Thursday 20 July 2017

State papers - 1980: Thatcher 'would not stand in the way of Irish unification'

Brian Hutton

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government privately signalled that it would not stand in the way of a united Ireland a year after sweeping to power.

State files released for the first time show the reputedly hardline Conservative administration told Dublin it had a greater interest in Northern Ireland than London.

But the then-Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins confided in Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Lenihan that "there would be an explosion" if it emerged they were making plans toward reunification.

"One step would have to be taken at a time," he said, according to Irish government notes of a meeting between the two on April 15, 1980.

"There was 'no way' he could go round promoting Irish unity. This was simply not possible. That was not to say, however, that it was something that the British government would stand in the way of."

Mr Atkins insisted that persuasion was needed to remove genuine Protestant fears.

The previously classified notes of the meeting in Dublin show Mr Atkins -- considered by many an uncompromising Tory -- advised then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey on the apparent British position.

"The secretary of state indicated that he had said to the Taoiseach the Irish Government's interest in Northern Ireland was greater than any other party except of course the people of Northern Ireland," the notes reveal.

A year later Mrs Thatcher memorably remarked that "Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley".

The documents released from the Taoiseach's office, under the 30-year rule, show the Irish Government was pushing for a three-strand resolution focusing on North/South and British/Irish dimensions, as well as cross-community relations within the North.

The model -- promoted by John Hume's SDLP -- would eventually form the basis of the Good Friday Agreement 18 years later. But in 1980, Mr Hume believed Mrs Thatcher lacked knowledge and understanding of the crisis a year after she took power.

At the time, the British government appeared exclusively focused on a setting up a devolved administration in Belfast which Dublin could then co-operate with on a North/South basis.

"The destiny of the people of Northern Ireland will have to be decided by them alone," said Mr Atkins.

Frustrated

The remarks apparently frustrated Mr Lenihan who voiced "serious doubts" about the approach and insisted Britain could not "abstract itself" from the situation.

Meanwhile, files released from the Public Records Office in the North also show a push toward Irish unity was considered by the Thatcher government as the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland.

The British government was struggling to come up with options to resolve the conflict. Its proposals of either building a power-sharing government or rule by majority vote were rejected.

In the face of such deadlock, the Central Secretariat's office in Northern Ireland devised a list of "fall-back solutions" -- top of the list was a move toward Irish unification

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News