Tuesday 23 July 2019

The year when State grappled to handle Thatcher's grip on North

State papers for 1983 show how our mandarins tried to adjust to Iron Lady's premiership, writes John-Paul McCarthy

Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald
Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald

John-Paul McCarthy

'We say here that Dick Spring and Peter Sutherland talk and think like Protestants. There are no Protestants at all in Kanturk. You are not one either are you? So do not let them or anyone KILL our babies..."

So wrote one concerned citizen to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald during the constitutional debate on abortion law in 1983.

As Joe Humphreys explained in The Irish Times last week, Dr FitzGerald's mailbag in that tumultuous year also contained another letter, this one from an obstetrician who complained that if the Constitution was amended to protect the "unborn", women could die in hospital because a doctor "would rather wait until the foetal heart had disappeared".

This letter essentially predicted the later ordeal of Savita Halappanavar.

The state papers for 1983 were dominated by the situation in Northern Ireland and the triumphant re-election of Mrs Thatcher for a second term in the 1983 UK general election.

Dr FitzGerald had decided to pursue an aggressive inter-governmental approach to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, and his staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs were instructed to study the British prime minister closely.

One diplomat explained to Dr FitzGerald that he would have to make allowances in his approach for Mrs Thatcher's "Fortress Falklands nationalism" and her "stiffened chauvinism".

The diplomat also complained that one major problem in engaging Mrs Thatcher's mind on Anglo-Irish relations was her refusal to "accept that her stern obduracy [during the H-Block strikes] contributed to the present problem of alienation among Northern nationalists."

This critique apparently did not try to assess her handling of the hunger strikes with reference to the Irish government's own stern policy on these matters in Irish jails.

Readers may recall here Charles Moore's depiction of Irish government policy in his authorised biography of Mrs Thatcher.

Moore wrote about how the then cabinet secretary Dermot Nally was struck by Dr FitzGerald's preoccupation with Eamon de Valera's earlier insistence that no government could surrender to blackmail.

One other important theme recurred in the 1983 state papers, and that was the Irish government's desire to get Mrs Thatcher to concede the moral legitimacy of Irish nationalism itself.

Michael Lillis in Foreign Affairs suggested some lines for Dr FitzGerald at his next tete-a-tete with Mrs Thatcher: "The Taoiseach might go on to say that facing the reality of Irish nationalism means facing the difficult fact that hanging Irish nationalist terrorists would be a catastrophe for all concerned." (There was much talk in the British parliament in 1983 with the possible re-introduction of the death penalty).

One is struck again here by the contrast between De Valera's hard-nosed attitude towards the death penalty and the more agitated analysis of a later generation of Irish nationalists.

In another lengthy paper written by Noel Dorr, the future Irish ambassador to the UK, Mrs Thatcher's abrasive attitude towards Irish nationalism was once again canvassed.

Dorr told Dr FitzGerald that somehow she "must accept that no institutional soporific will placate or extirpate Irish nationalism", this being "an irreducible reality" that still supposedly eluded her even after her celebrated "totality of relationships" summit with Charles Haughey in 1980.

The papers also show how Irish diplomats reacted to those whom they felt lacked a feel for this kind of "reality".

One letter refers to the widow of the murdered British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, as "one of those well-intentioned but pushy individuals whose attention can be bothersome at times".

The private secretary to the minister for foreign affairs went on to complain that the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Trust "has promoted lectures by Conor Cruise O'Brien which were along lines divergent from government policy".

Charles Haughey had written to Jane Ewart-Biggs in 1980 to refuse her invitation that he become a sponsor of her trust.

Haughey explained that since his predecessor Jack Lynch had been a sponsor, he did not want to carry on that tradition.

"I feel sure you will understand," Haughey wrote.

The papers relating to Anglo-Irish affairs in 1983 contain references to various schemes that never bore fruit, especially the possibility of some kind of security function for the Irish government in Northern Ireland itself, and the possible amendment of the Republic's territorial claim on Northern Ireland in Article 2 of Bunreacht na hEireann.

In the end though, some two years later, the British government decided that the only way they could get meaningful security co-operation along the Border was if they gave some kind of institutional form to Dorr's "irreducible reality", and this would lead to the creation of the Inter-Governmental Conference dimension in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Mrs Thatcher's famous concession to Irish nationalism that year probably had more to do with the kind of pragmatism she showed in handling Robert Mugabe and the Chinese Communist Party in the matter of Hong Kong than with any meaningful softening in her attitude towards Irish nationalist aspirations.

Irish Independent

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