry and Warrenpoint, PIRA ambushed and murdered 18 soldiers, 16 of them from the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
The casualties included Lieutenant-Colonel David Blair, the commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, the most senior Army officer killed in Northern Ireland.
Although overshadowed by events in Mullaghmore, Warrenpoint was the deadliest attack on the Army of PIRA’s terrorist campaign.
PIRA claimed responsibility for both outrages. Despite having presided over the independence of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the greatest act of decolonisation in world history, PIRA regarded Mountbatten as a symbol of British imperialism. Nor had PIRA any appreciation of how left wing Mountbatten’s political sympathies were.
Stating that their intention was ‘to tear out’ the ‘sentimental, imperialist heart of the English [sic] people’ and ‘to bring home to the English [sic] ruling class and its working class slaves ... that their government’s war’ was ‘going to cost them’, PIRA greatly exaggerated the sentimentality of the British people and failed to realise that the British Establishment is made of much sterner stuff than they imagined.
Philip Ziegler correctly observed that the decision to murder Mountbatten was ‘taken at a high level’ because it was personally sanctioned by Martin McGuinness.
During her Diamond Jubilee tour of Northern Ireland in June 2012, HM the Queen met Martin McGuinness at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
In a subsequent interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, the RTE journalist, McGuinness revealed that he spoke to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh about the death of Lord Mountbatten.
Pressed by O’Callaghan whether he felt any guilt or remorse for the loss of life and injuries caused by the IRA, he evasively replied: ‘There is nothing glamorous or glorious or great about war – war is absolutely terrible. I regret the loss of every single life, including the loss of British soldiers and those who were close to the Queen of England [sic].’
He added: ‘I also head-on addressed this issue with the Queen and Prince Philip when I said to them that I recognised that they too had lost a loved one. I did not shy away from the issue because I think these are things that have to be faced up to.’
There was evidently no apology. Nor was there any apology when Prince Charles met Gerry Adams three years later in May 2015. Nor did Adams resile from his repellent rationalisation of the murder 36 year earlier.