Haughey seen as using neutrality 'as a cloak to an anti-British attitude'

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

BRITISH VIEW:Margaret Thatcher’s government was so angry at Irish opposition to the Falklands war in 1982 that it considered taking away the voting rights enjoyed by Irish citizens living in Britain and introducing a trade boycott on Irish goods, newly released state papers at the National Archives in London reveal.

Within a matter of weeks of Charles Haughey’s return as taoiseach after the 1982 February election, British officials were warning their prime minister: “Mr Haughey has given us cause to doubt his good faith and to make us wonder what he is playing at.”

By May 5th, 1982, a senior official at the foreign office wrote: “I fear that Anglo-Irish relations are in crisis even if ministers have not, as far as I am aware, formally declared them to be so.”

The first source of tension emerged when Haughey was seen to “torpedo” an attempt by Jim Prior, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, to establish partial or rolling devolution in Northern Ireland with an elected Assembly, by urging the SDLP to boycott it. Prior was already facing considerable opposition from unionists and the right wing of the Conservative Party and could barely withstand a nationalist boycott too.

Much more damaging to relations, however, was the British perception that the Irish government had “behaved over the Falklands with breathtaking irresponsibility, ineptitude or even worse”. On June 22nd, Sir Leonard Figg, the British ambassador in Dublin, produced a detailed diplomatic report on the “serious worsening” of relations, which suggested the damage “may be long lasting”.

Initially, on April 3rd, the Irish government had supported UN Security Council Resolution 502 which demanded an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands. Following the British sinking of the Argentine naval cruiser General Belgrano on May 3rd, however, which took 368 Argentine lives, the Irish position changed markedly.

At a reception in Dublin the next day, the minister for foreign affairs, Gerard Collins, told Figg that he could not be seen to shake his hand in public.

When the Irish government supported a joint Spanish-Panamanian UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, Britain was forced to exercise its veto as a member of the security council, causing considerable consternation in London at what was seen as an Irish volte face. Worse still, Ireland began to question the sanctions which the European Community had agreed to impose upon Argentina after the invasion.

The change was attributed to the “anglophobia of the green fringe of Irish politics”. Haughey and his advisers were accused of using Irish neutrality, “as a cloak to an anti-British attitude, [which] might be useful in domestic political terms”.

Instructions were immediately sent to officials in the Northern Ireland Office and British foreign office to “go slow” on any intergovernmental business “and to avoid doing anything that looks remotely like a favour to the Irish”.

In a series of angry exchanges with the British ambassador, Haughey and Collins repeatedly complained about what they saw as the increasingly hostile tone of the British press towards Ireland, and the “snide remarks” that were coming from senior British ministers, including Prior.

Some British newspapers began calling for a boycott of Irish goods in Britain, such as butter, and Figg reported that Irish salesmen “have been receiving rough treatment from British buyers” at a time when many of their goods were overpriced and uncompetitive. His view was that Britain had a favourable trade balance with the Republic and had no interest in disrupting it. Nonetheless, it was a “salutary reminder to the Irish government that we are their largest customer (taking 40 per cent of their exports)” and that their current stance might rebound. “Our interdependence is still difficult for them to reconcile with their hard-won independence!” he wrote.

While most British officials wanted a “cooling-off” period in relations, Thatcher was in no mood to compromise. On June 4th, she told US president Ronald Reagan at a Downing Street meeting that “relations between London and Dublin have certainly taken a turn for the worse as a result of some damaging Irish interventions in the EC and UN over the Falklands . . . which ran counter to the friendly co-operative relationship we had tried to develop”.

Thatcher also asked her home secretary, William Whitelaw, to explore punitive measures against Ireland, including the removal of voting rights enjoyed by the Irish community living in the United Kingdom. It was estimated that about 500,000 citizens of the Republic were living in the UK and had full voting rights there.

By the end of July, however, Whitelaw told Thatcher he had “lost his nerve” on the issue of removing voting rights. Officials concluded it was “one thing to freeze” relations with the Irish, but that such a move would be seen as an “act of vindictiveness” and that there might be a price to pay in terms of security on the Border. It was also a complex legal question which might not be possible to solve before the forthcoming UK general election.

At a special meeting convened on Anglo-Irish relations on August 4th, senior British officials agreed those relations should “remain on a care and maintenance basis” until the foreseeable future.

John Bew is reader in history and foreign policy at the war studies department in King’s College London and co-director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence