Sunday 21 July 2019

Garret FitzGerald feared civil war without North deal

Suspicion Colonel Gaddafi would bankroll republicans

Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald sign the Anglo Irish agreement in 1985.
Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald sign the Anglo Irish agreement in 1985.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Shane Hickey

Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald believed the island of Ireland was at risk of civil war in the mid-1980s, with the possibility that republican extremists could be bankrolled by Libya.

A June 1985 memo detailing a meeting between FitzGerald and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the run-up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement illustrates the former Taoiseach's concerns about the North falling into deeper conflict and spilling across the border.

The notes form part of a tranche of files - released by the National Archives in London - of internal British government correspondence from 1985. A large amount of these files detailed the machinations leading up to the signing of the agreement in November that year.

The two leaders had a meeting at the European Council in Milan that summer, during which Mr FitzGerald told Mrs Thatcher that he was regarded as an eccentric because of the amount of time he was committing to the agreement.

He said he was afraid that if there was no agreement, Sinn Fein could provoke a civil war with funding from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

Thatcher had previously said that she feared the North could descend into civil war and emerge from that as a Central American-style Marxist society, according to a 1984 file released by the Irish archives this year.

The Anglo-Irish agreement gave Ireland an official consultative role in the affairs of the North and was seen as a significant development in the progress of relations between Ireland and the UK.

A note in the British files from Charles Powell, Thatcher's private secretary, details how Mr FitzGerald spoke with "considerable emotion" to try and convince Thatcher that the Irish government and people did not want a role in the North.

"He was the only person willing to take risks and force the Irish people to face up to the need for an agreement," the memo says.

"He did so because he believed that otherwise Sinn Fein would gain the upper hand amongst the majority in the North and provoke a civil war which would drag the Republic down as well.

"There were people on the sidelines like Colonel Gaddafi ready to put up millions of pounds to achieve this aim.

"For 800 years Britain has occupied Ireland to protect its flank. There was now a serious risk of ending up with what we had always tried to avoid, an Ireland under hostile and sinister influence."

The agreement was eventually signed on November 15, at a time when the Mr FitzGerald-led government was trailing badly in the polls and was in need of a political success.

The British ambassador to Dublin at the time, Alan Goodison, said in a separate document that a wet summer had added to a "mood of gloom and despondency" while unemployment was at some 17pc. Should the agreement be seen as a success, it would be a vindication of the Taoiseach's efforts, he wrote, but if not it would be seen as "the beginning of the end for the Taoiseach" personally at a time when the political climate was "distinctly edgy".

Separately, the UK papers reveal former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Tom King called for the Anglo-Irish Agreement to be overhauled less than two months before it was signed, as he claimed it gave too much away to the Irish. Mr King said that major changes were needed to the draft agreement to make it acceptable.

The agreement was heavily in favour of the Irish, said Mr King, and the text needed to be changed to illustrate that the Irish Government would not have any say in particularly sensitive issues.

In response, the British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe said that there was "good faith" on the Irish side in the British determination to reach an agreement that would stand the test of time.

Irish Independent

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