Thursday 23 November 2017

Peter Barry: charming minister who failed to melt icy exterior of Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher

Frosty relationship: Peter Barry and Margaret Thatcher. Photo: PA Wire
Frosty relationship: Peter Barry and Margaret Thatcher. Photo: PA Wire

Vincent Power

Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and Peter Barry famously had a frosty relationship during their dealings with each other.

Thatcher stonewalled Mr Barry as he tried to build a rapport with her during the critical talks leading to the Anglo Irish Agreement.

The ex-Foreign Minister, who passed away last week, got the cold shoulder every time he deployed his Cork charm to break the ice.

Her frosty treatment was revealed to this journalist during a long interview with Mr Barry about his life and times for the book, 'Voices of Cork'.

The British Premier regarded him as the "hard cop" of the Barry-Garret FitzGerald duo. Protocol dictated at heads of state banquets that Mr Barry was always seated beside Mrs Thatcher.

He tried to charm her with talk of their respective family business backgrounds.

"I was always dying to talk about the grocery trade," he recalled. "She wasn't the least bit interested. I said to her on many occasions, 'I'm a grocer's son and you're a grocer's daughter. What problems had ye with the price of sago?' It was no good. She wouldn't bite.

"It always struck me as very odd that she wouldn't talk about the grocery business."

There were other frosty encounters as he delicately fostered Anglo Irish relations during the FitzGerald government of 1982-87, leading to the historic agreement in 1985.

Read more: John Hume pays tribute to 'great courage and courtesy' of Peter Barry

"She had a higher regard for Garret and Dick Spring than for me," he reflected. "She had been told, or else formed the impression, that I was an intransigent, unreconstructed Fenian. She certainly conveyed that impression to me.

"I don't think she thought of anybody in terms of liking or disliking. I think she thought in terms of whether they were able to do their job, whether they were on her side or against her. It was confrontational.

"I don't think she thought of people in terms of say, having a night out with them because they might be good fun.

"If they didn't agree, then it was how much she would have to bully them to get around to her point of view, and where that task was impossible she'd get them out and walk away.

"She would presume then that you were somebody slightly inferior, were definitely wrong, and there was no point in her wasting any more of her much more valuable time trying to persuade you.

"We frequently make the mistake here of thinking about British politicians in Irish terms, whether they are good or bad for Ireland. They are there to serve their own country and their own people. We must treat them on that basis."

Barry spoke too of his reaction to Thatcher's bombshell 'out, out, out' rejection of the New Ireland Forum's report and its three key proposals.

"That was a humiliating experience because she had been badly briefed.

"Some of her own civil servants were upset by the way in which she used the words 'out, out, out'.

"They were amazed at the venomous way it came across. They were shaken that she had gone so far because she appeared to be slamming the door in our face. So we went around the back door.

"We sat down with a group of civil servants on both sides, set up a committee and out of that eventually came the Anglo-Irish Agreement."

Barry spoke in the book too of other brusque encounters with DUP leader Ian Paisley.

On one occasion during the Irish EC Presidency, Paisley, as an MEP, was invited to attend a parliamentary committee meeting in Dublin Castle.

Barry presided at the meeting which was followed by lunch.

Somebody remarked to Paisley beforehand: "I see you're going to eat with Peter Barry."

The DUP boss replied: "No, I'm going down to eat Peter Barry."

Mr Barry did not hide his disappointment over failing to lead Fine Gael or the country, though he added: "I'm not carrying a cross around for the rest of my life. Most people in this country have never been Taoiseach. I'm not in a unique club."

Yet, if he had been Taoiseach?

"I would have been in the chairman, rather than the chief, kind of mould. I would have brought around me people whose talents I respected and given them their head. The North and Europe would have been priorities."

Finally, I asked the grocer's son how he'd like to be remembered. He'd be happy if people thought of him "as a reasonably good human being who did his best".

The epitaph would simply be: "He worked hard and did his best."

Vincent Power is an author and former journalist with the 'Evening Echo'.

Irish Independent

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