Tuesday 16 July 2019

Diarmaid Ferriter: Files show how far we've moved in our relationship with Britain

Margaret Thatcher was worried about Ronald Reagan visiting Ireland in 1984
Margaret Thatcher was worried about Ronald Reagan visiting Ireland in 1984

The files just released from the British archives in relation to Anglo-Irish relations in the early 1980s are a reminder of just how far both sides have travelled in recent years and the extent of the friendship that now exists after decades of mistrust, frustration, skulduggery, failed initiatives and racial stereotyping.

What is also striking about the files relating to 1983 is how they demonstrate the endurance of many of the themes that dominated Anglo-Irish relations from the early 1920s: the status of Northern Ireland; the role of violence; propaganda; the view of the United States; the possibilities or lack of them in relation to a solution; and whether to intervene or remain inactive.

As far back as 1886, British prime minister William Gladstone, when introducing the first home rule bill, announced that the bill "will, above all, obtain an answer – a clear, we hope, and definite answer – to the question of whether or not it is possible to establish good and harmonious relations between Great Britain and Ireland".

But as the newly released files make clear, almost 100 years later, in 1983, Margaret Thatcher, in discussions with Jim Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, wondered if the British government "would ever be able to solve" the Northern Ireland problem.

For all Thatcher's stubbornness in public and her assurances of support for the Ulster unionists, she was less sure in private, wondering if British withdrawal might be tactically wise – a reminder that historically, what British prime ministers said in public was often very different from what they admitted in private.

Prime minister David Lloyd George, for example, announced in November 1920 that victory had been achieved over the IRA – "we have murder by the throat" – yet was also prepared to authorise private approaches to Irish republicans and less than six months later admitted: "I will meet Mr De Valera, or any of the Irish leaders, without condition on my part." This process led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.

Jim Prior assured Thatcher in 1983 that British withdrawal would lead to civil war, which was also the view, according to Irish government documents, of some on the Irish side, including Garret FitzGerald.

British ambassadors to Ireland regularly sent their impressions of the Irish to ministers in London and could be insightful. Ambassador Alan Goodison in 1983 suggested that many in the Republic had little interest in seriously engaging with the idea of a united Ireland, but that there was "a raw nerve which never sleeps" in relation to British misgovernment and events like Bloody Sunday and the IRA hunger strikes.

This was true; Bloody Sunday had created great anger in the Republic, but in the same year, Taoiseach Jack Lynch when asked by the British ambassador at that stage, John Peck, about how the Irish people felt about unification, gave a response which, in Peck's words, "amounted to saying they could not care less".

Another British diplomat was also accurate in identifying in the aftermath of the hunger strikes in 1981 "the real fear of the Irish that violence could erupt here and destroy their institutions".

But these files also reveal that British diplomats, especially in their gossipy and bitchy memos on Irish diplomats, could lapse into crude racial stereotypes that, it seemed, had not changed much since the 'Punch' cartoons of the 19th Century.

One staff member at the British Embassy, referring to one of the most senior diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs, complained about his anti-Britishness when he drank to excess. "Many Irishmen become bellicose with drink and bellicosity here has only one direction."

The British government was also worried about US president Ronald Reagan visiting Ireland in 1984, which a diplomat in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office thought would be "most unwelcome to us" because of the danger of him speaking about Northern Ireland. Again, the continuity is revealing. Winston Churchill had admitted as far back as 1921 that the Irish question was "the greatest obstacle which has ever existed to Anglo-American unity".

Of course, there is an onus on the historian to look at files from both sides of the Anglo-Irish divide. What is interesting about these files is that their release is a result of a British decision to release state files after 20 years; traditionally, both British and Irish government records have been opened after 30 years. This raises a certain dilemma on the Irish side in relation to Irish releases about the same subjects lagging 10 years behind British releases.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent

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