Assassination of Airey Neave

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Assassination of Airey Neave
Part of the Troubles
Airey Neave memorial plaque.jpg
A memorial plaque to Airey Neave
Location City of Westminster, London, England
Date 30 March 1979
14:58 (UTC)
Target Airey Neave
Attack type
assassination, bombing
Weapon booby trap bomb
Deaths 1
Perpetrator Irish National Liberation Army

On the 30 March 1979, the Irish Marxist and Republican paramilitary group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) killed the then Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Airey Neave when an INLA unit placed a magnetic car bomb fitted with a ball bearing tilt-switch under his new Vauxhall Cavalier under the drivers seat which exploded at 14:58 as Neave drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park. [1]


The INLA and their political wing the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) were formed at a meeting in a Dublin hotel in December 1974. The meeting was headed by Seamus Costello who became the first INLA Chief of Staff. [2] [3]

In 1975 the INLA began carrying out attacks on British security forces using the name the "People's Liberation Army" [4] and they also used the name "Armagh People's Republican Army".[5]

The assassination took place at a time of heightened tensions and violence during "The Troubles" after two years of decreasing violence in 1977 and 1978. In February 1979 a former prison officer and his wife were killed by the Provisional IRA in Belfast.[6] On 22 March the IRA killed the British Ambassador to the Netherlands Richard Sykes and his Dutch valet in a gun attack in Den Haag in the Netherlands.[7][8] On the same day the IRA carried out 24 bombings all across Northern Ireland.[9]

The attack

For several years Neave had been advocating for a strong security response to counter the growing Republican paramilitaries insurgency campaign. This brought him to the attention of the IRA and INLA. A member of the INLA GHQ said in a 1993 interview "He was coming in on the heels of Mason-to settle the Northern problem and make Mason look like a lamb. He wanted to bring in more SAS and take the war to the enemy" Neave's increasing hardline rhetoric made him a target of Irish Republican paramilitaries.[10]

After James Callaghan's Labour government was defeated on a vote of no confidence on 28 March 1979 it was likely Neave would have become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under a conservative government.

According to Jack Holland & Henry McDonald in their 1994 book "INLA: Deadly Divisions" a political source in England who feared a right-wing "backlash" from Neave with Margaret Thatcher as his chosen front passed on vital information to the INLA which gave the INLA the access and information they needed to carry out an assassination attempt on Neave. The information they received indicated that access to the Palace of Westminster was possible, but that the bombers would have to be a safe distance away from the scene when the attack occurred, but since they didn't know what time Neave would leave at they couldn't use a time bomb. INLA GHQ decided to use a bomb with a mercury-tilt switch attached which would explode when the bomb was at a certain angle.[11]

On Friday 30 March two INLA Volunteers gained entry to the House of Commons underground car park posing as workmen carrying the device in a tool box. The INLA team identified Neave's Vauxhall Cavalier and placed the bomb to the floor panel under the drivers seat and armed the device.

Neave left the House of Commons a few minutes before 15:00. As Neave drove up the ramp that exited the car park the mercury surged, completing the circuit and the 16 ounces of explosives used in the bomb exploded. The force of the blast pushed Neave forward, severed his legs and trapped him in the wrecked car. It took emergency services nearly a half an hour to free Neave from the wreck. He died eight minutes after he arrived at the hospital.[12][13]

The INLA issued a statement regarding the killing in the August 1979 edition of The Starry Plough:[14]

In March, retired terrorist and supporter of capital punishment, Airey Neave, got a taste of his own medicine when an INLA unit pulled off the operation of the decade and blew him to bits inside the 'impregnable' Palace of Westminster. The nauseous Margaret Thatcher snivelled on television that he was an 'incalculable loss'—and so he was—to the British ruling class.


The violence continued to surge to heights in Northern Ireland not seen since 1976 as both the IRA & the INLA intensified their military campaigns.

Less than a month after Neave was killed 4 officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were killed in a Roadside bomb attack during the 1979 Bessbrook bombing. [15] The day before the Bessbrook attack a prison officer was shot dead by the IRA in Clogher Tyrone [16] Two days after the Bessbrook attack, a female prison officer was killed and 3 others injured in a gun & grenade attack carried out by the INLA outside Armagh Women's prison, the attack was led by Dessie Grew the OC of the INLA's Armagh brigade.[17] On the same day a British Army soldier was shot dead in Belfast a few hours later this time by the IRA.[18] On the 27 July the INLA killed an ex RUC officer using the same method they did to kill Airey Neave by placing a booby trap bomb under the RUC mans car, the man's 21-year-old daughter was badly injured in the attack.[19] Four days later on 31 July the INLA shot dead an RUC Constable outside Armagh courthouse.[20] On 2 August the IRA killed two British soldiers in a landmine attack in Armagh and later shot a RUC officer dead in Belfast.[21] On 9 August INLA Volunteers seriously wounded two British soldiers from sniper attacks in Belfast, the attacks were carried out by the INLA's Belfast Brigade.[22]

On the 27 August 1979, 18 British soldiers were killed and 6 others injured & 1 English civilian was shot dead by the British Army who also injured a second civilian as they fired shots across the Irish border at who they taught were IRA Volunteers during the Warrenpoint ambush which was the British Army's biggest loss during the 38 years they spent in Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner.[23] On the same day Lord Louis Mountbatten and three others were on a boat of the Sligo coast, the IRA had placed a 1,000 lb bomb under the boat the night before. When the boat went far enough out the IRA exploded the bomb by remote control killing Lord Louis Mountbatten and three other civilians on the boat.[24] This brought the total casualties for the 27 August to: 23 dead and 7 injured which was a very high death toll for one day in the low-intensity guerilla conflict being fought in Ireland at the time, the only other higher death tolls on a single day were the 1998 Omagh bombing (29 killed) and 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings (34 Killed).[25][26]

A year after Neave's death in October 1980, the Chief of Staff of the INLA Ronnie Bunting & another INLA member Noel Lyttle were shot dead in a house in the Turf Lodge area of Belfast. The Ulster Freedom Fighters claimed responsibility for the killings.[27]

See also


  • Jack Holland, Henry McDonald, INLA – Deadly Divisions'
  • The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, ISBN 1-84488-120-2
  • CAIN project
  • Coogan, Tim Pat, The IRA, Fontana Books, ISBN 0-00-636943-X
  • The Starry Plough – IRSP newspaper


  1. ^
  2. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald: INLA Deadly Divisions pp 6
  3. ^
  4. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald: INLA Deadly Divisions pp 63, 64
  5. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald: INLA Deadly Divisions pp 84
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald : INLA Deadly Divisions pp 137
  11. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald : INLA - Deadly Divisions pp 138
  12. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald : INLA - Deadly Divisions pp 138,139
  13. ^
  14. ^ Holland, Jack; McDonald, Henry (1996). INLA Deadly Divisions. Poolbeg. p. 221. ISBN 1-85371-263-9. 
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald: INLA Deadly Divisions pp 143,144
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Jack Holland & Henry McDonald : INLA - Deadly Divisions pp 360
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
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