Turbulent year for Anglo-Irish relations
ANALYSIS:1982 proved an extraordinarily difficult year in Anglo-Irish relations: Garret FitzGerald may have been leading a Fine Gael-Labour coalition as the year opened and closed: but for nine months from mid-February Charles Haughey led a minority Fianna Fáil government which, on Northern policy, diverged sharply from the bipartisan consensus which Jack Lynch had always maintained.
For the mandarins in the departments of the taoiseach and in foreign affairs, who had worked assiduously for years past educating their British counterparts concerning Dublin’s analysis of the issue, this was a difficult period.
The year was marked by no fewer than three ministers for foreign affairs – Jim Dooge, Gerard Collins and Peter Barry – and the rivals for taoiseach were preoccupied with Northern Ireland and both held divergent and, in their respective judgments, infallible views on how it should best be handled.
As if this terrain was not complicated enough for the permanent civil servants, Charles Haughey introduced a young energetic special adviser, Martin Mansergh. He was especially interested in the North, as is manifest from his prolific output in the taoiseach’s department files.
Disagreements between civil servants usually find expression in an oblique, understated style. But occasionally Mansergh is at the receiving end of more robust treatment from the department’s custodians of Northern policy, Dermot Nally and Walter Kirwan, respectively secretary and assistant secretary of the taoiseach’s department.
One especially revealing file was prepared by Mansergh in September to provide suitable themes for a visit to the US by Fianna Fáil minister for foreign affairs Gerard Collins.
Mansergh had invested a prodigious amount of research in the paper. But it had not met with Kirwan’s approval. Having criticised a first draft, he remained unimpressed by Mansergh’s revised version. He allowed that this might merely reflect “a difference of view between us” on how to proceed with Anglo-Irish relations “when the Prior initiative sooner or later collapses”. James Prior, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was pursuing his “rolling devolution” initiative in the North in the face of strong opposition from nationalists in particular.
Kirwan advised Mansergh to refrain from “imputing possible bad faith” to the British concerning powersharing; nor should he presume that a set of statements designed to comfort unionists necessarily represented the British position on the North’s long-term future. Kirwan had “little doubt” that the British attitude was merely one of “gnostic respect for the views of a majority”.
Nally’s comment on Kirwan’s critique reads: “It is not the British we should attack. If we should attack anyone it is the Un[ionist]s who are responsible; but if you go for them you alienate the support which is necessary if you are to win consent.”
Mansergh could be forgiven if he thought his homework was being harshly marked and by more than one hand. But Nally added further advice: “Drop the polemics.”
Kirwan then turned to a controversy on whether Dublin had a right to be consulted on Britain’s Northern Ireland policy. Rival position papers having been exchanged, Kirwan expressed his agreement with the Iveagh House line that Dublin should simply “close the file on this”. Again Nally chorused: “Agreed – there just is nothing further to be gained.”
Kirwan further warned that if the Irish side were to extend the controversy, “we could end up with a worse outcome”. And he quoted with approval the recent comment in The Irish Times by Olivia O’Leary that progress could “best be made behind a cloud of ambiguity”. Again Nally is in agreement. His marginal comment reads: “Yes, 100 per cent Yes.”
Kirwan added a verdict that he reckoned Mansergh to be too harsh on Prior, who initially could well have believed that his devolution initiative and the Anglo-Irish process were not mutually exclusive: it was only on February 15th that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition’s minister for foreign affairs Jim Dooge “raised doubts about the trend of British thinking”.
Then, because of the change of government which followed the February 1982 general election, it had been March 22nd before the British had notice of Fianna Fáil’s strong opposition to the Prior plan. By this stage Prior’s initiative had developed “so much momentum” that Dublin’s objections had proved “unavailing” in heading it off.
Kirwan now advised that, having made their point on this issue, it might be better to move back towards “constructive ambiguity”, suggesting to Mansergh that he should drop an entire section of his document headed “Lack of Consultation with the Irish Government”. Nally signalled his approval with a flourish: “Sunningdale collapsed because the British government changed: Prior will collapse because the Irish government changed.” But this, he added, was “just history, not a cause for recrimination.”
At the same time, Mansergh was writing a speech for Charles Haughey to be delivered at Fianna Fáil’s annual Wolfe Tone commemoration. Mansergh did not resile from his anti-Prior line. At Bodenstown, Haughey suggested that in 1982 “we face a renewed political struggle in Ireland, arising from the present attempt in the words of the Northern Secretary of State ‘to tie Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom’ forever.” Haughey then deplored those who in the Republic urged us “to accept and to collaborate in this fruitless and inherently detrimental project”.
Mansergh, in a note to Kirwan, marked his card, informing him that the “key reference” in Haugheys speech was to “renewed political struggle”. He then added: “I have spoken to the Taoiseach this morning and he has no intention of playing down his opposition to the Prior proposals.” Mansergh added that a “firm approach” had been adopted by the government and it was expected that “this should be reflected all along the line”.
If these exchanges emphasise differences in approach, it should be noted that the archives also reflect some shared goals in the Republic.
A formal review of Anglo-Irish policy held by the FitzGerald coalition in January argued that Dublin’s political advantage lay in “institutionalising the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council . . . with our real aim being to be involved institutionally, through the Council in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.”
And this would come about sooner than might have seemed plausible from a reading of the 1982 controversies. For although, later in that year, Irish civil servants presumed that “no new radical thinking” on the North could be expected for as long as Thatcher remained in power, this was to seriously underestimate the strength of their own analysis and the further traction it could win from British civil servants.
Within three years the mandarins from both sides of the Irish Sea were to be joint architects of a breakthrough, which would transform the Ulster Question, when Thatcher and FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough.
Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He is author of De Valera and the Ulster Question; 1917-1973. His recent book is Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television:1961-2011.