What Anne told a kidnapper and what Idi would have told the IRA

Thirty years ago, the Princess Royal swore at a would-be abductor and President Amin offered to mediate in Ulster. These and other revelations have emerged in official records from the time, published yesterday
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In the 1970s, the Cold War was barely beyond the permafrost and there appeared to be no end in sight to the bloody attrition of Northern Ireland. Britain had retreated from east of Suez but still hankered after gunboat diplomacy. The Royal Family was yet to become a soap opera but footballers made headlines in much the same way as they do now.

The official papers detailed on these pages offer a snapshot of the mid-Seventies. Kept secret under the 30-years rule until their publication yesterday, they are the last documents to be released in such a way. From today, under the Freedom of Information Act, such time limits will no longer apply - all documents will be deemed to be in the public domain, apart from those covered by stipulated exemptions.

The papers released yesterday relate to events that are well known - the gift of a pair of giant pandas to the UK by the Chinese government, the attempted kidnapping of the Princess Royal, Ulster, Watergate and the building of Concorde.

It was, however, deemed that the electorate should not be told that keeping Ching Ching and Chia Chia in bamboo shoots as well as the £ 70,000 cost of their shelter could have bankrupted London Zoo, leaving Premier Harold Wilson potentially exposed to hostile headlines screaming: " Government Leaves Panda Homeless", not to mention a frosty response from Beijing.

The threat of another diplomatic incident, this time with Yugoslavia, at that time a buffer between the West and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries - centred around the footballer Kevin Keegan. Mr Keegan, later to become England manager, was allegedly beaten up by Yugoslav police at Belgrade airport after being arrested for " fooling around" on a luggage transporter.

The Labour government of the time, led by Harold Wilson, faced similar issues to the government of today. Ulster, and terrorism, headed the domestic agenda and the Birmingham pub bombings on 21 November 1974, which killed 21 people and injured 182, prompted calls for national identity cards. The idea was rejected by then home secretary Roy Jenkins, however, as expensive and ineffective. The papers also show another difference: Wilson was determined to keep his distance from US President Richard Nixon, who was then embroiled in the Watergate scandal.

The attempt to kidnap Princess Anne made headlines in 1974, but only now can it be revealed that she told him: "Not bloody likely!" when he ordered her out of her official car. Sadly, the British government's response to Ugandan President Idi Amin's generous offer to mediate in Northern Ireland goes unrecorded.

Princess Anne: Foiled kidnap attempt

The gunman who tried to kidnap the Princess Royal on 21 March 1974, met a less than regal response. When ordered to get out of her car, Anne replied: "Not bloody likely!" And when would-be abductor Ian Ball told her he wanted a £2m ransom, she said: "I haven't got £2m."

Four men were shot after Ball, a 26-year-old burglar with mental health problems, ambushed the Royal car in The Mall.

The Princess and her first husband, Mark Phillips, were unhurt, but bodyguard Inspector James Beaton, who fired one round before his gun jammed, was shot twice. The gunman also wounded Constable Michael Hills, and chauffeur Reg Callender. A journalist, Brian McConnell, who had been in a taxi behind, told Ball: "Don't be silly, old boy. Put the gun down." He too was shot before Ball was overpowered.

The Princess Royal told Robert Armstrong, private secretary to Harold Wilson: "It was all so infuriating. I nearly lost my temper with him, but I knew that if I did, I should hit him and he would shoot me." Mr Wilson said: "A very good story. Pity the Palace can't let it come out. Perhaps it will in court."

It did not. Ball remains in a psychiatric hospital.

President Idi Amin of Uganda: Offered his services as peace broker in Northern Ireland

It may go down as the most unlikely attempt ever to broker a settlement to Northern Ireland's long-running Troubles.

In the middle of 1974, one of the worst years of the conflict, Uganda's dictator General Idi Amin stepped in with an offer to mediate between the two sides.

The brutal and erratic Amin wrote to Harold Wilson suggesting he could host peace talks in his country. "It appears that the political and security situation in Northern Ireland is becoming worse every passing day without any feasible solution to it in sight," Amin wrote.

"This serious and regrettable development calls for Britain's best and sincere friends to come to her assistance. Consequently, I avail my good offices at the disposal of the opposing sides in Northern Ireland.

"I suggest that representatives of your Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland as well as representatives of your government come to Uganda, far away from the site of battle and antagonism, for a conference on how to bring peace to their province."

In a covering note, the British High Commission in Kampala said that, while the offer showed Amin's "naive view of world affairs", it was nevertheless "a genuine and sincere effort to be helpful".

The giant pandas: Diet threatened to cause an international rift

The cost of imported bamboo shoots threatened to turn a goodwill gesture sour when the giant pandas Ching Ching and Chia Chia were handed to London Zoo as a gift to prime minister Edward Heath in October 1974.

The idea was to mark Anglo-Chinese friendship and a pair of white rhinos was sent in return. But the Zoological Society wanted the Foreign Office (FO) to help pay for the pandas' expensive diet and the cost of their £70,000 shelter, according to documents from the National Archives.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts, of the FO, said the society was "almost bankrupt" and money would have to be raised by appeal. He had visions of a public row, with the Chinese feeling they had been deliberately snubbed, and headlines such as "Government Leaves Panda Homeless".

Ching Ching died cubless. Chia Chia died from peritonitis in Mexico City zoo in October 1991.

Richard Nixon: 'Discouraged' from visiting UK during Watergate

The former Prime Minister Harold Wilson was determined to stop the then US president Richard Nixon visiting Britain during the Watergate scandal.

In public, Mr Wilson said Mr Nixon would have a warm welcome but in private he asked the Foreign Office to take "any measure open" to stop him coming. Mr Nixon wanted an official visit in July 1974, with a state banquet hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. But with growing pressure for the president to be impeached, Mr Wilson felt such a visit would be embarrassing for the Queen.

Sir Peter Ramsbotham, the British ambassador in Washington, warned: "His disappointment and disillusionment if we refused to receive him would be all the greater, and he is a vengeful man."

The former foreign secretary, Jim Callaghan, had a quiet word with the then US ambassador, Walter Annenberg, and the plan was just as quietly dropped.

Harold Wilson and national identity cards: Labour government rejected introduction of ID in wake of bombing

Harold Wilson's Labour government rejected the introduction of identity cards, dismissing them as "extremely expensive and largely ineffective" in combating IRA terrorism.

In November 1974 Wilson was under pressure to act after the Birmingham pub bombings - one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles - at the end of another year of appalling terrorist violence.

Twenty-one people were killed and more than 160 injured after bombs ripped through two city centre pubs - the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. In the aftermath, Roy Jenkins, the home secretary, was given the task of drawing up the emergency Prevention of Terrorism Bill to be rushed through Parliament.

But in a memo to cabinet colleagues, Mr Jenkins admitted there was a limit to what such measures could achieve. And he issued a sharp warning against responding to terrorist attacks by adopting draconian legislation.

"It goes almost without saying that we must guard against the danger of being driven to more and more extreme measures involving unwarranted infringement of personal liberty," he wrote.

In the memo - dated 24 November, three days after the bombings - Mr Jenkins said: "I [do not] see advantage in a system of identity cards, which apart from creating difficulties for ordinary people would be extremely expensive and largely ineffective."

Instead, he opted for the introduction of spot checks on travellers and a system of exclusion orders banning terrorist suspects from the mainland.

Kevin Keegan: Accused Yugoslav police of assault

The former England football international and manager was left with a bloody nose after being arrested and beaten by police in Yugoslavia, government documents released yesterday show.

The incident in 1974, and protests by the British embassy, led to an international diplomatic incident. Trouble started after Keegan, now manager of Manchester City, and others in the England party playing a "friendly" were accused of "fooling around" at a luggage transporter.

Keegan ignored police instructions to move. The Yugoslavs said he "declined to do so in the most offensive way. He stuck out his tongue, slapped the arm of the official and used insulting language".

An unnamed British official in Belgrade wrote: "He was dragged off for interrogation and undoubtedly roughed up, returning after 30 minutes with a bleeding nose." The official said it was only "in the interests of Anglo-Yugoslav relations, international football, etc that the police are not pressing well-justified charges against him".

The "friendly" result was 2-2, with Keegan heading the equaliser.

Concorde: Project survived despite concerns over costs

The Government of Harold Wilson was on the brink of scrapping plans to build Concorde in 1974, believing the supersonic jet would be too expensive.

Mr Wilson told Jacques Chirac, then French prime minister, that his new cabinet had been reconsidering the Anglo-French project, which it was estimated would cost £1,070m to develop and British Airways £26m a year.

According to notes of a conversation between the two men, the prime minister added: "It was the collective view of British ministers that continuation of the project could not be justified on economic grounds." He went on to say that, although no decision had been made on whether to pull out of the project, "if it had to be taken tomorrow, it would be a negative one on economic grounds".

In a separate letter, chancellor Denis Healey also came out strongly. "It seems clear the right course is to aim for cancellation." But it still had at least one backer: Tony Benn, the secretary of state for industry.