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Murder of Lord Mountbatten

What is there to say about Northern Ireland except that the atrocious incident in Donegal Bay blotted out most other foreign news as nothing, I can recall, since the Arab guerrillas descended on the Israeli dormitory and defiled the Olympic Games seven years ago?

In the shockwave that followed on the murder of Lord Mountbatten, it must seem tasteless for outsiders to express anything but sympathy and outrage, but I dare to say that, in the following days, a couple of essential things have been printed here which have been obscured or denied in the general press treatment of Ulster in this country. 

The most non-Catholics, I should guess, who live in American cities with large Catholic populations shy away from any set-to about the Ulster problem because they tend to assume that it's primarily a Catholic-Protestant conflict and then go on to make the bigger assumption that an American Catholic, especially one of Irish origins, is bound to share the view of the Ulster Catholic minority while yet deploring the terrorist tactics of the IRA. 

In the normal coverage, the television coverage, especially of Ulster, in documentaries, special features tagged on to the evening news and so on, two simple but important things never seem to get said. One is that the Irish Republic, through many governments, has been, if anything, more severe than perhaps any British government dare be against the IRA. And the other is the even simpler point that the British Army is not there to subjugate a population which yearns for unity but to protect a population which has voted overwhelmingly to remain in the United Kingdom. 

Now, I'm sure, to most people, this is so elementary that it seems almost gross to bring it up. But, the other evening, I asked a friend of mine, I should've thought a reasonably knowledgeable man, if he would take a guess at saying how many of the people of Ulster would vote in a referendum for, or against, joining the Irish Republic. He said, 'Well, judging from the deadlock which seems to go on and on, I should guess it would be about 50/50.' What he did not know was the elementary fact that the vast majority of Ulstermen want neither a united Ireland nor want to run Northern Ireland, with the Catholic minority, as an independent kingdom. 

On the first point, the attitude of the Irish Republic, the New York Times the other day, had this passage: 'The age-old dream of achieving a united Ireland through blood is a nightmare vision that has no encouragement from the Irish Republic. Ireland has enacted draconian laws aimed at the IRA, more than 300 terrorists are in Irish jails, no IRA spokesman can appear on Irish television or radio, if anything, the Irish Republic has dealt more firmly with the IRA than the British Crown.' And the Times goes on to say that 'a partnership between London and Dublin is feasible in a fresh initiative' and thinks it's 'the only consolation that could come out of the present carnage'. 

The other strong voice comes out of Boston and is that of a distinguished American lawyer, of, er... of Irish origins, who published in the Times a short, but shrewd, history of Ireland's troubles from the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the present. Mr William Shaw McDermott by no means glosses over the cruelty of the early colonial efforts in the north, the scattering of the clans in the seventeenth century, the parcelling out of their lands to the lowland Scots and the Crown's strategy of using Protestant freeholders to dispossess and subjugate Catholic peasants in the north. Then, he says, 'from this history developed the current legend that six counties of Ulster remain under John Bull's tyranny. 

'The legend,' he says, 'ignores the crucial fact of modern Irish history that once British policy had unloosed the goblin of loyal Ulster it could not be returned to the bottle. Since 1920, Ulster's Protestants have clutched the British connection as their security against the imagined dissolution of their prosperity and liberties. Their intransigence brought the British Army into Ulster in 1970 and made Britain the bewildered arbiter in the events that have claimed some 2,000 lives. American Irish Catholics,' he winds up, 'who understand the grim determination of Ulster's Protestants, must not succumb to sentimental proposals for a united Ireland. 

'Such talk invites the spectacle, with like results, of the brutal sectarian civil war that Lord Mountbatten struggled in vain to forestall in India in 1947. They must also resist the temptation to bait British governments for evident imperfections of policy and, above all, they must learn from Ireland's history the supremely ironic truth that the British connection is Ireland's only present hope for peace. With it, Ireland may yet achieve reconciliation of its religious communities.' 

Well, it's very rare indeed to read this sort of argument in this country. Let's hope that some of it will percolate down to the television networks who, responding to the very nature of television, tend to show fire and smoke. And, as they did a night or two before Lord Mountbatten's murder, simplify the conflict into a street brawl between British soldiers hiding behind tanks and a gang of Catholic boys throwing rocks at them. 

Well, before this tragedy the topic that engrossed the government and fascinated almost everybody was the holding for three days at Kennedy Airport, along with a plane-load of Soviet citizens, the Bolshoi ballet dancer, Vlasova, the wife of Alexander Godunov, who had defected the day before and then mysteriously vanished, or isolated himself, or otherwise couldn't be reached. This strange incident mixed elements of diplomacy, international law and human rights into an episode that might well have served, might well come to serve, as the opening sequence of a James Bond movie. 

When it was over, the acting secretary of state said that the American effort had established the principle that foreigners in the United States have a right to choose freely whether to remain or leave. But the chairman of a House sub-committee called for a congressional investigation of the State Department and the immigration service into what he called 'their outrageously clumsy handling' of the affair. 

The Russians had no such conflict of opinion about it, partly because they don't allow conflict of opinion, but mainly because by suppressing all mention in their media that Vlasova's husband had defected to the United States, they were able to present it to their people as an outrageous invasion of her Soviet citizenship. It must have seemed absurd, at least to Russian readers, and paranoid, at worst. Why would the American authorities suddenly pick on a harmless ballet dancer just because she wanted to go home? 

Of course, to the Americans, there would have been no motive, no cause, to ground her plane if her husband had not made a public declaration that he was defecting. From his wife's point of view, he declared himself uncomfortably too soon, leaving her to go on tour with the Bolshoi either confessing to an open break with her husband or pretending to an airy indifference to his politics and his future. What prompted the American action was a James Bond performance on the part of eight Soviet security men. 

The day after Godunov announced his defection, these men told his wife she was leaving the Bolshoi troupe. They told her to pack her bags and they hustled her off to the next jet home. There's been no mention here of who, in the American government, was tipped off to this move, but somebody learned about it. And, in no time, the State Department got in touch with the immigration service and they both agreed that it looked like a case of forced departure, something that's covered by international law. The first notion was to get hold of her husband, learn if she, too, had meant to defect – he did say they'd discussed it at length in the weeks before he declared – and see if she was being bungled off before she, too, could break away. 

The protesting congressman who says the immigration service 'bungled the job' says they could easily have got to her while she was still on terra firma, or American soil, but there's no legal immigration procedure for demanding to know of any passenger taking an overseas flight whether or not you're leaving of your own free will. That's properly presumed in the fact that you show up at the airport with a valid ticket, with a passport and a visa, and you go through the body and luggage check. 

It appears that the immigration service didn't know the identity of the 36-year-old Russian woman until she was aboard the plane and, it's been reasonably pointed out, neither they nor any other outsider had cause to think she was leaving the troupe since a day or two later it was to finish its run in New York and then move on to open in Chicago, where it's playing now. But once the Americans stopped the plane, the Soviet authorities lodged a formal protest. The Americans asked to take her off the plane and question her in the presence of the Russians. The Russians said 'no.' They went on saying 'no' for two more days. 

What made the Americans suspicious was the fact that she had not strolled into the airport on her own and gone aboard and sat where she chose, as you and I would. She was taken to the airport by eight Russian security men. The checking-in procedure was waived and she was seated in a separate compartment on the plane and flanked by guards. 

Well, at last, the two sides agreed to move a mobile van up to the plane and in the privacy, you might say, in the privacy of it, she was questioned by the Americans. There seems no doubt that she wanted to go home and there was no way the Americans could know whether or not she'd been intimidated. They came to the conclusion on what they saw and heard that she had not. 

So this leaves the puzzle of motive, I think, with the husband who, unfortunately, chose to stay in seclusion. Was he terrified to come out of it? Had he urged her to defect with him? Had she agreed and then been threatened with reprisals against her family, say, by the Soviet officials? Had she had enough of Godunov? Did she want out? 

In any case, she got it. It was, said the chief Soviet negotiator, 'a victory for proletarian justice'. And the Soviet news agency, Tass, saw an irony in it, 'How ironical that brigandage against a group of perfectly innocent people should have taken place in a country where certain circles keep holding forth on freedom and the defence of human rights!'

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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