As far away as Trafalgar Square office-workers felt the shudder. "What was that?" was the question repeated across central London. Up on the fifth floor of the Ministry of Defence, halfway down Whitehall, someone instantly articulated the answer. "It's a bomb," the secretaries were told in quiet, chill tones.
It was 30 March 1979, and the dull boom was the sound of what was perhaps the most audacious attack ever mounted on the heart of the British political establishment in modern times. The bomb, planted by an IRA splinter group, had exploded in the underground car park inside the House of Commons. A mercury tilt-switch had been activated in the car of the Tory politician Airey Neave as he drove up the exit ramp.
Why Neave? He appeared to be a figure of small consequence. He had last had a post in government in 1959, when he was a junior minister in the transport department. In his current position, as opposition spokesmen on Northern Ireland, he might have seemed no more a target than the score of other British politicians who had held such a post in recent times.
In fact, the life that was brought to an end so violently that day was one of the most enigmatic in modern politics. For Airey Neave existed in a shadowy world that shifted constantly between the glare of public life and the furtive secrecy of the British intelligence services. He was a man, indeed, who might be said to have not just a double life, but a triple one. Next month, a new biography of the murdered man, Public Servant, Secret Agent, by the political journalist Paul Routledge, is published. It describes Neave as "the ghost in the establishment, faceless and featureless, quietly and decisively fixing the course of events". But will it unravel the real mystery at the heart of the man?
Airey Neave was first thrust into the public eye during the Second World War, when, in 1942, he became the first British soldier to escape from the German prisoner-of-war camp in the infamous Colditz Castle, which Nazi propaganda had proclaimed to be "escape-proof". It was a schoolboy tale of derring-do in which the Eton and Oxford-educated officer – who had already been mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross for bravery on the battle-field – teamed up with a Dutch officer to stage a daring escape. Dressed in clothes painted to look like German officers' uniforms, with cardboard badges, they wandered into the castle guardroom and then, with the Dutch officer chatting in fluent German, sauntered past the guards whom they ordered to stand to attention, and out of the gate to freedom. From there they made their way through neutral Switzerland and thence through Vichy France to Spain, Gibraltar and safety, in a feat that played directly to the cherished wartime stereotype of jaunty British pluck.
After the war, newly-qualified as a barrister, Neave was assigned to the British War Crimes Team at Nuremberg, where he served the indictments on Goering and the other major Nazi war criminals. Thereafter he moved into politics, and by 1953 had become Conservative MP for the staunch Home Counties seat of Abingdon. War-hero, lawyer, politician: Lt-Col Airey Neave was, by the age of 36, already a man of many parts.
Yet that was not all. On his return to Britain after escaping from Colditz he was, on the strength of his experience, recruited by military intelligence to a division of MI6 known as MI9, which advised on escape and insurrection in occupied Europe until the end of the war. Neave took part in clandestine operations behind enemy lines, helping other PoWs to escape. So outraged was Hitler by his activities that Neave's London flat was put on Hitler's target list.
Officially, he remained in intelligence until 1951. Unofficially, he never left, continuing to be involved in MI6, as was his wife Diana through her links with the émigré Polish community. (Ironically, the couple did not, at the time of their marriage, know about the other's secret life. They found out by chance. "One night, I lost one of my agents," Diana revealed many years later, "and he was one of Airey's, too, so it all came out over dinner.")
Neave was never to lose his taste for covert manoeuvring, which proved a more-than-useful asset in the world of politics. In the 1950s, he had a solid but unremarkable career as a junior minister in the colonial and aviation ministries before falling from favour. He had stood down from his job because of illness, but when he returned in good health and asked for a new job, the then chief whip, Edward Heath, told the right-winger: "You're finished." For 16 years, Neave nursed his bitterness; and when, in 1975, a challenge was raised to Heath as leader of the Conservative Party, Neave became campaign manager for the rightist contender, Margaret Thatcher.
In a tactical masterstroke, Neave encouraged many backbenchers to think that Thatcher stood little chance of victory. He hinted that MPs who were not themselves on the right of the party, but still felt it was time for Heath to go, should vote Thatcher in the first ballot, thus forcing Heath's resignation and allowing other more likely candidates – such as Willie Whitelaw – to enter the race. Yet, in the event, Thatcher performed so well in the first ballot that she beat Heath, her candidacy gaining so much momentum that none of her rivals could catch her. She won and Neave became the leader of her private office, where his influence – and, according to the diaries of the former Tory minister Alan Clark, his subtlety and insight – were such that Mrs Thatcher said that she had been left feeling "like a puppet whose strings have been cut".
But Neave's manipulations were not restricted to the political arena. Though the Iron Lady, when she became Leader of the Opposition, offered him the chance to shadow any Cabinet post he wanted – and take on the same job when the Tories came to power – he chose to forgo the great offices of state and asked for Northern Ireland. This meant that, in an era when Ireland was replacing the Cold War as the chief preoccupation of military intelligence, the security services had one of their men in a pivotal role at a crucial moment in the history of the province.
Quite what Neave's role in the secret service was in the years that followed has never become clear. Critics of British policy in Ulster maintained that British intelligence became involved in treasonable policies. In 1987, the Labour MP Ken Livingstone used the cover of parliamentary privilege to suggest in the House of Commons that Airey Neave was a co-conspirator with MI5 and MI6 in disinformation activities involving the controversial whistle-blowing spies Colin Wallace and Peter Wright. He also alleged that, a week before his murder, Neave sought to recruit a former MI6 officer to set up a small group to involve itself in the internal struggles of the Labour Party. Livingstone's efforts earned him a deluge of condemnation from the British establishment, but there were straws in the wind that induced several security experts to wonder whether something untoward had indeed occurred.
These were not the wildest allegations. There were improbable tales about how Neave, and others, had a decade earlier planned to set up an "army of resistance" to the Labour government of the Wilson era to "forestall a Communist take-over" and talked of assassinating Tony Benn should he become prime minister. Yet such was the febrile atmosphere of that Cold War epoch that some sceptics gave credibility to the possibility. This was, it must be remembered, the time, about 1970, when Auberon Waugh – fed by various sources, including his MI6 agent uncle Auberon Herbert – produced a series of clearly defamatory articles in Private Eye openly alleging that the former prime minister Harold Wilson was a KGB agent. Even as late as 1975, when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, groups of senior Tories were secretly gathering to hear spy-writers such as Chapman Pincher address them on the "grave dangers facing Britain from the left".
It was in response to such beliefs, according to claims by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, that plans for secret armed cells to resist a more left-wing Labour government were drawn up by a group that included George Kennedy Young – the ex-deputy director of the British intelligence service MI6 and a notorious racist and anti-Semite – and Airey Neave. The claim gained unexpected credence when, despite official MoD denials, two former British Army generals – Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, the former Nato commander of Allied Forces Northern Europe, and General Sir Walter Walker, another former head of Nato's forces – confirmed that a secret armed network of selected civilians was set up in Britain after the war and was secretly modernised in the Thatcher years and maintained into the 1980s. Moreover, Searchlight alleged, Neave and Young were key figures in an extreme-right group called Tory Action, which was at the centre of a smear campaign, involving the secret services, aimed at discrediting the Labour government in Britain in 1975.
Yet, whatever fire burned behind the smoke of such talk, what was beyond dispute was that the paramilitaries of the IRA – and its splinter group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which planted the fateful bomb under Airey Neave's car – saw in Margaret Thatcher's éminence grise an opponent of such significance that he had to be taken out. The INLA, made up of members of the Official IRA who defected after its 1972 cease-fire and Provos who resented their leaders' cessation of violence in 1975, justified Neave's assassination because they said he engaged in "rabid militarist calls for more repression against the Irish people".
But it was more than rhetoric they feared. They saw in Airey Neave the architect of a new hardline British policy on Northern Ireland which would place an increased emphasis on a militarist approach to the political problem. In the months after his death that hardening came about, though many commentators would see it not as a preordained strategy but a response to increased republican terror. Not long after Neave's assassination, the Queen's uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, was killed when a terrorist bomb blasted apart his fishing boat and, on the same day, 18 soldiers died in a Provo bomb-blast at Warrenpoint in the worst single-day Ulster death toll for a decade. Perhaps it was small wonder that, when republican prisoners in the Maze prison demanding Special Category Status went on hunger strike, Margaret Thatcher decided to let them die.
In all this, was Airey Neave the cause or just the casualty? Her mentor's death may have strengthened the resolve of Margaret Thatcher not to make any concessions to the IRA, but it seems clear that in 1979 the new Tory government was firmly set in a thought-through policy on how to deal with militant republicanism.
The evidence for this is all there in the earlier statements of Airey Neave himself, most pointedly in his call two years earlier for Sinn Fein to be proscribed as a political party. By this Neave disdainfully sought to undermine the republican movement's dual strategy of engagement in the democratic process, backed up by acts of violence. Deprived of the ballot the IRA would have nowhere left to go but back to the bullet, leaving the British authorities with a much stronger tactical argument against the paramilitaries. "There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence," as Mrs Thatcher was later to put it, articulating the philosophy of Airey Neave. "There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this."
Was there a similar resolution about Airey Neave's contempt for those in the Labour Party whom Tory paranoia in the Seventies deemed to be about to paint England's green and pleasant land a shade of Soviet red?
It may now have seeped from the common political memory, but there was in those days talk of private armies being formed as a deterrent to any potential political strike. It was not long after Edward Heath's Conservative government fell in the aftermath of its "three day week" confrontation with the miners during their 1974 strike. Field Marshall Lord Carver, a former head of the British Armed Forces, later revealed that "fairly senior" officers at the Army's headquarters had discussed military intervention during the miners' strike in 1974. And when the Labour Party under Harold Wilson was returned to power that year, if alarm bells did not ring loudly behind the closed doors of the intelligence agencies, they certainly did in the political circles in which Neave moved.
One of his contacts, General Sir Walter Walker – a man who opined: "There was a communist cell right there in the middle of Downing Street" – formed a group called Civil Assistance, which later transformed itself into a self-proclaimed private army that called itself Unison and that claimed to have the support of senior serving and retired British forces chiefs.
Another, the former SAS leader David Stirling, set up an organisation called Greater Britain 1975 (GB75), whose members included a Jersey-based arms dealer. Stirling, who was described by his biographer as "well to the right of the Conservative Party", considered the left wing of the Labour Party as "a cancer". His fear, summed up in one of his papers for GB75, was expressed thus: "Why are so many of us blind to an already far advanced conspiracy by the broad Left to topple our democracy? It is now the broad Left which harbours the 'baddies' and which is devoted to creating a privileged class of rulers hell bent on demolishing our individual rights and on creating a totally socialistic and therefore totalitarian state. The near take-over of the Labour Party by its parliamentary left-wing activists in alliance with the trade union extremists poses the most menacing crisis our country has ever faced – more dangerous by far than the worst period of the last World War. This crisis cannot possibly be resolved within parliament alone."
It all sounds so preposterous now. But, at the time, men like Airey Neave – war hero, barrister, politician and secret agent – seemed to believe it. Just how far he was prepared to act on his far-fetched analysis we may – despite the best efforts of Paul Routledge's forthcoming biography – never know. At any rate, the murderous men of violence of the Irish republican movement decided that they did not need to wait for proof.