FitzGerald’s battle with Thatcher’s ‘Fortress Falklands nationalism’

An election victory and unionist aides hardened the British leader’s stance, 1983 papers show

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 08:11

Irish politicians and civil servants were indefatigable in their research on Margaret Thatcher and her probable approach to Northern
Ireland policy.

Jim Prior, her Northern secretary, confided that she was greatly influenced by Enoch Powell, “whose intellect she enjoyed” and who had the persuasive powers to reinforce her own “very strong” support for the union.

Thatcher’s foreign secretary Francis Pym spoke to Irish diplomats of another influence, that of her parliamentary private secretary, Ian Gow, whom he characterised as a “rabid” and “romantic” unionist: Thatcher he described as “an emotional unionist”. Prior added that, on Northern Ireland, it was his experience that she did “not focus on the problem and probably wished it would
go away”.

In her memoirs, Thatcher writes that in approaching Anglo-Irish relations in 1983, she was always “wary about allowing the Irish to set the pace”. Evidence in the Irish archives, just released under the 30-year rule, confirms this guardedness.

Recalling this period later, Thatcher complained about “the whirly-gig of Irish politics”, which saw both Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald win and lose power twice in quick succession. But with FitzGerald’s convincing win in the November 1982 general election, there was some prospect of continuity. Indeed at his meeting with her in the margins of an EEC summit in March 1983, FitzGerald suggested reviving “the old relationship”; he was also interested in reactivating official level contact “without publicity”. While Thatcher acquiesced, she thought it important to “go slowly on all of this”.

Decidedly lukewarm
And she was decidedly lukewarm about FitzGerald’s obvious enthusiasm for the New Ireland Forum recently established in Dublin at which constitutional politicians were invited to explore new political structures in Ireland. She
had invariably noted from unionists, “immediately and sharply”, a negative response to any mention of the forum: it “revived all the Sunningdale ghosts”.

Some three months later, in preparation for another meeting in the margins of another EEC summit in Stuttgart, FitzGerald was briefed on the importance of convincing Thatcher that the forum was “a responsible and important enterprise” which could be positive for both countries.

Between these summits, Thatcher had convincingly retained power in a British general election. She retained Prior in her government, safer within cabinet than on the backbenches, and safer still in the difficult, intractable job of Northern secretary where there was little prospect of anything like a success that might prompt him to attempt a leadership bid. In advance of the Stuttgart summit, FitzGerald was warned, by his trusted adviser in Iveagh House, Michael Lillis, that Thatcher’s post-election mood on Ireland was likely to be “one of heady and reinforced certitude”. Her “Fortress Falklands nationalism” had proved popular and had stirred “deep patriotic feeling among the British people”. Set against this “stiffened chauvinism”, the concerns of Irish nationalism were likely to be seen as “inherently adversarial” and could even be seen as “somewhat irrational or contemptible [whining]”.

Thatcher could be expected to admit of “no doubt or nuance” on her handling
of the hunger strikes: she would not “accept that her stern obduracy contributed to the present problem of alienation among Northern nationalists”. Moreover, this would make it particularly difficult “to penetrate her stated conviction that terrorists should be hanged for their crimes of murder”.

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