The sunlight sparkled on the waters of Donegal Bay and gave warmth to the green hills around Mullaghmore. The distinguished figure of Earl Mountbatten of Burma was a familiar, if somewhat unlikely, sight in the tiny seaside village. For more than 30 years he had holidayed there in the family-owned Classiebawn Castle, shopping in the local stores, mingling with the locals and setting sail in his small boat to fish or trap lobsters.
On this day—a day the locals of Mullaghmore feared might come—he set sail in the small cabin cruiser,
Shadow V,to check his lobster pots in the bay. With him were his daughter,
Lady Brabourne, her husband, Lord Brabourne, his mother, the dowager Lady Brabourne, Brabourne’s twin sons, Nicholas and Timothy, aged 14, and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old schoolboy who had been hired as a boatman for the season. Two security officers stayed on land.
Another holidaymaker in a nearby boat, Brian Wakely, described what happened next: “They were heading towards the point.
As the boat approached I saw the flash and the boat erupting and seconds later we heard the boom of the explosion. I knew immedi! ately what it was. One minute there was a boat and the next minute there was ; nothing—just debris flying right, left ' and centre.” 1
The 79-year-old Mountbatten, Nicho-1 las and Paul were killed instantly by the 50-pound bomb. The other members of the party were flung, injured, bleeding and screaming, into the water and were quickly picked up by other pleasure boats. The 82-year-old dowager died the next day in hospital.
The bombing, immediately claimed by the Irish Republican Army, left Britain stunned and angry at the sudden and bloody resurgence of the long-festering terrorism. But more was to come. A few hours after the bombing of Mountbatten’s fishing boat, 18 British
soldiers were killed in an IRA ambush on the Ulster border. It was the single worst casualty toll suffered by the British military since the Korean War and it came only two weeks after Ulster marked the gloomy 10th anniversary of the arrival of British troops on its streets to keep the peace.
The IRA, which claimed credit for the troop killings as well, planted two massive bombs by the roadside and detonated the first as three army vehicles drove by, killing six soldiers. When help arrived, the terrorists, concealed in woods 200 yards across the border, detonated the second bomb and another 12 soldiers died, including Lieutenant-Colonel David Blair, commanding officer of the First Battalion, Queen’s Own Highlanders. The panic-stricken soldiers opened fire on a lone figure and killed an English tourist.
In Dublin, meanwhile, there was shock, anger and a good deal of shame that such a thing as Mountbatten’s murder could happen in the Irish Re-
public. The Irish cabinet met in a hurried emergency session, despite the absence of the premier, Jack Lynch, who was on holiday in Portugal. The criticism of Lynch, especially in the British press, which denounced the killers in such headlines as “evil bastards” and “depraved bog Irishmen,” increased with his absence. The Daily Mail accused him of “callous indifference” for not returning immediately to Dublin.
In contrast, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a dramatic dash to Northern Ireland in the wake of the killings, mingling with shopping crowds in Belfast and donning a flak jacket to visit troops in the so-called “bandit country” near the border. A woman in the Belfast crowd reached out to her and cried: “For God’s sake, help us.” Thatcher took her hand and assured her: “We are doing our best. If we do not defeat the terrorists, then democracy is dead.” Strangely, throughout the hysteria and even before it, the law in the sleepy west of Ireland moved with astonishing rapidity. Two hours before the fatal explosion, police arrested two men behaving with suspicious nervousness and apparently heading for the Ulster border. Traces of explosives and sea water were found on them and both turned out to be members of the Provisional IRA. Late in the week they were charged in Dublin with the Mountbatten murder and remanded until Oct. 2. They were Francis McGirl, 24, and Thomas McMahon, 31, both from the south. In a country-wide sweep Irish police had also moved in on the homes of known IRA sympathizers, removing items for forensic examination, and the Dublin government announced a reward of $225,000 for the capture of the Mountbatten killers.
McGirl, a laborer from County Leitrim, and McMahon, an upholsterer from County Monaghan, were arrested at a roadblock more than an hour before the explosion and 40 miles away from Donegal Bay. McGirl is the nephew of a veteran IRA man, John Joe McGirl, who has been interned several times on both sides of the border. “J.J.,” as he is generally known, is the oldest (in his 70s) republican internee, and more recently a vice-president of the Provisional Sinn Fein, the political mouthpiece of the Provisional IRA.
British intelligence is understood to consider his nephew Francis as one of the IRA’s most expert bomb-makers. McMahon is believed to be unknown to them. An Irish spokesman in London said he hoped the speedy arrests would help to quieten criticism about the lack of cross-border co-operation in the hunt for IRA terrorists. But the pressure is on Lynch, who has agreed to meet Thatcher to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland after Mountbatten’s funeral, which both planned to attend at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday.
For the past week in London, meanwhile, Ireland dominated Thatcher’s weekly cabinet meeting and Scotland Yard prepared to mount massive police security for the funeral, to be attended by the Queen, her family and about 100 guests* including representatives of Commonwealth and foreign governments. A BBC report that suggested an IRA “sleeper” unit had been in Britain for months planning a new bombing campaign on the mainland was greeted by Scotland Yard with tight-lipped reticence.
Now, more than ever, Mountbatten’s death has brought home the fact that the war in Northern Ireland has escalated to a new level. The British Army itself admits as much in a top-secret document which fell into IRA hands earlier this year. The report warned that Irish terrorists within the next five years will have sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, including a Soviet-made shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile. The terrorists have already become sophisticated in the use of bombs—gone are the sniper days— which are detonated by radio transmitters with multi-signals from a distance of several miles.
*A mong Canadians attending the funeral will be d former governors-general Roland Michener and « Jules Léger. The prime minister’s office announced ° that neither Joe Clark nor Governor-General Edward Schreyer would attend the funeral. They 5 would only attend the funeral of a head of state, the 5 spokesman said. °-
The IRA’s contacts with other international terrorist groups have proved useful, but not essential. The Palestinian Liberation Organization is friendly and has provided weapons and training. There are contacts with ETA (Basques) in Spain and co-operation with other urban terrorists in Europe has led to attacks on British bases there. In the past, the IRA has received arms and funds, especially from the United States, but also from sources in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As the violence has grown, however, the traditional foreign support has dwindled. The IRA has continued its financing by robbing banks in both Northern and Southern Ireland. The take was $2.4 million from banks in the South last year.
There are equally dangerous groups on the Protestant side. Both the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have carried out dozens of killings in retaliation for IRA violence. Many of the victims were innocent Catholics, which is perhaps one reason why Pope John Paul II has cancelled his visit to Ulster this month.
In military terms, perhaps, the IRA has had a successful 10 years, but the purpose of the violence—to get the British out of Ireland—seems no nearer than it was a decade ago. And the ultimate aim of a united Ireland may actually be farther away than if the IRA had never fired a shot.
With files from Bob Rodwell, Brendan Keenan in Belfast? Carol Kennedy in London
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