But a new book suggests the threat to the 70-year-old earl was well-known and key flaws in his security handed his killers their opportunity
Forty years ago today, Martin McGuinness, chief of staff of the IRA since 1978, was on the verge of realising the ambition he had vowed to fulfil when he took command. He had set his sights, he told the army council and GHQ staff, on creating “a liberated zone along the border.”
On August 27, 1979, he proved his aim was true when the IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten off the west coast of Ireland at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo, just across the border from Northern Ireland.
Later that same day, 18 soldiers, the majority from the Parachute Regiment, were murdered by the IRA at Warrenpoint. A civilian also died after soldiers opened fire, believing he was one of the terror gang.
The bomb was detonated from the Republic on the other side of Carlingford Lough.
McGuinness had added an east/west dimension to his highly successful north/south border strategy.
On March 30, 1979, the INLA had killed Conservative Party spokesman in Northern Ireland, Airey Neave, when they detonated a mercury tilt under-car bomb as he left the House of Commons car park. The IRA’s nose was put firmly out of joint.
When Margaret Thatcher later became Tory Prime Minister, Martin McGuinness promised her a long, hot summer. A “spectacular” would also let him put the upstarts of the INLA in their place. He would show them who was the capo di tutti capi (“boss of all bosses”), the Sicilian term for the top crime boss of the mafia.
Mountbatten had spent every August in Sligo since 1969, ignoring warnings that he was a prime target for the IRA, most recently from Sir Maurice Oldfield, “C”, the director general of MI6.
Oldfield had been briefed about Mountbatten when Thatcher asked him to go to Northern Ireland to become director of intelligence after Neave was killed.
Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, from south Armagh, suggested reviving an attack on Mountbatten and took the plan to McGuinness. Slab not only carried out a dummy run in 1978, he later planned and commanded the almost simultaneous Warrenpoint attacks.
McGuinness had fears of intelligence penetration when a covert RUC mission, Operation Hawk, arrested a member of a sub-aqua club earlier that year. Although police had found evidence that he had visited Mullaghmore, they didn’t connect him to Mountbatten and released him.
So, the IRA was good to go on the night of August 26, 1979, when the diver secretly attached the 50lb bomb to Shadow V. As well as Mountbatten, the dead included his grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old schoolboy who was helping out as boatman, and the Dowager Lady Brabourne. Nicholas Knatchbull’s twin brother, mother and father survived, with serious injuries.
That afternoon, a convoy of two Army trucks, led by a Land Rover, drove from an Army base at Ballykinler to another at Newry. Its route took it past Narrow Water, on the shores of Carlingford Lough, the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As the rear vehicle of the convoy passed by a trailer at the side of the road, an IRA team, which had been staking out the scene for days, detonated an 800lb bomb. An IRA unit hiding on the southern side of the border opened up on the troops, who returned fire. A civilian, Michael Hudson, was killed in the crossfire.
Six soldiers were killed in this explosion. During the next half-hour, several more Land Rovers and two helicopters arrived to help in the rescue effort.
As a Wessex helicopter took off to ferry injured soldiers to hospital, a second 800lb bomb was detonated, killing 12 more soldiers.
The commander of the second contingent of troops, Lieutenant Colonel David Blair, was among the dead. It was the Parachute Regiment’s highest death toll since Arnhem in the Second World War. When Margaret Thatcher visited the scene, Brigadier David Thorne greeted her by taking an epaulette from his pocket. “Madam Prime Minister,” he said. “This is all I have left of a very brave officer, David Blair.”
The IRA’s strategy of “armed propaganda” was highlighted by Press treatment of the atrocities, with the deaths of the 18 soldiers pushed into second place, while the murder of Lord Mountbatten of Burma commanded the front pages for weeks. One journalist rang the Sinn Fein Press office to ask why the IRA had killed a harmless old man.
The reply was as brief as it was effective: “Why are you ringing me from New Zealand?”
The IRA statement claimed that the operation was: “A discriminate operation to bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country. We will tear out their sentimental imperialist heart.”
Graffiti went up immediately, especially in the Bogside area of Londonderry. “Thirteen dead, but not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten.” It was IRA payback for Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Now, a new book by Andrew Lownie, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves, has just been published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Mountbatten’s death. It carries new interviews with people who knew the couple intimately, as well as Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, recently uncovered FBI files revealing that Mountbatten was a “known homosexual with a perversion for young boys”.
In addition, Lownie reveals:
– A senior IRA intelligence officer confirmed that there were previous plans to assassinate Lord Mountbatten every year since he started visiting Classiebawn House in 1969. (In September 2018, I interviewed Kieran Conway, a former IRA member of GHQ staff, who also told me this. Conway recently repeated this claim in a BBC documentary);
– In 1976, 20 members of the Garda were assigned to guard Mountbatten;
– In the spring of 1978, Scotland Yard decided that Mountbatten was also at risk in London and there were extra car patrols near his London home;
– In July 1979, two IRA suspects were arrested on Lough Ross, some 10 miles from the Co Monaghan home of one of the IRA’s top bomb-makers, the Libyan-trained Thomas McMahon. Shortly afterwards, Mountbatten was advised not to go to Ireland by the Metropolitan Police, but decided to go anyway. Security was stepped up, with 28 men providing a day-and-night guard at Classiebawn;
– At the end of July, Mountbatten’s Army close protection officer conducted a full risk assessment, identifying Shadow V, which was often moored in the public bay and could easily be boarded unseen at night, as the most likely target. What especially concerned him was a car, registered in Belfast. According to the officer, “just a few days after the event that said vehicle was already known to the RUC and Army intelligence as a vehicle frequently used by the IRA for gun-running and transporting bombs for the IRA. What’s more, that vehicle had been bugged for months by British Army intelligence tracking its movements”;
– His report was not acted on and he was told his services would no longer be required — the Garda would henceforth be handling security. He was forced to sign a gagging order, which only expired in 2017.
– The lack of security on the boat is confirmed in a letter from Robin Haydon, British ambassador to Ireland, to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, explaining it was the first year the boat had not been guarded during the day nor searched before it sailed;
– There had been an unsuccessful attempt to murder Mountbatten on Saturday, August 25, but the bomb had failed to go off, and;
– Several other IRA members were under suspicion for involvement, including an IRA leader from Monaghan, believed to have orchestrated the attack, who was questioned and then released, the bomb detonator and three women living in a caravan opposite Mullaghmore harbour, who, it was suspected, had been watchers. One of those involved still lives and works in Dublin as a journalist, another was released under the Good Friday Agreement, while a third became a member of the Forum for Victims and Survivors.
Only one man has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lord Mountbatten. Thomas McMahon served 18 years and was released in August 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Martin McGuinness was the guest speaker at a celebration for McMahon shortly afterwards.
In August 2009, I was the first — and only — journalist to speak to him, near his home, with his wife, Rose.
He initially denied being McMahon, but when asked to comment on the deaths of those on the Shadow V, his reply was three short words: “Take yourself off.” And, with that, he and Rose scurried off up the short hill to their bungalow.
Forty years after his arrest for mass murder, perhaps he should again be asked if he would still turn his back on the pain and grief of his victims.
Kathryn Johnston is co-author (with Liam Clarke) of Martin McGuinness: From Guns To Government (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2001)