The Price of Shame

Many of the papers carry details of the 1976 state documents now released and several focus on the murder of Christopher Ewart Biggs, the British Ambassador to Ireland who was less than 2 weeks in the job before he was killed along with an aide. The Daily Telegraph reports that Martin Taylor, a PIRA man who was one of 7 to escape the Maidstone Prison ship by swimming across Belfast Lough was the key suspect. He was not convicted as there was thought to be insufficient evidence. The Irish Independent focus on the attempts of the British Government to capitalise on the guilt and shame of the Irish.In particular they wanted the Irish government to drop a case that was before the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. John Hickman, an official at the British Embassy in Dublin wrote:
Even if the traumatic effect of the assassination on Irish opinion fades or proves in the main temporary, I cannot imagine a better time than the present for the Irish government to bring itself to make some specific gesture of goodwill towards Britain. In my view, the biggest single benefit which we could expect to derive from the Irish people’s sense of shame and responsibility for the murder of a British ambassador would be a decision not to pursue the case at Strasbourg.”

Unable to have the case dropped, the British billed Dublin for the funerals, the flowers and the car damaged in the explosion. An ex-gratia payment of £65,000 was quickly approved in the Dail but the British government advised it would affect Mrs Ewart Bigg’s Civil Service pension. Thats an interesting point because the pension is not means tested at the moment, and I didnt think it had been in the past.

AJ Hunter from the Foreign Affairs department ‘advised that the British expenses be quietly slipped to the Department of Foreign Affairs as it might not be possible stop embarrassing questions being asked in the House of Commons about the use of British taxpayers’ funds for the expenses.
Hunter said the Foreign Office was cash-strapped and noted of the Irish offer to the families: “The Irish clearly intend it as a gesture to help expiate their failure to protect the ambassador, hope it will be accepted and indeed might take it amiss if it is not accepted.”

Quite a lot of that sounds extraordinary, such as the idea that the Foreign Office was cash-strapped and needed the Dublin government to cover the funerals?

I was reminded when reading this of a book I read over the summer on the Commemorating the Irish Civil war by Anne Dolan. One of the more poignant stories she recalls is the row over the payment of the funeral tea for Michael Collins. It seems the bill went back and forth between the government and Army at the time, and was only paid once some of the costs of ‘frills’ were deducted. If I recall, they were prepared to pay for tea and sandwiches but drew the line at the cakes. Isnt it extraordinary how people can bother with such pettiness in the face of momentous events. Surely wriggling out pf paying for a funeral was both disingenous and disrespectful to the memories of those killed.

Living History 1968-74

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