FitzGerald’s battle with Thatcher’s ‘Fortress Falklands nationalism’
An election victory and unionist aides hardened the British leader’s stance, 1983 papers show
Irish politicians and civil servants were indefatigable in their research on Margaret Thatcher and her probable approach to Northern
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
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”.
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”.
Presently, there was to be a free vote at Westminster on the reintroduction of capital punishment. The advice to FitzGerald was that he should insist both governments consult each other on any major departure in the fight against terrorism; and he should cite, as an example, any return to capital punishment. “The taoiseach might go on to say that facing the reality of Irish nationalism means facing the difficult fact that hanging Irish nationalist terrorists would be a catastrophe for all of us.” The situation “would quickly become worse than anything we had experienced in the past 13 years”.
This was seen as a nightmare scenario in Dublin and not only by Irish politicians: the British embassy had also sent “a strong cable” to London, warning that hanging IRA members would “create a situation much worse than the H-Block hunger strikes”.
It was suggested to FitzGerald that he should emphasise that, for the Irish government, the Northern Ireland issue would “always receive the highest priority above every other problem”; and that he would hope and believe that Thatcher would accord it similar importance. It would “require all the courage and ingenuity” of both leaders to “prevail over the appalling legacy of history”.
But these were qualities which she had already “amply demonstrated”.
At the summit FitzGerald emphasised the degree of intimidation and personation by Sinn Féin in the recent elections in Northern Ireland. The SDLP had put women in as personation agents because of their “greater courage” in facing IRA intimidation. In one polling booth, a woman had “turned away 240 people who were attempting personation – out of a total of about 900 who were supposed to vote at the booth. She had been threatened by Sinn Féin and, finally, driven away from the booth in a Saracen armoured car.”
Thatcher expressed “horror” at this account and wondered how it could be given wider publicity. FitzGerald said it was not being reported “possibly because journalists also suffered intimidation”. FitzGerald spoke at some length about his hopes for the forum: how its deliberations might improve southern appreciation of the unionist position. He was also
anxious to develop a concept
of nationalism “which was much more open”. He was not convinced Haughey would support this, “but he did not exclude the possibility”.
When FitzGerald mentioned their next meeting Thatcher was immediately receptive to the idea insisting that “we should meet more often”.
The alienation of Northern nationalists and the growth of support for Sinn Féin was again a theme in the only formal summit of 1983 held at Chequers on November 7th. FitzGerald warned the SDLP was a party of “part-timers”, open to being outflanked by Sinn Féin, a young, wealthy and resourceful party which posed a threat to stability. Commenting on this risk south of the Border, FitzGerald complained that there were “many soft-headed people in the country and there was a form of atavistic nationalist feeling just under the surface”.
Thatcher more than once said they “had identified the problems but she had not seen any solutions”. They were both concerned that Brian Walden’s Weekend World programme had, the previous day, “concentrated on the subject of joint sovereignty”, suggesting FitzGerald was coming to Chequers to propose it as a solution. FitzGerald said he had stressed to the media that “he would not be looking for hard decisions or conclusions at this point”.
They then both agreed, obviously in anticipation
of media queries, that they
had not been discussing
In discussing their next meeting FitzGerald presumed Thatcher would come to Dublin. “The prime minister did not respond directly to
this but commented that
the extent of the security necessary on the occasion of her first visit to Dublin left her somewhat unhappy.”
If, as government secretary Dermot Nally suggested, the essential agenda of this first summit would be the “normalisation” of Anglo-Irish relations, the minutes now released could be considered evidence of success in this modest ambition.
The communique described it formally as the first meeting at heads of government level of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council, which Thatcher had established with FitzGerald in his first term as taoiseach. But in her memoirs, she seemed disdainful, describing its title as “rather grand sounding” and complaining that initially FitzGerald had pressed her “to agree talks between officials on future co-operation” despite the fact she did not believe “there was much to talk about”.
‘Band of brothers’
The mandarins on both sides seem to have thought otherwise: indeed they would, in time, become such friends that Robert Armstrong, cabinet secretary in Downing Street, would use the term “we band of brothers” to describe their working relationship. And it was their efforts which would, within 18 months, produce the historic breakthrough at Hillsborough of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Haughey’s phrase from the December 1980 communique that officials would give “special consideration” to the “totality of relationships within these islands” proved to be something of a blank cheque.
It could always be relied upon to provide some agenda
where officials could discuss more pragmatic initiatives than were ever likely to be suggested by Thatcher’s rabid unionist advisers, Ian Gow or Enoch Powell.
Thatcher had always disliked references to “the totality of relationships”, but she had never succeeded in shaking the phrase off and, with hindsight, it may well be reckoned to have provided the first step in a new approach to the Irish Question.
John Bowman is a historian