Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

House of Commons Statement [Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Irish Republic (death) (Ewart-Biggs assassination)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [915/1799-1806]
Editorial comments: Around 1530-1546. MT spoke at c1800.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2603
Themes: Northern Ireland, Terrorism
[column 1799]


The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

Hon. Members will have been shocked to hear of the explosion in Dublin this morning which wrecked the British Ambassador's car, killing the Ambassador, Mr. Christopher Ewart-Biggs, and Miss Judith Cook, a Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office. Mr. Brian Cubbon, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, and the driver of the car, Mr. Brian O'Driscoll, are now in hospital in Dublin. Both are seriously injured.

According to the information so far available, the explosion was caused by a land mine planted in the road about 150 yards from the Ambassador's residence. [column 1800]

The Taoiseach, Mr. Liam Cosgrave, telephoned me a short while ago. He expressed his deepest sympathy and regret and that of his Government and has undertaken that every effort will be made to bring to justice those responsible for this atrocity. He reiterated the Irish Government's intention to safeguard the lives of the United Kingdom's citizens in the Republic.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is sending the Deputy Under-Secretary dealing with Irish affairs, Mr. Richard Sykes, to Dublin so that he can report back urgently on the situation.

The Queen has been informed. She was horrified to hear of this outrage and extends her sympathy to the relations of those involved. The whole House will join with me in extending our sincere sympathy to the families of those killed or injured, and our hopes for a successful recovery by Mr. Cubbon and Mr. O'Driscoll.

Mrs. Thatcher

May we join the James CallaghanPrime Minister in saying that we were all appalled and shocked to hear of this latest terrorist outrage? May we also join him in expressing our sympathies to the families concerned, although sympathy seems a rather inadequate word for the deep and sudden grief which is now theirs? We do not know what the terrorists hope ultimately to achieve by this senseless and brutal act, but may we make it quite clear that they will never weaken our resolve to root out terrorism by every possible means and to demonstrate to the law-abiding citizens of both our countries that the rule of law and civilised values must and will survive? May we welcome Mr. Cosgrave 's determination to bring to justice those who perpetrated this crime and, to that end, will the Government seek further to intensify and co-ordinate the efforts of the two Governments and their security forces to destroy terrorism, which is our common enemy?

The Prime Minister

I am much obliged to the right hon. Lady. I echo her last words that these miserable men are the common enemies of both Governments and of all decent people who wish to live in peace and amity in our two islands. I shall be very happy, as will the Secretary of State for Northern [column 1801]Ireland and the Foreign Secretary, to enter into discussions with Mr. Cosgrave at any time to enable us to intensify the arrangements for ensuring that these atrocities do not take place. I know from my own experience that very frequent security briefings are given. Mr. Ewart-Biggs, with whom a number of us had worked, had a briefing on security a short time ago. Arrangements for safeguarding the lives of our staff are constantly reviewed, but it is clear that they cannot be made perfect.

I do not believe that even the families of those involved would want us to give up our quest to bring the terrorists to justice. I do not envy these men their consciences in their arid pursuit of hate. Their only hate is of the possibility that people will live freely together. When will this senseless killing stop?

Mr. David Steel

May I, on behalf of my colleagues, express our horror at these murders? On a personal note, is the Prime Minister aware that Mr. Ewart-Biggs, in his previous capacity, which he had only just left, as Minister in Paris, was held in very high regard in the diplomatic service? Those of us who enjoyed the hospitality of his home knew it as a place not only of serious discussion but of laughter and gaiety, which has now been cruelly shattered. Our thoughts must be with his wife and young family at this time, as with the relatives of the others caught in this explosion.

While I ask the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that the Irish Government bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice, does he agree that we should not be deflected from the path that Mr. Ewart-Biggs was following in bringing relations between our two countries, despite this event, closer together?

The Prime Minister

I am glad to associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Ewart-Biggs. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that the Foreign Office had a different destination for him. I feel particularly close to this matter, because Mr. Ewart-Biggs was my own choice for Ireland. I thought that his qualities and talents would be best suited there. I saw him only a few weeks ago and he told me how much he was looking forward to this post. He is a great loss to us. [column 1802]

Mr. Cubbon was my Private Secretary many years ago. Therefore, I know his qualities very well. He is a man we can ill afford to spare. I very much hope that he will soon recover.

Although it is natural to say that it comes particularly close to us when those we know and have worked with suffer in this way, this is an illustration of the fact that hundreds of innocent men and women have been slaughtered on the altar of Ireland.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the people of Northern Ireland, although they themselves have “supp'd full with horror” , are not lacking in either sorrow or indignation at this event? Does he agree that this event proves that the men who do these things are not just the enemies of a section or of Northern Ireland but equally of the people of the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

It is well that the right hon. Gentleman should remind us of and drive home this fact again. It is well appreciated on both sides of the border and in this country that these men are no friends of anyone. They are a common enemy whom we must destroy or be destroyed by. I cannot emphasise too much the negative attitude which characterises them, and I do not envy them their consciences.

Mr. Urwin

As a delegate to Western European Union, and perhaps on behalf of many of my colleagues who act in a similar capacity, I should like to join in the expressions of sympathy to the families of Mr. Ewart-Biggs and the other people who were involved in this terrible tragedy. Those of us who act as delegates to the WEU have reason to remember with gratitude the benefit of the wise counsels of Mr. Ewart-Biggs. I join all hon. Members who have spoken on this tremendously sorrowful occasion in hoping that the perpetrators of this outrage will quickly be brought to justice.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

May a relative of Mr. Ewart-Biggs be allowed to associate himself with the tributes worthily paid on both sides of the House to the dead, the wounded, the bereaved and all who are affected by this atrocity? Is the Prime Minister aware that his words will [column 1803]be deeply appreciated by the family of Mr. Ewart-Biggs?

We should also remember the many victims of terrorism who do not make the headlines and press with the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for an all-out and fully co-ordinated effort to root out the common enemy of both the British and the Irish.

Mr. Amery

I should like to pay tribute to the immense contribution that Mr. Ewart-Biggs made to the improvement in relations between Britain and France. As the Prime Minister will know, he would have qualified several years ago to be an ambassador, but, with characteristic public spirit, he waived the opportunity of promotion to continue his work in Paris, for which this country owes him a great debt.

Mr. Fitt

I should like to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy by the Prime Minister to the relatives of those who have been killed and maimed. I knew Judith Cook and Brian Cubbon in the Northern Ireland Office. At all times I found them to be very helpful and anxious to try to solve the problem of Northern Ireland.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the Irish Government do not need any compelling by this Government in their attempts to eradicate terrorism from the island of Ireland? Over the past years they have shown remarkable courage in a difficult situation in trying to track down and root out from society those who are responsible for these heinous crimes.

The Prime Minister

The Government of the Republic of Ireland have certainly taken many steps to try to track down the perpetrators of this violence. I have found in both parties—indeed, in all parties—in Ireland the feeling that these men are no friends of Ireland or of its people. We should be very happy to explore with the Taoiseach and others whether any better means of co-ordination can be achieved between ourselves that would prevent the common enemy from succeeding.

Mr. Kilfedder

The people of Northern Ireland will certainly wish their sym[column 1804]pathy to be fully expressed in the House, especially as they have suffered for seven long years from obscene violence in Northern Ireland. In view of this appalling outrage, deliberately and callously directed against the person of the Queen's representative in Dublin and his officials, will the Prime Minister now put a stop to the talks that have been going on between British officials and the Provisional IRA and the political wing of the Provisional Sinn Fein?

The Prime Minister

I must rely upon advice in this matter. I am told that no talks have been going on with the Provisional IRA.

Mr. Kilfedder

Or with Sinn Fein?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman identified at least two groups, beginning with the Provisional IRA. Therefore, I repeat, unless he wishes to withdraw, that there have been no talks with the Provisional IRA. I assume that he accepts what I say about that.

As regards the Provisional Sinn Fein, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made the position clear on a number of occasions, most recently in reply to Questions. I have nothing to add to what he said.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It is obvious that the whole House is deeply moved. I shall call a handful of Members, but they will bear in mind that they are speaking to a House already deeply moved.

Mr. Kershaw

Does the Prime Minister agree that the size of this explosion indicates that the preparations might possibly, with due vigilance, have been discovered? Is he satisfied with the degree of security that is afforded to our Ambassador in Dublin and to the Irish Ambassador here?

The Prime Minister

I cannot yet comment on the explosion or on whether it could have been averted. I know from personal experience of my last visit to the embassy in Dublin that there are considerable precautions. I should prefer to go into that matter further. The Irish Ambassador here is accorded what we hope is appropriate security. [column 1805]

We all recognise that men and women in public life and who are the servants of their country cannot be totally protected. It is a risk that many politicians in Northern Ireland have assumed, and I admire their bravery and fortitude in facing it.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Does the Prime Minister agree that, whichever party is in Government, when tragedy overtakes our representatives overseas, the subsequent conduct of the Treasury is all too often in marked contrast to the views expressed in this Chamber? I have in mind the assassination of the late Sir Richard Sharples and the house imprisonment of Sir Humphrey Gibbs. Will he ensure that no such marked contrast occurs in this particular tragedy?

The Prime Minister

I do not wish to be drawn into analogies with either the late Sir Richard Sharples or Sir Humphrey Gibbs. I have looked into at least one of those two cases. I do not think that they are on all fours in any way. I have already informed Mrs. Ewart-Biggs and Mrs. Cubbon that I have asked that every arrangement should be made to facilitate their comfort and present arrangements.

Mr. Blaker

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Service? Is it not clear that in modern circumstances their conditions abroad are more hazardous than in the past, bearing in mind the kidnapping of the British Ambassador in Uruguay, the recent expulsions of the British diplomats from Uganda, and now this terrible tragedy? Does the Prime Minister agree that it is remarkable how they continue to display outstanding devotion and skill in the performance of their duties?

[column 1806]

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I need add to those words. There is a great deal of devotion to duty by the members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Service, as I have discovered. They display a great deal of enthusiasm for their work, which is not always done on what is traditionally regarded as the cocktail circuit. Many of them do an excellent job for this country in many ways, especially in the promotion of trade. However, I do not think that this is the occasion when I should go further into those matters.

Mr. Churchill

I associate myself in the fullest measure with everything that the Prime Minister said. Is the Prime Minister aware that all the people of this country wish to see the Government pursue with a new vigour and determination, in conjunction with the Government of the Irish Republic, the forces of terrorism, so that a victory may be gained over them?

The Prime Minister

Yes. However, I do not want to hold out false hopes that more intensive attitudes may be pursued than have been pursued so far. It is a case of maintaining the pressure and keeping up the vigilance. I know of no methods which should be adopted but which have so far been left untried.

Mr. MacCormick

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that from my beautiful constituency of Argyll we may see Antrim in Northern Ireland and Donegal in Southern Ireland? We welcome the people from both of those places to my constituency of Argyll. We hope and pray that the people of Ireland will realise that they should be like the people of Scotland and try, whatever their political or religious differences, to work together for the future.