The Day Mountbatten Died, review: a powerful look at one of the darkest days of the Troubles

Jasper Rees
Lord Mountbatten in 1956 - Hulton Archive

The recent YouGov poll which asked Conservative members what they would be prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve Brexit did not propose the ultimate option. Would they rather have Brexit than peace?

The question loitered discreetly in the background for most of The Day Mountbatten Died (BBC Two), Sam Collyns’s powerful commemoration of one of the blackest days of the Troubles, when the IRA murdered British royalty and blew up 18 members of the Parachute regiment, while an innocent civilian was shot in error.

“He would have been astonished,” said Lord Mountbatten’s biographer Philip Ziegler, exuding plummy English detachment, “that there were IRA members interested in his existence.” Their target styled himself Mountbatten of Burma; his granddaughter was named India, after the country whose partition he oversaw. But these grand imperial associations were no defence when the IRA’s South Armagh brigade snuck onto his unguarded fishing boat, moored in the village of Mullaghmore just south of the border, and planted the bomb that would kill him, his daughter’s mother-in-law, his grandson and a local teenage boy.

The story of both atrocities was carefully stitched together from every perspective: witnesses, rescuers, those who survived and the relatives of those who didn’t, all in different ways were still scarred and bereaved. To observe a cultural neutrality, the voice-over was spoken by the Scottish actor Bill Paterson. 

Lord Mountbatten with his granddaughter Credit: BBC

Remembering terror does funny things to people; India Hicks wore a brave smile and apologised for her tears as she recalled being packed off to Gordonstoun days after the state funeral, where that night in her dorm someone cracked the most appalling joke about her grandfather’s murder. “The mindset would have been operational,” explained Kieran Conway, who had been the IRA’s director of intelligence. “Kill them, without too much reflection.” He emitted a stab of laughter that mingled cold callousness with baffled regret.

Conway confirmed that it was Martin McGuinness who signed off on all this carnage. Put in this clarifying context, the handshake in 2012 that the Queen offered to McGuinness became an ever more profound symbol of reconciliation.

The 40th anniversary falls with the troubled border once more at the heart of geopolitics. “The problem with peace,” concluded the veteran Irish journalist Olivia O’Leary, “is you have to keep working at it.” Essential viewing for our leaders.