News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

James Downey: Abortion vote worries, political upheaval and Anglo-Irish rows in the year of the GUBU

Published 29/12/2012 | 05:00

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GROTESQUE, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented. Thus Charles J Haughey described just one of the many astonishing incidents that occurred in 1982.

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One of his strongest critics, Conor Cruise O'Brien, seized on his words and produced the acronym GUBU. Truly 1982 was the year of the GUBU.

We now learn that it was even more sensational than we had previously known.

State papers released simultaneously in Dublin and London under the 30-year rule flesh out our knowledge and understanding of events. They give us fascinating details, not necessarily fresh information. The latest batch do much more.

The most gripping, and most important historically, relate to the war between Britain and Argentina following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Of these, more in a moment.

But the papers that have the highest current relevance concern the issue of abortion.

In the period preceding the "pro-life amendment" referendum in 1983, much debate centred on the wording of the amendment. This period was one of extreme political instability, in which three general elections were held within 17 months.

The wording was the one favoured by the "pro-life" campaign. It asserted the equal right to life of the unborn and the pregnant woman. It was publicly opposed by Dr Garret FitzGerald and his former attorney general, Peter Sutherland.

But the 1982 papers reveal that others at the heart of the establishment also had their doubts. They included two other attorneys general, Patrick Connolly and John Murray.

In an extraordinary move, when Mr Connolly succeeded Mr Sutherland in March 1982, Mr Haughey's government concealed from him the reservations expressed privately by Mr Sutherland. This appears to have been dictated by Mr Haughey. Mr Sutherland went public, but the referendum proceeded on the original wording.

He called the amendment "a timebomb". The timebomb has lately exploded – again.

Although the issue has brought us three decades of controversy, still unresolved, the effects of the Falklands war were far more harmful. They could have inflicted disastrous, lasting damage on Anglo-Irish relations.

The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, warned Mr Haughey against supporting the Argentine claim to the islands. He did not go so far as that. Whatever about the rights and wrongs, the British legal case was unassailable.

However, he changed course on European sanctions against Argentina – offending some of our European partners – and called for a "ceasefire in place", which would have left Argentine forces in possession of the territory they had gained.

The British government and population, especially Mrs Thatcher, reacted with bitterness and fury. We learn that she contemplated a trade boycott and withdrawal of the voting rights of 500,000 Irish citizens in Britain. Instructions were issued to the Foreign Office and Northern Ireland Office "to avoid doing anything that looks remotely like a favour to the Irish".

Along with anger went puzzlement. One official document asserts that Mr Haughey's government behaved with "breathtaking irresponsibility, ineptitude or even worse".

It is difficult to contest this assertion. Mr Haughey's egregious mistakes appear to have been motivated not merely by a bid for popularity but by outright Anglophobia. It would take a long time for Anglo-Irish relations, and the search for a Northern settlement, to recover.

Historians will surely try to to shed further light on Mr Haughey's actions and statements and answer the question "what did he think he was doing?"

Mrs Thatcher had cast the die when she sent a fleet to recapture the Falklands. With help from the United States and Chile, the odds were massively in her favour.

Aside from any legal or ethical considerations, the government of a small country should have calculated the odds better.

On a question of protocol and courtesy, meanwhile, the same government – perhaps Mr Haughey personally – got it right. Surprisingly, the Department of Foreign Affairs advised against sending Queen Elizabeth a message of congratulations on the birth of her grandson Prince William. The decision was reversed almost immediately after a senior official in the Taoiseach's Office, Richard Stokes, wrote a memo, which began: "I strongly disagree."

The rationale was that such messages should be sent only if the head of state were involved, but that was simply wrong. There were abundant precedents, including congratulations to the Grand Duke of Luxembourg on the birth of a grandson.

Happily, Anglo-Irish relations have now reached a stage where neither a major issue nor a minor embarrassment is likely to raise blood pressure in either Merrion Street or Whitehall.

Irish Independent

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