Warning of long-term damage to Anglo-Irish relations over Falklands

Mon, Dec 31, 2012, 00:00

The attitude of Margaret Thatcher and her government to the Irish government’s change of policy as the Falkland Islands conflict intensified is illuminated in documents from 1982 released to the National Archives.

After the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano with the loss of 368 lives, Charles Haughey’s government announced it was dropping its support for EEC sanctions against Argentina and, as a member of the UN Security Council, seeking a new resolution calling for a ceasefire, with no reference to the withdrawal of Argentine troops as demanded in a previous UN resolution.

Reporting on his attendance at the traditional trooping the colour ceremony on June 12th in the garden of 10 Downing Street, the Irish ambassador in London, Eamon Kennedy, described Thatcher’s demeanour.

“We arrived in good time, before 10.30am, and were duly greeted by the prime minister and Mr Thatcher – I thought, however, without too much warmth. She did say, nonetheless: ‘You will always be welcome here’, emphasising the first word.”

Thatcher was absent for much of the reception due to urgent business. She emerged as the reception was ending: “I said to Mrs Thatcher that my [family] were delighted to see her again and she repeated that we would be always welcome.

“She then said that these were not the easiest times for Anglo-Irish relations and I recalled her remarkable phrase before entering No 10 in May 1979 when she said ‘Where there is discord may we bring harmony’.

“‘Yes’, she said, with some vehemence, ‘but it takes two to do it! I cannot do it on my own’ and turned away to say farewell to other departing guests.”

Long-term ‘damage’

The intensity of British government feeling about Ireland’s policy shift is reflected in a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) report on a lunch hosted by the British embassy on May 21st, nearly three weeks after the Belgrano incident.

“The British representatives stressed that we ‘should not underestimate the damage’ to Anglo-Irish relations that had been caused by Irish actions over the Falklands crisis.

“The damage in their view was not merely a short-term problem; on the contrary our actions would be long remembered in Britain.”

Initial Irish support for EEC sanctions and for UN Resolution 502 demanding an Argentine withdrawal from the islands had been appreciated as indications that Ireland was following “a correct approach” to the dispute. “Our subsequent volte-face, as they saw it, had been totally unexpected.”

They found it difficult to accept neutrality as a justification, particularly since Ireland had first supported sanctions at a time when the British military task force was already on its way to the Falklands.

The note concluded: “The DFA representations, in reply, sought to explain our actions on the lines indicated in the Taoiseach’s public statement.”

The files also contain a report of “a 10-minute discussion” between Haughey and British ambassador Sir Leonard Figg on May 4th, two days after the Belgrano was sunk.

The ambassador said it would be “unhelpful” of the Irish government to involve the UN Security Council. Haughey replied he would “like to know what the ambassador meant by the word ‘unhelpful’. Did he mean unhelpful to the British or unhelpful in the interest of world peace?”

The ambassador responded that “he meant that the action would be unhelpful in achieving a settlement”. Haughey said he would take the ambassador’s views on board but added “what was happening now was an escalation to war – not formal or declared but war in fact” and this had “radically changed the situation”.