In early summer 1982 the definition of an Irish intellectual was someone who knew where the Falkland Islands were before all of that extraordinary hullabaloo erupted.
But the end of the Falklands War, 40 years ago on this very day, recalls another low-point in British-Irish relations mirroring the bad feelings about the current Brexit crux on Northern Ireland’s special trade status after those ongoing messy EU-UK non-negotiations after the divorce. Back in summer 1982 Taoiseach Charles Haughey played a tricky game on first backing sanctions by the then-EEC against Argentina.
Mr Haughey further soured relations with his London counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, quickly reducing them to no contact at all. In their twilight years, as both heavy-hitters were looking at the gate, they did manage some courtesies. But this contact was never a meeting of minds.
But let’s go back to the start in April 1982. The academic and writer Gary Murphy recalls in his recent engaging biography, Haughey, that the then-Taoiseach was as puzzled as the rest of the world’s heavy-hitting politicians about this strange carry-on of a war in the South Atlantic which landed out of the blue.
Argentinian forces invaded an unknown British colony, adjacent to South America. The climate there was influenced by freezing Antarctic tides, and the place seemed – then as now – to have little to recommend to it.
In these more recent days we have been engaged by stories of extraordinary heroism by the Irish explorers in that part of the world, including Kildareman Ernest Shackelton and that great Kerryman Tom Crean. But these epic stories are for another time, though well worth revisiting.
There were a number of special things about this Falklands time in spring/summer 1982. Charles Haughey was Taoiseach, leading a minority coalition, in a country on the verge of bankruptcy. He was dependent upon three Workers’ Party TDs who had serious residual republican leanings, along with Independent Tony Gregory, who had roots in the political end of ultra-republican movement.
Some of Charles Haughey’s own Fianna Fáil TDs had what would have been described at the time as “deep-green” views on issues associated with Northern Ireland, which in that zany time could stretch to seas around Argentina. Mr Haughey had inherited a large Jack Lynch led Fianna Fáil majority when he took office in November 1979, lost to Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald in June 1982, only to get back in with his ramshackle minority administration in February 1982, which history recalls only lasted until the following November.
Various writers and diplomats have noted that Charles Haughey believed Margaret Thatcher’s utterly inflexible stance on the 1981 IRA hunger strikes basically cost him that year’s general election. People convicted by special courts, under purpose-written laws, were surely entitled to special prison conditions.
It was a view widely shared in the Republic across trade unions and various sports and social organisations. The crux certainly did cost Fianna Fáil seats and made the party look rather toothless as social and political groups beyond Sinn Féin mobilised to drive popular support for a beleaguered group of prisoners.
The confusion was not exclusive to Ireland. The USA struggled with its own position because Argentina, which had invaded the Falklands, was a close ally and deemed as a bulwark against the spread of communism in South America. Ireland then, as in current times, held a rotating seat on the UN security council and the government supported an initial call for Argentina to withdraw as did
Charles Haughey disliked supporting the UK position but it was a common EC approach at the time. There were other complex political considerations such as Irish food exports to Britain and the position of the Irish immigrant community already under popular pressure due to IRA attacks.
Things came to a head on May 4, 1982, when Charles Haughey issued a statement saying the UN security council should seek an immediate end to hostilities and the withdrawal of EC sanctions against Argentina.
The move defied the advice of diplomats in the Foreign Affairs and his own Roinn an Taoisigh advisers. It caused dramatic offence in London but played reasonably well in Ireland.
Twenty years later, when this writer visited Argentina covering the visit of Haughey protége Bertie Ahern, as Taoiseach, the move was still celebrated by the long-lost community of immigrants in that far-flung land.
But the more immediate effect closer to home was rather more impactful. Within weeks Margaret Thatcher had won what was very much her war and set herself up for another decade in power.
The ‘Iron lady’ promptly announced that Dublin would have no further role in Northern Ireland affairs. Cue Dr Garret FitzGerald.