The former Taoiseach's stance on the Falklands did untold damage to Anglo-Irish relations, writes Ronan Fanning
Charlie Haughey's administrative style as Taoiseach was terse. He sometimes initialled but did not otherwise write on the files that crossed his desk But, very rarely, he scribbled a cryptic question: "Cad a tharla?" What happened?
The release of the 1982 records from the Taoiseach's Department in the National Archives includes the files on the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, a war that led to a humiliating disaster for Irish foreign policy. Now, for the first time, we can see what happened.
When Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, the British called for a meeting of the Security Council of the UN on which Ireland then held one of the elective, non-permanent seats. The Irish government supported a statement condemning the invasion issued that day in Brussels by the foreign ministers of the 10 EEC states and Noel Dorr, the Irish Permanent Representative at the UN, spoke in the Security Council debate that evening condemning the flouting of the Council's earlier call to avoid the use of force. The next day, Ireland voted for UN resolution (502) calling for an Argentinian withdrawal.
Charles Haughey immediately took direct control of policy. He disliked identifying with the British position. Hence his lukewarm instructions as described by Noel Dorr: "if we had to vote for the resolution, we should do so; if we could avoid voting for it we should do so; and if ... the resolution was not voted on and we did not have to vote, that would be 'even better'."
Haughey's anti-British instincts, first publicly exemplified by his role as a student in burning the Union Flag hoisted over Trinity College on VE Day in 1945, were bred in the bone. His Anglophobia was exacerbated when Margaret Thatcher berated him after his provocative exploitation of the phrase "totality of relationships" in the communique issued after their December 1980 meeting. The death of Bobby Sands and other hunger-strikers and the seismic shift in the political landscape in favour of Sinn Fein indicated by the massive attendance at their funerals further inflamed his resentment of Thatcher.
On April 7, 1982, the Irish Embassy in London explained the dangers of rejecting the British request to impose sanctions against Argentina.
"At a time when national patriotism has been aroused to a high pitch, [it] would be seen as a knife in the back and would provoke a storm of opprobrium. The effects on Anglo-Irish relations would be incalculable and the progress made in recent years in achieving closer cooperation between London and Dublin would be put at risk. The Irish community would become the target of fierce hostility and Irish exports would be affected."
So, on April 16, Ireland agreed "to the EEC member-countries' call for sanctions against Argentina" because "failure to agree would have left Ireland isolated". But the wobble began a week later when the government agreed that Irish reservations "in relation to the British move to have EEC sanctions formally noted by other countries should be maintained, despite our increasing isolation".
The sinking by a British submarine of the General Belgrano with 323 Argentinian deaths on May 2 was what led to the Irish government unilaterally breaking ranks with Britain and Europe. The rabid anti-British outburst on May 3 of Defence Minister Paddy Power ("we felt that Argentina were the first aggressors. Obviously Britain themselves are very much the aggressors now.") was followed on May 4 by the fateful Irish government statement declaring that it would seek an immediate meeting of the UN Security Council calling for "an immediate cessation of hostilities" in the Falklands and for the withdrawal of EEC economic sanctions against Argentina.
Though Dermot Nally (secretary to the Government) and Paddy MacKernan (assistant secretary in charge of the political division in the Department of Foreign Affairs) were consistently and courageously warning against the folly of pandering to anti-British sentiments, Haughey's interventionist instincts were sustained by Noel Dorr at the UN.
'Why was Ireland seen to be siding with a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record?'
Representatives of small states elected to the Security Council are prone to delusions of self-importance and it is difficult otherwise to interpret the claim in Noel Dorr's dispatch to Paddy MacKernan on May 6: "in my view it is our initiative which has given 'muscle' and potential strength to the Secretary General's efforts and placed them in the right framework".
This exercise in self-congratulation emboldened Haughey and Collins, when they "reviewed the position" on May 7, to claim "the Secretary General appeared to have been galvanised by our action".
On May 14, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig wrote to "Minister Collins", urging the renewal of sanctions against Argentina, stressing that their invasion "has confronted us with an unambiguous challenge to the rule of law". Yet on May 25, nearly a fortnight later, when Ambassador Dorr was asked on the BBC's World at One whether he had any indications that the Americans would support the Irish proposals, his reply, if not delusional, was disingenuous: "We just don't know."
But there were no delusions in a telex, initialled by Haughey on the same day, from Daithi O Ceallaigh, press officer at the London Embassy, summarising the torrent of angry letters and phone calls. Why was Ireland "seen to be siding with an aggressor", with a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record against a democracy? Ireland was "not really interested in better Anglo-Irish relations. In Britain's hour of need, we are seen to be wanting." Most of those who contacted the Embassy "wish to cut off all contact with Ireland and with Irish people in Britain".
On May 28, Ambassador Eamon Kennedy spelt out the reasoning of the British political establishment. UN resolution 502 called for the withdrawal of Argentinian forces from the Falklands.
"Instead of withdrawing its forces, Argentina rapidly reinforced them. The British government then saw itself burdened with the task of using force to dislodge them... They see their military action as having been based on 502 ... A lack of support for their military action is a lack of support for the enforcement of the troop withdrawal provision of 502 ... They regard themselves as implementing 502, for which we voted."
On June 10, the business liaison committee at the London Embassy counted the cost. Aer Lingus reported business 6-7 per cent down on the previous year. The IDA reported "that our stand on the Falklands is affecting them very badly"; two firms had withdrawn from previously agreed projects. On August 18, Edward Guinness came to the embassy and gave details of the effects on Guinness of the Falklands crisis; he remarked that while "an association with Ireland was part of the Guinness image ... he was no longer sure that this association with Ireland was helpful".
The Irish resolution at the UN came to nothing. British forces had already landed in the Falklands by the time it came before the Security Council on May 25 and it was watered down; it merely called for a 72-hour truce. When all six non-aligned members of the Security Council then proposed the deletion of the call for a truce, the resolution became so meaningless that it was adopted unanimously – and even the British felt able to vote for it.
But this humiliating outcome for Haughey's self-indulgent exercise in Brit-bashing cannot disguise the fact that the damage done to Anglo-Irish relations was immense.
He cast aside whatever residual influence he had with Thatcher at an especially turbulent and dangerous time in Northern Ireland. The result was her statement of July 29, 1982 that "no commitment exists for Her Majesty's government to consult the Irish government on matters affecting Northern Ireland".
He ignored the damage to the Irish economy, especially in regard to inward investment. He ignored the embarrassment and abuse visited on the Irish living in Britain.
By identifying, in effect, with the Argentinian military dictatorship, he undermined Ireland's role in promoting human rights, especially in Latin America; by a strange irony, Ireland was elected to the UN Commission for Human Rights for the first time in the middle of the crisis, on May 6, 1982.
Why did these immediate consequences for Anglo-Irish relations not longer endure ?
Largely because Haughey lost office so soon afterwards, in November 1982, and was replaced by Garret FitzGerald who gave the highest priority to restoring harmony in Anglo-Irish relations and to establishing a personal relationship with Margaret Thatcher, culminating in 1985's Anglo-Irish Agreement. All Irish governments thereafter have acknowledged the importance of working in harmony with the British.
In the short term, the consequences for Anglo-Irish relations of Charles Haughey's utter disregard for Ireland's national interest were indeed shocking. But in the long term, Ireland was lucky that the damage was not far worse.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD and an editor of 'Documents on Irish Foreign Policy'