Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Northern Ireland 1979 archives



Dr Eamon Phoenix looks at government files from 1979, a year which saw new leaders in the UK and the Irish Republic and vicious violence in Northern Ireland.

1979 saw the election of a Conservative government at Westminster and an escalation of violence in Northern Ireland with the IRA murdering Queen Elizabeth's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten in August.

Lord Mountbatten with Princess Anne and the Queen
The IRA murdered the Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten

In February, the loyalist gang known as the Shankill Butchers, responsible for 19 sectarian murders, were convicted and sentenced.

In March, the Bennett Report confirmed allegations of ill-treatment in RUC interrogation centres.

A leading police surgeon, Dr Robert Irwin claimed that up to 150 people he had seen at Castlereagh interrogation centre had shown evidence of ill-treatment by RUC detectives.

In the same month the Provisional IRA admitted killing two 16-year-old boys and wounding three others at Keady, County Armagh.

Apologising to their families, the IRA said that one of their units had mistaken the youths for British soldiers. On 22 March, the IRA murdered the British ambassador to Holland, Sir Richard Sykes in the Hague.

On 31 March, Airey Neave, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland and a close ally of the party leader, Margaret Thatcher, was killed when his car was blown up at Westminster. The INLA claimed responsibility.

June saw the election of the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher. The political unknown, Humphrey Atkins, was appointed secretary of state in succession to Labour's Roy Mason.

In the first direct elections to the European parliament, held under PR, DUP leader Ian Paisley topped the poll with almost 30% of the vote, with John Hume winning the second seat for the SDLP with 25% of the poll.

Shankill Butcher William Moore
The Shankill Butchers, including William Moore, were jailed

The summer was dominated by news that the new Polish-born Pope, John Paul II would visit Ireland in the autumn.

It was hoped that the Pontiff would visit Armagh but this year's British government files reveal strong lobbying by the Thatcher administration in the Holy See against a visit to Northern Ireland.

Mr Paisley's public hostility to a papal visit was condemned by the Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, Dr Arthur Butler.

However, any lingering chance that the Pope would cross the border was dashed by the IRA murder of Lord Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson, the Dowager Lady Brabourne and a young Enniskillen boy in an explosion on his boat off Mullaghmore in County Sligo on 27 August.

Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, who had just arrived in Rome to discuss the Pope's itinerary, said on hearing the news: "I could feel the ground crumbling under my feet."

On the same day of the Mountbatten murder, 18 British soldiers died in a double IRA bombing at Narrow Water Castle in south Down.

The events of that day were followed by an upsurge in the number of Catholics murdered by loyalist paramilitaries.

Warrenpoint Army truck
18 soldiers were murdered by the IRA at Warrenpoint

Speaking at Drogheda on 29 September, Pope John Paul made an emotional appeal to the IRA to reject violence but the movement replied that the British presence could only be removed by force.

At the same time a campaign was launched in the United States by the 'Four Horsemen' - Tip O'Neill (the speaker of the House of Representatives), Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey of New York - to force Britain to address "the Irish problem".

The Thatcher government's response was to call a constitutional conference.

The SDLP leader, Gerry Fitt, welcomed the initiative but soon came under pressure from his party and resigned in November, describing the SDLP as "misguided".

John Hume replaced him as leader with Seamus Mallon as his deputy.

Throughout the year the "dirty protest" for political status escalated in the H-Blocks at the Maze but the British government was determined to stand firm.

In December, Jack Lynch was forced to resign as taoiseach and was replaced by his rival, Charles J Haughey.

The death toll for the year was 51 civilians, 38 Army and 24 RUC and UDR.



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