Airey Neave and Ulster 1975-79

March this year brought the fortieth anniversary of Airey Neave’s murder. It was marked by the publication of a biography by Patrick Bishop, which I reviewed for Parliament’s House Magazine and, at slightly greater length, for the ConservativeHome website. Its many merits do not include a full account of Neave’s work as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during the last four years of his life. I have not attempted here to provide a comprehensive survey. That would require a study of the official government records and of material in the Conservative Party’s Archive at the Bodleian Library, as well as of the private papers of Ulster Unionist and Conservative politicians, especially Neave’s own surviving papers, now in the Parliamentary Archives but due to be transferred to the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. What follows is based principally on my own surviving files from the years 1977-79 when I was Airey Neave’s political adviser. The files will be deposited, along with a complete collection of Neave’s press releases now in my possession, in the Conservative Party’s Archive. They represent only a small fraction of the material I accumulated on the Conservative Party and Northern Ireland which covered the period from 1970 to 1987. The bulk of it was destroyed quite unforgivably after I had left the Conservative Research Department in 1997.

Most English politicians strive to avoid involvement in Northern Ireland’s affairs, believing that they lack the capacity to understand them. In February 1975 Airey Neave, then aged 59 (and looking older than his years), surprised everyone by asking to be given responsibility for them in opposition as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Cabinet. Even his family was taken aback.

He could have had a more senior shadow post, such as defence, from a deeply grateful Mrs Thatcher, whose election as Tory leader he had masterminded with superb skill. His choice of Northern Ireland might seem to suggest that, unlike practically all his colleagues, he had already formed a deep interest in the place and given careful thought to its problems. That was not the case. He knew next to nothing about them when he became Shadow Secretary. He had a few friends in Ulster’s  business circles who came in useful as hosts after 1975, but they had not been visited in earlier years. The Province’s politicians at Stormont were strangers to him.

Even as Shadow Secretary, he felt no need to equip himself with an informed understanding of Northern Ireland’s troubled history and its deep political divisions. His reading was largely confined to books and pamphlets on counter-insurgency operations by soldiers and academic experts. Visiting the Province as Shadow Secretary, he always wanted to devote most of his time to the security forces, with whom, as a former distinguished soldier, he had a natural rapport. Discussions with the numerous local political parties he regarded as not very agreeable necessities, and he did not shine in them.

Disinclined to jokes and laughter, uninterested in the historical background to Ulster’s crisis(which was in its eighth year in 1975), he came to be regarded in political circles in Northern Ireland as a not very well informed, rather tight-lipped Englishman. If in Ulster he seemed less unappealing than some other visiting Westminster politicians, it was because he refrained from their habit of ticking off the local parties for failing to bury their historical enmities and settle down together happily in a power-sharing government. Journalists and commentators in the Province formed no high opinion of him.


Neave asked for the job of Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary because he was a great patriot. He saw a part of his country stricken as a result of a vicious terrorist campaign. He seized an opportunity to do all he could to restore it to peace and stability. He always believed that the precondition of  lasting progress was the complete defeat of terrorism, not its containment while a political solution was found, the view held by so many others across the political spectrum.

No one held that view more firmly than Merlyn Rees, Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in Harold Wilson’s last government when Neave became the Conservative spokesman in February 1975. He embodied the kind of restrained approach to the IRA that Neave found so repugnant.

On 10 February 1975, in response to the declaration of a ceasefire by the IRA, Rees authorised the establishment of seven “incident centres” where its members could consort with civil servants. It was at this point that Neave assumed his new duties. Rees hoped that terrorists could be induced to turn aside from violence and join politicians of all stripes in a new era of harmony, united by adherence to what he described as the emerging phenomenon of “Ulster nationalism.”

As a policy, it was utter folly. Its certain consequence was to embolden the IRA who had no interest in Rees’s dreamy speculations and no intention of continuing its ceasefire unless the government embarked on a policy of withdrawal. Though taking care not to bring about the complete breakdown of the convention that the main parties at Westminster should observe a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland, Neave harried Rees remorselessly, insisting that the advances he had allowed the IRA to make must be reversed.

Neave called for a major revision  of security strategy. If the IRA was to be broken , it must be infiltrated to secure information about its intentions. It must be  subjected to intense covert surveillance; its morale must be undermined. He argued repeatedly that if these aims were to be accomplished, the SAS, with its combination of the required skills and fearsome reputation, should be deployed throughout the Province. In all this, Neave drew on his experiences as a renowned war-time spymaster, aided by advice from the intelligence agencies with which he remained in touch throughout his career.

The Labour government paid attention . Having made some headway even during Rees’s tenure, Neave’s ideas triumphed when Roy Mason succeeded him as Northern Ireland Secretary in September 1976. Marked progress was made. There were 297 terrorist-related deaths in 1976 (more than in any other year apart from 1972); two years later 81 died. With violence falling sharply, the defeat of the IRA did not at that point seem unrealistic.

Mason, the toughest—and perhaps the vainest—English minister that Ulster has ever had, gave Neave no credit. In his speeches Neave regularly referred to the success which Mason had achieved by putting Conservative security policy into effect. Few, however, took much notice, and greatly to his irritation Neave never gained the recognition for which he looked. Mason commanded the headlines with rash boasts that the IRA was reeling, and would soon be unable to continue its campaign.

Neave’s ideas were by no means exhausted. In 1977 he called for the creation of an anti-guerrilla Army Brigade charged with the task of flushing out the organisers of terrorism who remained hidden the shadows—the so-called godfathers of the IRA. This time Mason was unimpressed, and the government’s security policy was not strengthened further.


Eclipsed in the sphere that had drawn him to Northern Ireland in the first place, Neave found himself increasingly preoccupied with the Province’s politics where he had not intended to do very much. The collapse of the short-lived devolved government, in which a group of Unionists shared power with their opponents  in the early months of 1974, had occurred less than a year before Neave became Shadow Secretary. Labour and the Tories agreed that Northern Ireland needed another government along exactly the same lines.

All efforts to create such a government proved unavailing. By 1976 it seemed clear that for some years the executive powers that had been vested in  the brief power-sharing executive would remain in the hands of a Northern Ireland Secretary and a small team of junior ministers recruited from the Westminster Parliament, where all Northern Ireland legislation would be passed.

Neave accepted this reality without demur. Like many others, he saw that the direct rule ministers would need some means of gauging the views of the electorate whose representative institutions were in abeyance. There was much muttering about “colonial rule”. For two years Neave unsuccessfully pressed the Labour government to appoint a Council of State through which local politicians could provide advice to the Secretary of State.

He also made occasional, fairly muted reference to the case for increasing the number of Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster where since 1922 the Province had been under-represented because it had had a devolved parliament of its own. Neave gave no impression of believing that Northern Ireland needed any really substantial political reform while it waited for the return that elusive institution, a power-sharing government.

In March 1977 everything suddenly changed. The slim overall majority that Labour gained in the October 1974 election had disappeared as a result of defections and by-election losses. Jim Callaghan, now Prime Minister, could not with his own MPs alone defeat a motion of no confidence put down by Mrs Thatcher, who was eager to gain power. He had to find allies among the smaller parties at Westminster, whose combined strength numbered  39.

A pact with the Liberals’ 13 MPs was sufficient to overcome the immediate Tory challenge. An arrangement with another party would give a greater margin of safety. Callaghan secured a promise of abstention from at least some of a group of six MPs, known at this point as the Official Unionists, led by the shrewd Jim Molyneaux in close association with that master of parliamentary procedures, Enoch Powell, unforgiven by the leaders of his old party for backing Labour at the February 1974 election. In March 1977 Callaghan undertook to establish a Speaker’s Conference which would pave the way for an increase in Ulster’s representation at Westminster, the reform to which Powell attached overriding importance. It was implemented by legislation passed in early 1979 which gave Northern Ireland five additional MPs.

Relations between Callaghan and the Official Unionists became increasingly close. On some key votes over the next two years a number of Official Unionists voted with Labour while others abstained. In private Mrs Thatcher railed against them for sustaining a socialist government. To many indeed it seemed astonishing that members of a party which since its emergence in the 1880s had always voted loyally at the Tory party’s beck and call should have defected to Labour.

Means had to be found to weaken, and if possible end, the Unionist/ Labour accord. It was achieved by a firm, frequently reiterated pledge by Airey Neave that the next Tory administration would reform local government in Northern Ireland, the second most important change sought by Molyneaux and Powell. Such a measure would involve reversing the transfer in 1973 of all the principal local government functions—education, health, social services, housing—to Stormont from county and county borough councils which had been abolished. The transfer made Stormont the Province’s upper tier of local government as well as its devolved parliament.

The case for  reversal, as argued by Neave, rested on the impossibility of restoring devolution in the foreseeable future. Vital public services should be put back under democratic control, he said, by establishing a new upper tier of local government: one or more Regional Councils were proposed under Neave’s plan. Publicly, he presented his scheme as the first stage of the desirable return to devolution at some unspecified point; privately, little importance was attached to proceeding beyond the first stage. 

Some did not want to go beyond the first stage. They included Powell , Molyneaux and the two Tories whom Neave planned to take with him to the Northern Ireland Office as junior ministers, John Biggs-Davison and Ian Gow. The merits of such an approach, based on the proposition that  Northern Ireland should be integrated with the rest of the United Kingdom instead of returning to devolution, were argued with unceasing force and vigour in The Daily Telegraph by the greatest English advocate of the Unionist cause, T.E(Peter) Utley  As for Neave himself, he expressed no ardour about a return to devolution without firmly endorsing  the integrationist case .

The commitment to local government reform achieved its objective—but only just. It brought five of the Official Unionists, including Molyneaux and Powell, into the Tory lobby in the vital no confidence vote of 28 March 1979 which brought down the Callaghan government by a majority of one. Two Official Unionists, however, voted with the government. (The size of the Official Unionist group had increased from six to seven since 1977 as a result of shifts within the total Unionist contingent of ten.) It was an indication of the success with which Labour had courted the Unionists over the previous two years, something which no one could have predicted.

From that success too sprang Airey Neave’s plan for local government reform; it enabled the Tories to win back most of the Official Unionists, and brought Neave personally more esteem in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland than he had ever anticipated. Largely indifferent to Northern Ireland’s politics, he set out to defeat the IRA ; he ended up as the author of a major political reform which his party retained in the immediate aftermath of his murder, but ditched after the election of May 1979.



Unpublished Sources: Alistair Cooke, four Conservative Research Department letter books, May 1977-November 1978(subsequent book(s) missing); Airey Neave, press releases, 1975-79; Margaret Thatcher, file on her visit to Northern Ireland, June 1978.

Published Works: Paul Bew and John Bew, “ War and Peace in Northern Ireland 1965-2016” in Thomas Bartlett(ed.),The Cambridge History of Ireland, Volume IV, 1880 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2018).Patrick Bishop, The Man Who Was Saturday: The Extraordinary Life of Airey Neave( William Collins, 2019). The  Campaign Guide 1977 and The Campaign Guide Supplement 1978 ( Conservative Research Department, 1977 & 1978). Alistair Cooke, “Enoch Powell and Ulster” in Lord Howard of Rising(ed.), Enoch at 100: A re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell( Biteback, 2012). Bernard Donoughue, Downing Street Diary: With James Callaghan in No 10 (Jonathan Cape,2008). W.D. Flackes and Sydney Elliott, Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1993 (Blackstaff Press, 1994). Simon Heffer, Like The Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998). T.E. Utley, Lessons of Ulster( Dent, 1975: reprinted, with an introduction by Alistair Cooke, The Friends of the Union, 1997).