Sunday 22 April 2018

Reagan's victory sparked fears of North policy shift

US President Ronald Reagan enjoying a pint during a visit to Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, in 1984
US President Ronald Reagan enjoying a pint during a visit to Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, in 1984

Chris Parkin

Ronald Reagan's 1980 US presidential election victory prompted fears among Ireland's Washington-based diplomatic corps that the new man at the top might adopt pro-British tendencies on the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland.

Part of the rationale for Dublin's concern was put down to Reagan's memories of his sometimes drunken dad.

Despite his name and Co Tipperary roots, the former Hollywood actor was not at all keen on underscoring his Irish side.

The Reagan breakthrough -- and his defeat of the more sympathetic Democrat President Jimmy Carter -- left our team in the US wondering just how the newly elected president would handle the situation in the North where terrorism was still rife.

Years before a future American president -- Bill Clinton -- made a well-informed and telling intervention on the North, Irish ambassador Sean Donlon warned that the official Reagan election position on Northern Ireland had been drafted by advisers who knew little about what was going on there.

The envoy reported that the fresh face in the White House had based his policy position on advice from "profession foreign policy types", none of whom were experts on Northern Ireland. He wrote in a detailed memorandum that the Irish embassy talks with Reagan staff had "indicated a strong pro-British tendency", adding "many of the advisers had close personal and professional contacts with the more conservative Tory establishment in Britain".

Terrorism

Points raised frequently by the Americans, added Mr Donlon, were "our non-membership of NATO and our alleged softness on terrorism".

Things could have been worse, though, the ambassador suggested. He recorded: "An initial Reagan draft position was very pro-Unionist, and, in particular inclined to the view that NI was exclusively an internal UK matter."

That line softened when Irish-American brothers Dick and John Moore, both strong Republican supporters, stepped in. But the pair failed to secure a mention of Ireland in their party's election platform "despite intensive lobbying".

Mr Reagan, who was later to uncover Irish roots in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, did not identify himself as Irish American during his election campaign, Mr Donlon reported, "even during the St Patrick's Day primary season".

The Irish diplomat said one theory advanced for the president's reluctance to boast of his Irish links dated back to the time when he found his first generation Catholic Irish father passed out through drink at the family home in Illinois.

Another of his sons remembered their father as "very sensitive, too sensitive for his own good -- too much of the juice".

The incident prompted Mr Reagan to drink sparingly during his political life.

Overall, Mr Donlon forecast: "The US interest in Anglo-Irish affairs will remain, but will obviously assume a form which cannot yet be predicted with any accuracy."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News