Year of rapprochement ended as IRA targeted Harrods
Haughey’s stance on Falklands made FitzGerald’s task all the harder
In September, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland told the cabinet that there “were signs that the implications of a united Ireland were being more seriously and realistically considered in both parts of Ireland than for many years”.
Much of the running was made by Michael Lillis, the head of the Anglo-Irish division in the department of foreign affairs in Dublin and a close associate of FitzGerald, in contact with the senior British diplomat David Goodall.
Both were later involved in the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
In a tête-à-tête in Dublin and a follow-up discussion at a meeting of the British-Irish Association at Oxford, Lillis told Goodall the outcome of the recent abortion referendum in Ireland – in which there was a two-thirds vote in favour of a “pro-life” amendment being added to the Constitution – “would put paid, at least for the time being, to any prospect, of early success for the Irish government’s policy of seeking to remove Protestant and liberal concerns about the Republic’s Catholic ethos”.
While this was regrettable, it would also have “the merit of clarifying the situation and forcing nationalist opinion to face up to the reality of Partition and the fact that unification was at best a long-term aspiration, not a political objective”.
A memo from cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong to Thatcher on October 3rd laid out some of the proposals which Lillis was floating, including a commitment to accept Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and perhaps even an amendment to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, in return for allowing gardaí and judges to be involved in the policing and judicial processes in the North.
When British officials discovered that SDLP leader John Hume was not aware of the new proposals, as Lillis had claimed, it was agreed it “would be wise to stand off from Mr Lillis” in case he was overstating the Irish position. Nonetheless, in the forthcoming summit with FitzGerald, Thatcher was advised to “listen sympathetically to what he has to say: probe him as to the realism of his approach and, while striking a strongly sceptical note, make it clear that you would be prepared to look at any practical and realistic ideas which might help to reduce the level of violence in Northern Ireland”.
The year ended on a grim note, when the IRA bombed Harrods in London on December 17th, killing six people and injuring more than 90.
At a British cabinet meeting on December 22nd, however, Thatcher observed that despite some high-profile incidents in recent weeks, the overall situation was calm and casualty figures for 1983 were the lowest for a year since the Troubles began.
In the first indication she was willing to respond to the Irish government’s renewed efforts, she told the cabinet that, in the new year, “consideration would need to be given to the wider aspects of the Irish question and the possibility of finding new approaches to it”.
John Bew is a reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department of King’s College London