Year of rapprochement ended as IRA targeted Harrods
Haughey’s stance on Falklands made FitzGerald’s task all the harder
Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher: Thatcher did agree to see FitzGerald the Taoiseach in Brussels in March 1983. Privately she was insistent that this “must not be a formal meeting” and said that she could only spare 20-30 minutes
The aftermath of the IRA car bombing of Knightsbridge department store Harrods. Six people died in the explosion in Londo on December 17th, 1983.
Newly released documents at the UK National Archives in London reveal how Anglo-Irish relations were carefully reconstructed and reset during 1983, in three meetings between taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in which exchanges were curt but tempers remained under control.
Today’s release of the state papers for 1983 is the first stage in the UK’s move from a 30-year to a 20-year embargo on official government materials, which will now be made available to the public twice a year.
The papers paint a picture of much-improved relations which, according to British officials had “deteriorated sharply during 1982 . . . largely due to the hostile and unhelpful attitude of the then taoiseach, Mr Haughey” in criticising Britain’s decision to go to war over the Falklands, coupled with a sharp divergence on Northern Ireland policy.
Although an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council had been established two years previously, no summit had taken place since November 1981.
The first move towards rapprochement came from the Irish ambassador in London, Dr Eamon Kennedy, in January 1983, when he told British officials about the new Irish government’s “desire to restore Anglo-Irish relations to normal”, while acknowledging that “rush would be counter-productive and that confidence must be rebuilt gradually”.
The following day, on January 15th, 1983, British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong made clear his view that the responsibility for the deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations “lay with the Irish”.
He maintained the British government had “no interest in seeking to force the pace, still less in appearing to woo or pursue the Irish”. Officials were given a personal directive from Thatcher that it was to be left to the Irish “to do the running”.
Although substantive discussions were postponed until after the British general election in June 1983, Thatcher did agree to see FitzGerald on the margins of the European Council meeting in Brussels on March 22nd. Privately she was insistent this “must not be a formal meeting” and said she could spare 20-30 minutes, not the hour the Irish requested.
She was negotiated up to 40 minutes by Sir Leonard Figg, her ambassador in Dublin.
At the meeting, Thatcher’s tone was curt and abrupt with her Irish counterpart. When FitzGerald said that “the aim of re-establishing contact should be to lay foundations for the future relationship”, Thatcher replied “it was more a matter of keeping in touch”.
When FitzGerald mentioned the need to bolster the SDLP against the growing electoral threat from Sinn Féin, Thatcher observed it was difficult to give support to a party that was “anti-unionist”. In his first sign of frustration, FitzGerald retorted that the SDLP was “also anti-IRA”.
The two leaders met again on European Council business in Stuttgart on June 19th.
When her civil servants put pressure on her to agree to an official Anglo-Irish summit before the end of the year, she expressed her irritation, scribbling in her trademark blue fountain pen: “I don’t like this at all. The truth is that we haven’t anything to talk about save security and EEC matters.” This was the kind of activity that got the British government “into difficult situations with the unionists”.
Following her victory in the general election in June, Thatcher nonetheless relented and agreed to host FitzGerald at Chequers, the prime ministerial residence, in November. This prompted a flurry of activity between British and Irish officials, in which the latter indicated their desire to adopt a new approach to the Northern Ireland problem.