FitzGerald approved overtures to Thatcher on joint rule

SDLP’s John Hume considered proposed arrangement ‘not Brits out, but Irish in’

Peter Barry, Douglas Hurd, Garret FitzGerald, Margaret Thatcher, Dick Spring and Geoffrey Howe at Chequers before the 1983 summit. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Peter Barry, Douglas Hurd, Garret FitzGerald, Margaret Thatcher, Dick Spring and Geoffrey Howe at Chequers before the 1983 summit. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images


In the files of the Department of Foreign Affairs released under the 30-year rule, there is a lengthy paper chronicling how London and Dublin had variously responded to the challenges of the Northern Troubles since they erupted in 1968.

In the course of a comprehensive analysis, the author – unsigned but, in fact, Noel Dorr, later to be Garret FitzGerald’s choice as Irish Ambassador in London – wondered how far Charles Haughey had “really succeeded” in 1980 in attracting Margaret Thatcher’s attention for “a new common approach of a statesmanlike kind, in resolving the legacy left by history to the two countries?”

The communiques which followed their two summits did not provide an answer, suggested Dorr. It was possible that Thatcher had been an innocent who had merely assented “to clever and ambiguous language” which was later to be “given a meaning which it was never intended to have.”

But Dorr gave Haughey the benefit of the doubt. It said the 1980 approach could be seen as “a first faltering effort” to develop and articulate what had been implicit in Sunningdale – a drawing together of both governments and peoples, “all passion spent”, in order, to deal with what most must now recognise as their common problem.

Thatcher’s resounding victory in the UK general election in 1983 and the disarray among her opponents left Irish officials content that the mid-term future on the British side would be a Thatcher-led government. Yet FitzGerald was warned that a senior Thatcher adviser, David Goodall in the Downing Street cabinet secretariat, had “trenchantly warned” Irish diplomats that Northern Ireland was not now among her priorities and that, anyway, she believed government initiatives “only make the situation worse”.

‘Irish nationalism’
The advice to FitzGerald from Iveagh House was that he should try to concentrate Thatcher’s mind on the essential realities in Anglo-Irish relations. This meant that she “must accept that no institutional soporific will placate or extirpate Irish nationalism”, which was “an irreducible reality.” Reciprocally, the reality of unionism could not be “wished away or ignored” by the Irish government. Meanwhile, both should educate their respective publics in these realities, which could only promote stability and reconciliation.

FitzGerald also had bigger ambitions in 1983. His favoured approach was to move towards a role for the Republic in the governing of Northern Ireland. His vehicle for this was the “joint sovereignty” model then being considered, among many other options, in the New Ireland Forum in Dublin at which constitutional politicians had been invited to explore new political structures in Ireland.

This model was also favoured by the SDLP and, in August 1983, John Hume confided to Michael Lillis, deputy secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs, that he was thinking in terms of an Irish dimension, “centred in the security area and involving Irish State (as well as British and/or Northern Irish) security operations throughout Northern Ireland.”

Indeed he would be prepared to consider sacrificing the SDLP’s involvement in powersharing and conceding majority rule to Unionists in the Assembly, “as a ‘concession’ for Joint Sovereignty in the security area in Northern Ireland”. Under such an arrangement – “Not Brits out, but Irish in”, as Hume termed it – Unionists would “lose nothing in terms of their British link, British sovereignty or British identity and would in fact gain majority rule locally.” Hume believed that all other issues were subsidiary to order and security and that any attempted solution which failed to centrally address these issues would fail.

Two weeks earlier, Lillis had mooted a similar idea in London during a meeting with Northern Ireland secretary Jim Prior and some of his senior officials. He was prompted to fly his kite in response to a British suggestion that the Irish government should lower their expectations of influencing Northern policy. Dublin “would be extremely lucky to get any sort of powersharing off the ground”; moreover they should appreciate that “any insistence on an “Irish dimension” would bring it down.”

New arrangements
The response from Lillis was to “raise the bidding on our side” by putting forward a purely personal idea. He believed that such was the “alienation and disaffection” felt by northern nationalists, that it had become “most urgent” to devise new arrangements covering policing and courts in order to make them “minimally tolerable” to that community. Any such initiative would need to be tangible at street level and could best be sold to nationalists as an expression of the much-coveted Irish dimension: in short it was necessary to give the principle of authority in Northern Ireland “a visible Irish legitimacy”.

FitzGerald had insisted on Lillis heading the Anglo-Irish section in Iveagh House when he returned to power in December 1982. He saw him as “an ‘ideas’ person”. The security kite now flown by Lillis was his own idea but he had already interested FitzGerald in its possibilities and had been encouraged to sound out the British on its merits, provided he introduced it as entirely a personal analysis and prescription.

In September, Lillis, in a walk through Oxford during the British-Irish Association’s annual conference, did just that to David Goodall. He noted Goodall’s response: that he was interested in this approach himself, and “that he had discussed it with ‘others’ (I think not the Prime Minister)”.

Within a month both men were on another walk, this time in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Lillis’s account of their discussion is included in the newly-released files.

Goodall confided that he had since spoken to Thatcher, Prior and the recently appointed British foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, about the ideas Lillis had outlined to him. He said he was authorised to say that Thatcher took the issue of alienation on the nationalist side “very seriously”. It had been emphasised to her that the Lillis proposal “did not commit the Irish Government or any Member of Government”.

There were two elements to the Lillis kite: “The involvement of Irish security forces and the Irish judiciary in the system of maintaining security and order in Northern Ireland, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, no formal change in the position of Northern Ireland within the UK.”

Goodall was authorised by Thatcher to respond that “the first part of these ideas were not at this stage rejected”, but for the proposal to receive serious attention it would have to be “more authoritatively conveyed”, perhaps by the taoiseach to the prime minister at their next meeting. Moreover, progress “would require, from a British point of view, a substantive acceptance of the formal constitutional position by Dublin”.

Goodall elaborated that any such fundamental change would have to be proofed against repudiation by a future Irish government, adding that “he personally believed that what would be involved would be a change of some sort in Article 2 of the Constitution.” Lillis responded that he could not see his proposal being attempted “with any prudence”, unless it was accompanied by other fundamental reforms as advocated by constitutional nationalists. Goodall said that he “understood that very well”.

‘Long-term objective’
He also reported Thatcher’s insistence that joint sovereignty in the formal sense was simply “not on”. Lillis confided that senior British civil servants had “on occasion either hinted or even stated that this was their long-term objective” and he asked whether, in doing so, they had any political authority from the Prime Minister. Goodall reported that “they had none whatever.”

Goodall asked whether Lillis would envisage joint security operations on both sides of the Border. Lillis would not and, speaking personally, insisted that the essence of his idea “was that such an initiative should be embarked on only because it was and would be seen to be strictly necessary in the interest of security and not for political reasons or for reasons of superficial symmetry”. He noted that Goodall “took this point.” Lillis concluded that it “was obvious from the degree of emotional tension portrayed by Goodall during this exchange that he personally favoured this approach and had urged it on the Prime Minister.”

Before his summit meeting with Thatcher in Chequers on November 7th, 1983, FitzGerald was told that in dealing with her it was advisable “to be concrete rather than theoretical”. Therefore the Irish approach should be “outlined in terms of concrete proposals for action which might be contemplated next year”.

There is but a faint trace of the Lillis proposal in the official minutes of the summit now released. FitzGerald reiterated the challenge of policing an alienated community. “He himself did not know quite how this could be done and he would be reflecting on the subject, in the future. He would be glad if the Prime Minister also would consider the question seriously.”

But the anodyne minimalist comments in the official record conceal what happened behind the scenes. It is not recorded that the first 45 minutes of the FitzGerald-Thatcher tete-a-tete was held without note-takers present because, as FitzGerald explained in his memoirs, he thought he might be able “to make more impact” in such a setting.

FitzGerald’s impression
FitzGerald had been advised that, with civil servants present, Thatcher was inclined “to speak for the record and even to some degree to act a role.”

In the event FitzGerald was not able to bring the Lillis kite as far as he had intended: “She discouraged me from going much further” because she anticipated questions in parliament after media speculation about their agenda. She must be able to say in reply “that there had been no discussion between us on joint sovereignty”.

But the kite had been flown and its fate would be decided in the following year.

John Bowman is a historian and broadcaster

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