Divisions on Falklands put a huge strain on ties with Britain
Overview:Over just a few months in the first half of 1982, Anglo-Irish relations rapidly descended from caution to frostiness and then bitter acrimony.
They were characterised by “snide” and “obnoxious” remarks, unseemly threats to withdraw security co-operation or boycott trade, refusals to shake hands and take phone calls and ambassadors being summoned for dressings-down in Dublin and London.
The year 1981 had been a difficult one for both governments. This was partly because of the strains caused by the hunger strikes, though British officials were encouraged by meetings between Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher towards the end of the year during which tentative plans for inter-governmental summits were discussed.
On January 14th, 1982, looking ahead to the forthcoming year, the British ambassador in Dublin, Sir Leonard Figg, expressed his hope that this would “provide a solid framework to cushion us both against the buffets which our shared history deals us”.
Within a matter of days, however, there was a glimpse of future problems as it became clear that the British government was much more tentative about Anglo-Irish co-operation on Northern Ireland than its counterparts. By January 22nd, Figg confessed that he was “ducking questions” on British plans for Northern Ireland in talks with the senior Irish civil servant Dermot Nally.
Prospects for progress were dented further when it became clear that Charles Haughey would replace FitzGerald as taoiseach after the February general election. If FitzGerald had been returned, British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong claimed that he “would have been inclined to ring up Dermot Nally” to suggest that the governments resume their joint efforts.
During the campaign, however, Haughey was seen to have adopted an increasingly uncompromising republican stance on the Northern Ireland question. In particular, he had made clear his opposition to a plan being drawn up by James Prior, Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, to establish a devolved Northern Ireland assembly with limited powers. For that reason, Armstrong calculated that “if the initiative comes from this side, it is liable to be misinterpreted in Dublin”.
Despite this renewed “bombast” from the taoiseach, British officials still advised Thatcher to meet Haughey in Brussels at an EC convention on March 30th, if only to discourage him from supporting an SDLP boycott of Prior’s proposals. The meeting did not go well. Haughey pushed for an early meeting of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council, only to be rebuffed by Thatcher, while the taoiseach made it clear that he did not view Prior’s initiative with favour.
“Haughey Mark II differs greatly from the Mark I version we saw from November 1979 to May 1981,” British officials soon noted, although they believed his tougher line on the North was partly an attempt to distract attention from domestic political problems. Despite appearing to have “let his nationalist enthusiasm run away with him”, they still hoped that he could be “edged into a more realistic position through relationships with British ministers”.