Thatcher did more for Ireland than other UK leaders
Without 1985 agreement solution would not have been possible
Margaret Thatcher had a huge influence on Ireland during her 11 years as British prime minister. She was loathed by republicans, disliked by nationalists and distrusted by unionists yet she paved the way for peace by committing her country to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985.
Thatcher’s relationship with Ireland got off to the worst possible start when her Northern Ireland spokesman Airey Neave was murdered by republicans in March 1979 just months before she took power.
When Charles Haughey took power in Dublin at the end of the year, partly by adopting a more aggressive nationalist line than his predecessor Jack Lynch, it was widely assumed that political stalemate would ensue. Instead during the “teapot diplomacy” phase of Anglo Irish relations that followed there was a significant breakthrough.
Haughey went out of his way to make an impression on Thatcher at their first summit in London in May 1980 with his gift of a silver teapot symbolising his willingness to engage in substantive discussions.
A telephone conversation between the two leaders shortly after that meeting shows just how cordial relations had become. “I just wanted to say we very much enjoyed it. We look forward to the next time and thank you very much,” Thatcher told the taoiseach.
Later, during the summer of 1980 Thatcher sensed that Haughey was being unrealistic in his expectations. In a private minute she noted that he was “still in his heart of hearts expecting far more than we are and is looking forward to the next bilateral as if it will result in a positive and considerable step forward to a very much closer relationship. I fear he will be disappointed, very disappointed.”
Nonetheless, at a summit in Dublin in December 1980 a real breakthrough was achieved with an agreement between the two governments to examine the “totality of relationships” between the two islands.
A series of joint studies was commissioned to give effect to that commitment expressed in a joint communiqué.
Unfortunately Haughey and his minister for foreign affairs Brian Lenihan oversold the progress by claiming that constitutional rather than simply institutional issues were up for negotiation. Thatcher was annoyed at the misrepresentation and the impetus was lost. Worse was to happen with the IRA hunger strike which prompted a tough no-compromise stance from Thatcher.
Republicans were outraged and the Haughey government was dismayed by the response but she was not prepared to make the kind of concessions that would have brought the hunger strike to an end. Haughey lost power in June 1981 and blamed her uncompromising stance on the hunger strikes rather than his own economic ineptitude for the loss of power.
His resentment became a real political issue when he returned to office early in 1982 after the collapse of Garret FitzGerald’s first government.
Haughey’s anti-British stance during the Falklands War, when Ireland supported moves at the UN to end sanctions against Argentina, provoked fury on Thatcher’s part and any chance of a deal on the North while Haughey remained in office was lost.
However, Haughey’s second term of office proved short-lived and FitzGerald was back by the end of 1982. For the next three years there were intense contacts between the two governments aimed at securing an agreement on the North that would transform the relationship between the two islands.
Despite fact that the IRA came very close to killing her in the Brighton bombing of October 1984 she persisted with the efforts to find an agreement, although she infuriated nationalist Ireland with her “out, out, out” response to the three favoured options in the report of the Forum for a New Ireland.
In fact her rejection of a united Ireland, unitary or federal, or of joint sovereignty came as no surprise to the Irish government or its key officials involved in the negotiations.
The furore caused by her response led to a mellowing of her tone in subsequent negotiations and the outcome was the Anglo Irish Agreement which gave the Irish government a direct input into the running of the North. The agreement was rejected by republicans and also by Fianna Fáil.
It caused outrage among unionists who felt betrayed but it was widely welcomed by the people of the Republic who sensed that it was a major milestone on the road not just to a settlement in the North but to a new relationship between Ireland and the UK.
It was easily the most significant development in Anglo-Irish relations since the Treaty of 1922 and for that Thatcher deserves a great deal of credit. Her commitment to the deal was a diplomatic triumph for FitzGerald and the high point of his period as taoiseach. Thatcher was ultimately disappointed that the agreement did not lead to the isolation of republicans and the development of moderate politics in the North promised by FitzGerald but she continued to trust in his good faith.
Haughey returned to power in 1987 and immediately abandoned pledges to unpick the deal. Instead Brian Lenihan worked the institutions established by the agreement and meetings of the North-South Intergovernmental Conference became an important feature of Anglo-Irish relations.
Thatcher, however, deeply mistrusted Haughey by this stage and their meetings on the margins of EU summits were decidedly cold. At one summit in Greece the two were said to have sat in stony silence for most of time set aside for their bilateral meeting.
In spite of the negative view in which she is held by so many Irish people Margaret Thatcher probably did more for this country than many of the British politicians more sympathetic to nationalist sensibilities .