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

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 01:00

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.

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