Saturday 20 July 2019

Papers' intriguing insight into Thatcher's relationships with Haughey and FitzGerald

Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle in 1985
Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle in 1985
John Downing

John Downing

It does not take a wild amount of imagination to understand why Maggie Thatcher had limited patience with Ireland.

Just weeks before she became British prime minister in 1979, her friend and confidante, the shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, Airey Neave, was murdered in an INLA car bombing. In October 1984 she survived a Provisional IRA bomb attack on her hotel in Brighton.

She lost another friend to Irish terrorism in 1990 when the IRA killed her adviser on the North, Ian Gow. So, she had her reasons to frequently see matters Irish in a negative light.

But she did try to engage with the issues. Against a very negative backdrop, a great deal of progress towards change in the North happened on her watch, most notably the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave first recognition ever to a role for Dublin in the North's affairs, and paved the way for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and its related accords.

The State papers, released under the 30-year rule, offer an intriguing insight into the one-step-forward-two-steps-back crawl towards peace in the North. But first a little context to 1986 will help.

It was Garret FitzGerald's final full year as Taoiseach heading a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. By late 1986, he knew he was just weeks away from being replaced by his nemesis, Charlie Haughey, in the February 1987 general election.

Mr Haughey's relationship with Mrs Thatcher had begun brilliantly, but ended up being non-existent. Mrs Thatcher's intransigent actions had marginalised Mr Haughey in the 1981 hunger strikes, which led to 10 deaths and hugely stoked Northern violence. Mr Haughey in turn put the complete kibosh on the relationship by his refusal to back EU sanctions against Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

There was a sense in 1986 that Mr FitzGerald somehow wanted to copperfasten the gains of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed amid much fanfare. But the obstacles were considerable.

Mr Haughey had opposed the agreement during his "against everything" period as leader of Fianna Fáil in opposition. But in late 1986, Mr FitzGerald judged-correctly as it turned out - that Mr Haughey would live with the deal.

Mr FitzGerald also correctly surmised that if a move was finally made to extradite IRA suspects from the south, Mr Haughey would not undo it. It was also clear that neither Mr Haughey nor Fianna Fáil would at that stage consider making a change on that issue, which had long bedevilled British-Irish relations.

The Supreme Court in Dublin had ruled that political offences - or those linked with political matters - meant extradition could not happen. The glacier-like pace of change in this matter is best summed up by the reality that INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey's extradition to the North in March 1984 was a first since the State's foundation in 1922.

The Supreme Court was coming around to the growing international view that "political offences" needed to be distinguished from "terrorism". The Anglo-Irish Agreement carried a political requirement on Dublin to crack down on the IRA, and Mr FitzGerald, advised by Attorney General Peter Sutherland, was moving to tighten the extradition law to give effect to the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism.

But there was also doubt in London about future links with the North. This comes across at many levels in the 1986 papers.

The notes of that meeting in June 1986, in the margins of an EU leaders' summit in The Hague, record Mrs Thatcher wistfully musing about how long she could continue to "send young men to their deaths in Northern Ireland". The sickening toll of violence was a huge bugbear and with the impending first anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mrs Thatcher expressed her frustration with it all.

The other pressure leading to questions in London about the North's status is shown in the disillusionment with unionists' vehement opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was perceived as excessive and counter-productive.

Thirty-year papers released in London yesterday show that the future Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson was contemplating a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) for the North.

Believe it or not, there is even a foretaste of Brexit on show in these papers. At that meeting in the Dutch capital, Mr FitzGerald is recorded asking Mrs Thatcher if she would countenance seeking EU regional grants to boost the US-backed International Fund for Ireland.

For Mrs Thatcher, that one was a complete non-starter. Seeking EU funds, when all her focus was on cutting UK contribution to Brussels, was not even up for discussion. In practice, she argued rather exaggeratedly, the UK would be stumping up 75pc of such money.

In reality, it would have been largely German money. It very probably would have been given without demur. After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the EU 'peace grants' to the North flowed generously and swiftly, though much of the lobbying was done by Dublin. It found a real friend in EU Regional Commissioner Monika Wulf-Mathies, and was ably supported by much-maligned Irish Commissioner Pádraig Flynn.

But for Mrs Thatcher in 1986, the EU had other problems like the Basque conflict and she implied a certain "chain reaction" to EU peace grants.

"We shouldn't get into this," she told Mr FitzGerald with finality.

Notes from that meeting in the margins of the EU summit also show the value of these discussions in a less fraught atmosphere than such encounters in Belfast, London or Dublin. Chatting at the leaders' summit dinner, Mr FitzGerald told Mrs Thatcher his coalition with Labour needed to push through £8bn in budget cuts.

Records of another meeting in London in December 1986 have Mr Fitzgerald complaining about difficulties policing the Border. Mrs Thatcher's recorded reply is astonishing: "Yes, we got it wrong in 1921."

We are left to guess whether that meant the principle of partition or some details about how it was implemented.

The 1986 State papers are opened at a time of yet another crisis which could rock the North's fragile power-sharing arrangement.

That of itself is not encouraging. But even the briefest reflection of where we were at 30 years ago, does tell us we have come a long way.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss