Turbulent year for Anglo-Irish relations
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.