Fraught relations during difficult period marked by 'perceptible embitterment'
ANALYSIS:With the atmosphere poisoned by the Falklands War, 1982 was a particularly onerous year for Anglo-Irish relations
About the only matter certain in Anglo-Irish relations as 1982 began was that Northern Ireland secretary Jim Prior would bring forward yet another British initiative on how the North should best be governed. That Margaret Thatcher would attempt to marginalise any Dublin contribution to this debate was well understood by Irish policymakers.
The papers on Anglo-Irish relations for the previous year were punctuated with sharp rebukes to her own civil servants. “No!” she would mark in the margins of Dublin’s proposals for a greater role for the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council (AIIC). And her advice to her own officials was to keep correspondence with Dublin “long, worthy, meaty and dull”.
Exiled to the North
A further complication was her marked antipathy to Prior. The Anglo-Irish section in Iveagh House was confidentially informed that Thatcher considered him a “wet” and a “hangover” from Edward Heath’s era. She had exiled him to the North to be “far from the central economic ministries where he had opposed her consistently”. He was also seen as “a potential threat to her leadership” should he ever get a chance to challenge.
At the beginning of the year Irish ambassador in London Eamonn Kennedy reported a conversation he had had with Graham Angel, undersecretary in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), who told him that “there could be no going back to powersharing in the Sunningdale sense, which had become a unionist bête noir”.
And he confirmed that no “final decisions” had been made on the expected Prior initiative, although “certain broad options” had been ruled out: there would be no “return to the old Stormont, no independence, no integration and no indefinite continuance of direct rule”.
In the event, Prior opted for what he termed “rolling devolution” with the safeguard that, before Westminster ceded any specific powers to a newly elected Northern Ireland assembly, a weighted majority of at least 70 per cent of those elected would be necessary.
After preliminary talks with the Northern parties, Prior could scarcely have been optimistic. Responses ranged from scepticism to rejection, with the Alliance Party being the only enthusiasts. Many parties threatened or promised a boycott of the assembly, their participation in the elections being motivated by concerns about their party’s share of the vote.
Prior even lacked support nearer home, the Irish Embassy in London gleaning that the cabinet committee – at which he had first outlined his proposals – had proved “a stormy one”, his chief critic being Thatcher, who offered “little support”.