Major rift in relations after British sank 'Belgrano'
Analysis:The conflict between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands led to the most dramatic foreign policy divergence between Dublin and London since Ireland’s assertion of its neutrality during the second World War.
With the latest release of internal documents to the national archives of both countries we have a chance to reassess the situation, without the tension and uncertainty that marked events back in 1982. Every schoolchild knows that the respective governments were led by strong – one might even say monumental – personalities: Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher.
Neither was politically secure when the Falklands saga began and John Major recalls in his autobiography that “immediately after the invasion Margaret Thatcher had her back to the wall”.
However, the British Tory leader emerged virtually invulnerable in the end whereas her Fianna Fáil counterpart was back on the opposition benches by the end of the year. Haughey had come to power after the February general election without an overall majority and relying on the votes of the Workers’ Party and Independents: this was the time of the much-criticised “Gregory Deal”.
Initially, the Haughey government was part of the international consensus in opposition to the surprise Argentine takeover of the islands on April 2nd by the repressive military regime led by Gen Leopoldo Galtieri. Despite some historic links with Argentina, the relationship bore no comparison with the British-Irish connection. Haughey went along with the prevailing view that Galtieri and his associates were in breach of international law.
With the dispatch of the British taskforce there were rumblings on the republican wing of Irish politics. Donegal Independent TD Neil Blaney, who had voted for Haughey as taoiseach, said the government should support Argentina, “because of the continued British occupation of the six counties”. There was open criticism also from within Fianna Fáil when Síle de Valera MEP said on April 22nd that “the influence of Britain . . . has eroded our neutral stance”.
It is possible matters would never have come to a head if Thatcher and her “war cabinet” had not ordered the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, by the nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror, on May 2nd, 48km outside the 320km Falklands exclusion zone, with a death-toll of 368, mostly sailors in their teens.
First out of the blocks was minister for defence Paddy Power who told a Fianna Fáil meeting at Edenderry, Co Offaly: “Obviously Britain themselves are very much the aggressors now.” He linked it to a recent incident in which an Irish trawler, the Sharelga, was sunk when a British submarine, HMS Porpoise, got entangled in the fishing nets.
Ireland was a member of the United Nations Security Council at the time and, on May 4th, the Haughey government issued a statement that it was seeking an immediate meeting of the council to prepare a resolution calling for a ceasefire by both sides, but made no reference to a previous resolution demanding an immediate Argentine withdrawal. The statement also rejected European sanctions as “no longer appropriate”. Although ultimately there was no UN ceasefire resolution and the EEC did renew the sanctions, with Ireland and Italy dissenting, the statement marked a major rift in British-Irish relations.