A visit to Ballykelly was provisionally pencilled in for Margaret Thatcher’s Christmas visit to Northern Ireland in 1982, however, the Prime Minister ultimately visited the Musgrave Park military hospital to visit survivors of the infamous Droppin’ Well bomb attack instead, newly declassified state papers reveal.
The proposed visit was scheduled to take place a fortnight after the INLA exploded a bomb in a packed disco in the County Londonderry garrison town killing 11 soldiers and six civilians.
It was listed in a handwritten briefing note compiled in preparation for Operation Piston, which detailed the Prime Minister’s itinerary for her 1982 visit.
The note - stamped top secret - provided both “fairweather” and “foulweather” stop offs.
The “fairweather” version suggested Mrs Thatcher could fly by helicopter to Ballykelly to visit the Cheshire Regiment’s social centre and to meet soldiers and some civilians.
The “foulweather” version suggested she could alternatively make a car journey to the Musgrave Park military hospital in the event of “unhelicopterable weather.”
Mrs Thatcher took the “foulweather” option and met some of the recovering victims of the Ballykelly attack.
Following her visit she wrote to Lieutenant Colonel JPJ O’Donavon of the medical corps.
“I was particularly glad to be able to visit the military wing of Musgrave Park Hospital during my visit to Northern Ireland and to pass on in person my Christmas wishes to those who are still patients there,” she wrote.
“It is wonderful news that so many of those injured at Ballykelly have made sufficient progress to be able to do so. I am writing separately to the Deputy Matron to thank the nursing staff for the wonderful work they do, and I should be grateful if you would similarly pass on my thanks and admiration to your staff with my husband’s and my best wishes for a peaceful Christmas and happy New Year.”
The Prime Minister released a statement following her visit to Northern Ireland that year, in which Ballykelly also loomed large.
“I wonder whether, in the wake of Ballykelly, and the daily tragedies that occur to our Armed Forces, to the RUC and the UDR, whether it would be really quite right to say Happy Christmas,” she said.
She went on to say that the warm welcome she received took the matter out of her hands as she was greeted in Bangor, Bessbrook and Belfast.
She said: “We had a wonderful welcome in Bangor. From there we went to the Musgrave Park military hospital, very conscious that we were in the wake of Ballykelly.
“We found a few people there who had experienced that terrible tragedy. We found also some of the Armed Forces that had suffered whilst on patrol in Crossmaglen and others in Belfast.
“We were very much reminded how very much we owe to the courage and bravery of all of those in the security forces who are trying to eradicate terrorism from our lives.
“They were all wonderful people. They had all been through great trouble, they had all experienced Ballykelly, all been under fire or had been ambushed or had had things thrown at them. Their morale was superb.”
Meanwhile, briefing notes relating to the Prime Minister’s 1985 visit to Northern Ireland, which was referred to as Operation Equity, show that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) wanted her to visit Londonderry.
Ultimately, however, Mrs Thatcher didn’t visit the city until 1988 when she stopped at the Desmond and Sons factory in Drumahoe.
The note says: “NIO want two days, one in West, overnight at Hillsborough, one in East.
“Possible ingredients: day one: A school, army unit and UDR, RUC training school, Enniskillen, PM to visit large city in West - Londonderry (probably not), Enniskillen or Omagh.
“An important factor will be the Sinn Féin gains in the local elections.
“Reception and dinner at Hillsborough.”
No reason is given as to why the Prime Minister would “probably not” visit Londonderry that year.
Although the city was snubbed, the Mayor of the day, John McNickle, was amongst the dignitaries who were invited to attend the Prime Minister’s dinner at Hillsborough Castle.