As I write this, the jungle telegraph from Ireland is signalling that Gerry Adams might shake the hand of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, at some point during his controversial visit to Ireland, which begins tomorrow (Tuesday).
Should that happen he really ought to consider adding a thank-you hug, for reasons I will explain below.
Prince Charles with ‘Uncle Dickie’, Lord Louis Mountbatten
The high point of the Prince’s visit will, of course, be his trip to Mullaghmore in Co Sligo where Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin but known to Charles as ‘Uncle Dickie’, was blown to pieces by an IRA ‘line of sight’ radio-controlled bomb hidden on his holiday boat on August 27th, 1979.
Some hours later on the other side of Ireland, at a place called Narrow Water not far from Warrenpoint on the shores of Carlingford Lough, eighteen British soldiers, many of them members of the Parachute Regiment of which Prince Charles, as Gerry Adams reminded us recently, is Colonel-in-Chief, were blown to pieces in a double explosion.
The remains of the Commanding Officer of the Queens Own Highlanders, Lt Col David Blair, who flew in a helicopter with his soldiers to rescue the ambushed Paras, were never recovered. His body is believed to have been vaporised in the blast. A member of special RUC undercover unit tasked with collecting the remains of the dead told me in an interview that he found a hand embedded in a nearby tree by its fingernails.
The scene of the Warrenpoint ambush
It was, arguably, the most traumatic and violent day experienced by the British state during the Troubles and it immediately pitched the North into a security and political crisis, the first of many for the newly elected British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
But, for the recently installed new leadership of the IRA and especially their leader and strategy guru, Gerry Adams, the two strikes that day meant that it was an occasion for celebration and not just for the obvious reasons.
The events that day served to vindicate completely their toppling of the previous leadership, often simplistically identified with Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O Connail, the 1975 ceasefire and the near-defeat then experienced by the IRA, and validated the military changes, and by extension the political re-orientation introduced by what would soon be known as ‘the Adams’ leadership’. The symbol of these changes was the introduction of a cellular system into IRA structures, although it was far more complicated than that.
Gerry Adams, circa 1979
However the real significance of that bloody day in August 1979 was that it transformed Adams and all his allies into an untouchable leadership which, in the eyes of the Provo grassroots, could do no wrong. They had said the old leadership had been disastrously wrong, that they had the ideas to revive the IRA and the deaths of Mountbatten and the 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint proved them right.
Now I have come to believe that this narrative is in many important ways flawed and simplistic – but that is a subject for another day. But there is no doubt that the consequence of that day was that as far as the grassroots was concerned, from thereon the Adams’ leadership could do no wrong.
Now is it possible that even without Mountbatten and Warrenpoint, Adams and his allies could have pushed the Provos down the road of electoral politics and from there ultimately into the peace process. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the assassination of Lord Mountbatten made it all a whole lot easier.
Mounbatten on his boat with friends on a happier day
That’s why if, or when, Gerry Adams shakes hands with Prince Charles he might consider also giving him a hug of gratitude, for having an ‘Uncle Dickie’ that the IRA could dispatch to eternity.
Without him, Gerry Adams might not now be where he is.
This is what I wrote about the assassination of Mountbatten and Warrenpoint in ‘A Secret History of the IRA’, second edition. Enjoy: