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”.
Unworkable and deficient
There was a further complication for Prior in that the general election in the Republic in February 1982 resulted in a change of government with the return of Charles Haughey to power. Moreover, the incoming Fianna Fáil government had on March 23rd, after a meeting with the SDLP leadership, agreed a joint statement dismissing the Prior proposals as unworkable and deficient. The central criticism was that they had ignored the wider Anglo-Irish context which was better suited to seeking a solution.
Séamus Mallon of the SDLP said there would be merit in claiming “we stopped it”. Prior was reported as being “very disappointed” that at this stage “the roadblocks were coming from the Irish government and from the SDLP”.
Nor was the relationship between Dublin and London improved by a brief meeting between Haughey and Thatcher in the margins of a Brussels summit at the end of March. Even the cursory press reports revealed the worsening relations. Haughey claimed Northern Ireland had been discussed. Thatcher denied it and referred to Haughey as “the prime minister of the Irish Free State”, many believing this a deliberate insult.
If this was not enough to sour Anglo-Irish relations, events elsewhere were soon to exacerbate the situation. On April 2nd, Argentina invaded the Falklands and the independent line taken by the Fianna Fáil government was reckoned by Thatcher to be “a stab in the back”.
Kennedy reported from the London embassy on the Falklands factor in British politics. Once the islands had been repossessed by British forces, Thatcher had gained “one of the most extraordinary surges” in popular support since the end of the second World War.
Two weeks later Kennedy warned Dublin that “a perceptible embitterment” between Downing Street and the foreign office in the wake of the Falklands war had implications for Anglo-Irish relations. He expressed his dismay at what he termed “the discouragement which many of our most useful contacts in the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office have received from No 10 in connection with the development of Anglo-Irish relations”.
He listed many senior civil servants – including cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong – who had spoken to him of “a new atmosphere in No 10 which makes further progress in our relations difficult”.
By August 20th the British had formally advised that the Irish government could assume no right to be consulted on Northern policy. With disdain, Thatcher reiterated this in a Commons debate, the embassy being invited by a senior NIO official to understand that at the time she was “at the height of her Falklands fever”.
Formal papers were exchanged detailing the divergent readings of whether Dublin was entitled to consultation. On September 3rd, Seán Donlon, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, told British ambassador Sir Leonard Figg that it was not the intention “to engage in a long series of written exchanges”. Indeed, the Irish hoped “that the file would now be closed”.
He then gave the ambassador a history lesson in how Dublin’s voice had, for a decade past, been heeded in Anglo-Irish relations: he brought the ambassador through each point in the latest Irish statement of their position, emphasising especially that in the joint memorandum of January 20th 1982 on the AIIC, there had been “explicit agreement” that there would be the “closest bilateral consultation”.
Donlon noted that the ambassador merely commented on the length of the Irish memorandum and promised to bring it to the attention of “the dead sea scrolls experts in London!”.
There would be a second Irish general election in November during which the deep antipathy between Haughey and Garret FitzGerald would find expression on policy towards the North. Haughey accused FitzGerald of secret collaboration with the British government “in supporting and promoting” Prior’s “disastrous” initiative: such “collaboration” he characterised as “one of the most serious threats to our political independence since the last war”.
FitzGerald was further accused of having plans to invite the RUC to police Kerry – this was a reference to his kite on an All-Ireland court and police force as a response to the continuing violence.
As the copious files on Northern policy show, this had enjoyed sympathetic interest from SDLP leader John Hume throughout the year – including at a meeting between the SDLP leadership and Haughey in March when no dissent to the proposal came from the Fianna Fáil politicians present.
The November 1982 election campaign cannot have made the task of Irish diplomats and civil servants any easier.
But they cannot but have envisaged a less turbulent period ahead once FitzGerald was returned to government. His approach would be more pragmatic and dedicated, ironically, to building on what many of them considered Haughey’s great breakthrough: his persuasion of Thatcher at the summit of December 1980 to explore “the totality of relations” between Ireland and Britain.
Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He is author of De Valera and the Ulster Question; 1917-1973. His recent book is Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television:1961-2011.