Paddy Ashdown: ‘If I’d been Catholic, would I have joined the IRA?’

Posted By: June 06, 2014

The former Lib Dem leader, back in the thick of it, reflects on the paths not chosen – and why we must remember our French allies on D-Day
Paddy Ashdown
Lord Ashdown wouldn’t have settled for Foreign Minister… he always had his eye on PM Photo: JANE MINGAY
By Tom Rowley. The Telegraph. Friday,  June 6,  2014
“I’d be no good with slippers and a pipe,” says Paddy Ashdown, scrolling through his emails in the Somerset cottage he has shared with his wife, Jane, for the last 42 years. “I pretend to be retired and Jane pretends to believe me.”
After the past week, this hardly needs to be said. Lord Ashdown stood down as Lib Dem leader 15 years ago but he has dominated TV screens and newspaper column inches in recent days, defending his protégé, Nick Clegg, after the party’s dire showing in the European elections.
He is still in the thick of it when we meet, ushering me to his office, lined with back issues of Hansard from his time as party leader, where emails constantly whistle their arrival on his computer. He twice breaks off from our conversation to tackle urgent calls.
And, at 73, he shows no sign of giving up yet; he has agreed to mastermind the party’s general election campaign next year. “Politics is the great game,” he says, by way of explanation. “The bullets are flying all the time, adrenalin is going all the time. I can’t resist it.”
It is not, however, his only preoccupation. Rather than publicly ticking off Lord Oakeshott for voicing his concerns over Clegg, Ashdown was hoping to spend this week reflecting on a rather different betrayal, 70 years ago this month.
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His latest book, The Cruel Victory, which is published today, chronicles the largely neglected story of the French Resistance fighters on the Vercors plateau near Grenoble. They attempted to help in their country’s liberation as Allied troops fought on the beaches of Normandy in the days following D-Day, but were badly let down by General de Gaulle.
Ashdown is determined that we should remember these men’s courage in tomorrow’s commemorations of the landings. “We know the position of every grain of sand on the Normandy beaches,” he says. “We know the position of every soldier – think of Private Ryan. But we know nothing about the sacrifices made by the French Resistance.”
He believes Francois Huet, who commanded the Maquis (as the Resistance was known, after a scrub that cover the hillsides) was a heroic figure. “The thing that drove him was decency,” he reflects.
Huet was encouraged by the Allies and General de Gaulle, who promised military backup from Algiers if he could make the Vercors a “redoubt” from which resistance could spread across France.
In the event, though, de Gaulle “casually abandoned” the plateau, dithering for crucial days in sending a battalion of parachutists, while he tried to persuade the Allies to back an alternative operation that would have seen Frenchmen mount an airborne invasion, playing a bigger role in their own liberation.
When the Allies refused to cooperate with this plan, the parachutists finally landed just south of the Vercors – six days too late to save the Maquis.
Huet survived, but too many of his comrades did not. The Sten guns and patriotism of the 4,500 Maquis fighters could not match the might of 12,000 well-trained Germans, who set about a campaign of rape and execution.
Some 840 French men and women were killed, 500 houses burnt to the ground and 650 more severely damaged. Farmhouses were looted and burnt and animals were tied up in their barns before they, too, were set alight.
Huet “ceded under the force of numbers” and ordered his remaining men to retreat in small groups to the forest, where they survived on anything they could forage. At last, a month later, the Allies finally sent 200,000 men to the French coast and liberated the Vercors.
Huet’s remaining men came out of hiding to assist their march on Grenoble and were at the front of the subsequent victory parade.
Ashdown relates all of this with real empathy for the Maquis, informed by his own service in the Royal Marines and Special Boat Service before he entered Parliament. So, I wonder, does he identify with their spirit of resistance? His reply is not what I expect.
“If I had been a Catholic, discriminated against in the way they were in Northern Ireland, would I have been a member of Sinn Fein or the IRA? Given my hot nature and my slightly romantic view of life, it’s quite difficult to say that you can completely discount the fact.”
He does not, of course, condone the IRA or its “murderers of the first order”, but he believes “you are the child of your circumstances”.
“If you were brought up in a community that has been discriminated against and has had their human rights denied, what are you going to do?
“I imagine at the very least I would have been a political activist on behalf of Sinn Fein. Whether you tip that over into something else, I can’t tell you – but I ask myself the question.”
He wishes dissenters in his own party would borrow some of the courage displayed by the Maquis. The European election left the Lib Dems with only one MEP, but he says Clegg has no intention of changing tack.
“We think it is very bad for Britain if this country leaves Europe and we intend to go on saying that. If [the voters] are going to shoot us, fine: but we’ll still be saying it when they shoot us.”
The same sense of righteousness once led a Commons wag to quip that Ashdown’s voicemail greeting went: “Please leave a message after the high moral tone.”
He laughs at this now, and says he dislikes being called a grandee: “I think I’d like to be an eminence grise.”
But he claims to hope that obituarists remember him simply as MP for Yeovil. Did his ambitions not stretch rather further than that?
“Am I fed up that I wasn’t Prime Minister? Of course. I’d love to have been Prime Minister. Or Foreign Secretary.”
You’d have settled for Foreign Secretary?
“No,” he interrupts. “I’d still have wanted to be PM. I’d have liked to have tested myself.”
And with that, he turns back to his emails.
The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance by Paddy Ashdown (Harper Collins, RRP £25) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £23 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 8711514 or visit