Monday 23 September 2019

State Papers 1988: Thatcher warned of 'worst civil war ever'


Clashes: Taoiseach Charles Haughey with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
Clashes: Taoiseach Charles Haughey with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty

Ralph Riegel

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher warned Taoiseach Charles Haughey during a series of heated exchanges that Irish unity would spark the worst civil war the world had ever seen.

The two leaders were desperate to improve Anglo-Irish relations in the wake of several atrocities in Northern Ireland, a major extradition row, and the IRA successfully smuggling Libyan weapons.

But they clashed repeatedly over judicial and security issues, with Mr Haughey bluntly warning the Conservative leader that: "If you keep on belittling what we are doing, we lose heart. We get no credit for what we are doing."

However, Ms Thatcher warned that Ireland had the greatest number of terrorists in the world outside of the Lebanon.

Newly released papers from the State Archives - marked 'Most Secret' - detailed hard-hitting exchanges during a summit meeting in Hanover, Germany, on June 28, 1988.

The meeting took place after the killing of three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar by the SAS, the Milltown Cemetery attack by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone, and the execution of two British soldiers who were attacked, stripped and beaten by a mob after accidentally driving into a republican funeral cortège.

Two of the incidents unfolded in front of global TV cameras.

"On devolved government, the world's harshest battles are not between black and white but between people who are like each other and who live beside each other, like the Greeks and Turks, the Sikhs and Hindus, the Arabs and the Israelis," Ms Thatcher warned.

"They keep their hatred alive. I will never be prepared to walk out and let the terrorists win. You talk of unity and I ask would that be better? I say 'No' - there would be the worst civil war in history - and it would spread to the mainland."


The Taoiseach repeatedly tried to interrupt the prime minister to stress that his government had "expressed our horror" at atrocities and was doing its best to improve security co-operation.

However, Ms Thatcher said recent events had made Northern Ireland a byword for terrorist outrages.

"I do not know what to do about the Border. I was speaking recently with a member of another police force. He said that you in Ireland have the biggest concentration of terrorists in the world - apart from the Lebanon," she warned.

"You talk of public opinion but I have to deal with guns, bombs, beating people to death with sticks, and many other barbaric acts.

"There are massive caches of arms somewhere. We would never ourselves have searched 50,000 houses. We know that the people concerned would have gone to ground.

"We would have used our intelligence service. And so, yes, I must send more young boys over there [Northern Ireland] to their deaths. I ask myself - am I entitled to do it?

"When the troops went to Northern Ireland, they were welcome. It has all been so useless. There is a borderline but there is not an effective Border. [But] most of the intelligence we get is our own. The IRA plan in five or six different places in the south. They use the Border for this purpose. If they go south, we lose them at the Border. They come north and from the west. I can't seal the Border."

Mr Haughey expressed regret that the British prime minister felt so "disappointed" and "despondent" over events in Northern Ireland.

Irish Independent

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