The fourth season of the Netflix series The Crown begins with a rather important moment in British history. It is the late 1970s and as the royal family is engrossed with the Prince of Wales’ romantic affairs even as chaos and violence is simmering in Northern Ireland. The nationalist movement in Northern Ireland, popularly known as ‘The Troubles’ which began in the late 1960s had peaked by then. “Today the Irish Republican struggle for freedom enters a new phase. The time has come to escalate our efforts, redouble our militancy, spill more blood, so that the Crown retreats and leaves Ireland forever,” announces the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was the forefront of the political struggles in Ireland.
The year 1979 was indeed a pivotal moment in the relations between England and Ireland. The political bombings, assassinations and thefts which were on the rise since the mid-1970s, came to a boil with the assassination of a key political figure — Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl of Burma. The last Viceroy of India who oversaw the Partition of the country, Mountbatten was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, uncle to Prince Phillip and a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. He was also particularly close to the Prince of Wales, mentoring the young monarch to be. The assassination of Mountbatten was more symbolic than anything else. Scholars of British history have noted that the act was a means to terrorise the English population and give them a glimpse of the IRA’s potential.
The first episode of The Crown, season four, is spun around this key episode. While indeed it had a massive impact on the royal family both at a political and emotional level, the assassination of Mountbatten was a watershed moment in the troubles at Northern Ireland. The assassination caused immense outrage among English politicians and mobilised public opinion. Even those supportive of the IRA’s cause refused to justify the murder of an elderly, retired gentleman and his family.
The troubles in Northern Ireland
In the history of modern Europe, Ireland has a special place. It happens to be the only country in the European continent that came under British rule. In the 16th century, the island country had come to be completely colonised by Protestant settlers from England. Thereafter, Irish-English history has been marked by two main features: the subordination of the former by the latter, and the sectarian clashes between Catholics and Protestants.
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The Irish independence of 1921 led to the partition of the island on religious terms. The six counties with a Protestant majority that made up Northern Ireland remained with the United Kingdom. The formation of Northern Ireland led to new kinds of political antagonisms. “British and Ulster unionists insisted that all of Northern Ireland should remain exclusively part of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the sovereignty of the Crown and Westminster parliament, whereas Irish nationalists, by contrast, insisted it should immediately or eventually, join an all-island Irish,” writes Irish political scientist Brendon O’ Leary in his book, ‘A treatise on Northern Island’.
The most recent phase of the conflict began in the mid-1960s with the killing of two Irish Catholic men by members of a unionist organisation, ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’, who feared that Irish Catholics were determined to take over Northern Ireland.
In the two years after these killings, street demonstrations became a common feature in the streets of Northern Ireland, composed and led mainly by Irish Catholics but supported by Protestant and secular radicals who believed that Catholics must be treated as equal citizens of the Union. They were soon met by violent reactions both from the unionists and the British police. These events encouraged a sustained new campaign of republican violence led by the IRA.
The political violence started by the IRA in the mid-1960s went on for the next three decades. In 1969, the British Labour government sent the British army to Northern Ireland to restore order. Although the mission failed, three years later the British conservative government prorogued the Northern Irish Parliament and began direct rule. “Armed engagements, bombings and assassinations occurred between 1969 and 1994, spreading on occasions to Great Britain, the Republic, and the European continental mainland,” writes OLeary. He notes that as per one dataset running from 1948 until 1977, “Northern Ireland was responsible for the UK having the highest levels of per capita internal political violence in the world’s continuously liberal democratic states after 1945.” Gun battles between the British army and IRA, house burnings, executions of informers, car bombings, kidnappings, torture by the army and police, and a lot more, made Northern Ireland one of the most violent places on earth.
The assassination of Mountbatten
Every year it was customary for Mountbatten and his family to holiday at their summer home in Classiebawn Castle in Mullaghmore, a small seaside village in the county of Sligo in Ireland. Despite the IRA making it well known that they were targeting him, Mountbatten discounted the danger, claiming, “who the hell would want to kill an old man anyway?”
There were, in fact, multiple instances in the past when the Earl was the target of an assassination. “IRA chief of staff, Ruairi O Bradaigh, later president of Republican Sinn Fein, claims he vetoed at attack on Mountbatten in 1960 or 1961, because operations were not allowed outside Northern Ireland,” writes biographer Andrew Lownie in his book, ‘The Mountbattens: Their lives and loves’.
Lownie observes that even empire loyalists were a threat to Mountbatten since they considered the latter to be holding liberal views on the Partition and saw him to be very friendly towards the Catholic clergy. By the mid-1970s, increased security was provided for Mountbatten even in London. An attempt to shoot him in his boat was made even in August 1978 by the IRA, but they failed due to rough weather in the seas.
The year 1979 began with a string of high profile assassinations by the IRA. In March, Sir Richard Sykes, British ambassador to the Netherlands, had been assassinated. In June, NATO chief General Alexander Haig narrowly escaped an IRA attack which was originally meant for a senior British army officer. In August, Mountbatten was advised to not visit Ireland, to which he replied confidently, “the Irish are my friends”.
Mountbatten left for Classiebawn at the beginning of August. On August 27, which was a bank holiday, the family decided to go out in the 29-foot Donegal fishing boat, Shadow V, and lift the lobster pots they had set the previous day. Mountbatten was joined by his daughter Patricia, her husband John, his 83-year-old mother Doreen, and Patricia’s 14-year-old twins Nicholas and Timothy.
At 11:45 AM, just as the boats reached the lobster pods, the IRA team detonated the bomb which they had planted in the boat the previous night. Lownie describes the blast most evocatively: “Fifty pounds of gelignite exploded, sending showers of timber, metal, cushions, lifejackets and shoes into the air. Then, there was a deadly silence. Mountbatten’s body, his legs severed and most of his clothes ripped off in the blast, except for a fragment of his long-sleeved jersey with the badge of HMS Kelly on the front, was found floating face downwards in the water. He had been killed instantly.”
Hours later, another bomb attack by the IRA took place at Warrenpoint, close to the border with the Irish republic, killing at least 18 soldiers. “It is the highest death toll suffered by the British Army in a single incident since it arrived in Northern Ireland to restore order a decade ago,” noted a report in the BBC.
Shortly afterwards, the IRA issued a statement claiming responsibility for Mountbatten’s execution. “The bombing was a discriminate act to bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country… The death of Lord Mountbatten and tributes paid to him will be seen in contrast to the apathy of the British Government and English people to the deaths of over 300 British soldiers and the deaths of Irish men, women and children at the hands of their forces.”
Bomb-maker Thomas McMahon was sentenced to life for Mountbatten’s murder, but was released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement which ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. His alleged accomplice, Francis McGirl, was also arrested but was later released.
The assassination of Mountbatten led to widespread fear and outrage in the British isles. It also marked the beginning of a political showdown between prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was just four months into office then, and the Irish nationalists who went on to be further radicalised. Thatcher responded firmly, withdrawing all political rights associated with the prisoner of war status of IRA prisoners. She saw the IRA as a criminal rather than a political organisation.
The IRA reacted with the hunger strike of 1981 which was called off only after 10 people starved themselves to death. In 1984, the IRA attempted to assassinate the prime minister who was staying at the Grand Brighton Hotel. Although she narrowly escaped, five people associated with the Conservative party were killed in the attack and 31 injured.
The response of the political establishment in England and that of the royal family to Mountbatten’s murder is explored in The Crown. A determined Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson) expresses her condolences to a grieving Elizabeth II (played by Olivia Colman) as she makes clear: “I am sick and tired of those who would seek to rationalize and make excuses for the atrocities committed by the IRA. There is no such thing as political murder, or political bombing or political violence. There’s only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. And I give you my word, I will wage a war against the Irish Republican Army with relentless determination and without mercy, until that war is won.”
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