Margaret Thatcher’s moods, Garret FitzGerald’s outburst – a diplomat looks back

Late British diplomat David Goodall recalls the creation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement

British diplomat David Goodall, who died five years ago this weekend, was a key figure in the negotiations that led to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. This article is extracted from The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 – A Memoir, which is published posthumously this month.

The treaty – signed by then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and then taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in November that year – gave the Irish government an advisory role in the governing of the North and stated that there would be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people agreed to join the Republic. Passionately supported by John Hume and the SDLP, it was rejected by both unionist and republican politicians. Nevertheless, it was an early milestone in a process that would culminate in the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Conversation with Margaret Thatcher, after a dinner in Downing Street in December 1982

I suggested that relations between England and Ireland were complicated by the interpenetration of our two populations: so many people in England being of Irish or partly Irish descent and vice versa in Ireland. Her eyes flashed: “I am completely English”, she said. I said that both my grandfathers had been born in Ireland, and there were thousands of English people who could say the same. Her face was shadowed by a momentary doubt: “Well, I suppose I am 1/16th Irish: my great-grandmother was a Sullivan”.


She spoke of her debt to Airey Neave and the discussions she had had with him about devolved government for Northern Ireland; and she wrestled repeatedly and frankly with the thought that there could perhaps be no final settlement in Northern Ireland until the British withdrew and left the two communities there to come to terms with one another. The conversation ended with her saying reflectively “If we get back next time” (looking ahead to the forthcoming general election in 1983) “I think I would like to do something about Ireland”.

Garret FitzGerald

Garret FitzGerald had entered politics fired with a determination to bring about a reconciliation between the two parts of Ireland: and with governments in place in London and Dublin looking likely to be secure in office for the next three or four years, he saw an opportunity for achieving his ambition. By good fortune this chimed in with Mrs Thatcher’s quite differently motivated feeling that it was time to “do something about Ireland”, if only to stop the drain on British lives and treasure.

Michael Lillis – first contact

It was a considerable surprise when, at the first meeting of our co-ordinating committee in Dublin at the beginning of September 1983, Irish senior official Michael Lillis invited me to take a quiet walk with him along the Grand Canal and proceeded to sketch out the possibility of radically new arrangements for Northern Ireland. In essence, he envisaged unequivocal Irish acceptance of the union and of a revived Stormont parliament, in return for the participation of Irish security forces in operations in the North and of Irish judges in terrorist trials there.

Michael explained that these ideas were not those of the Irish government; but they were being canvassed within the SDLP and had the backing of the taoiseach.

Peter Barry

At lunch, I found myself sitting between Irish civil servant Seán Donlon and then minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry, who wondered whether he had been too blunt in dismissing the possibility of having a joint security commission without a political dimension.

Since both Mrs Thatcher and Douglas Hurd still seemed as attached to this idea as did the Irish to the equally unrealistic goal of joint authority, I said "not blunt enough". At this point British cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong and Dermot Nally, secretary of the taoiseach's office, brought to the table the draft joint communique on which they had been working.

Mrs Thatcher held it up in front of her and proceeded to read the text aloud, rather slowly and in a tone of mocking distaste. “At a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council,” she began “What on Earth is that?” “You invented it, Margaret”, said Garret between gritted teeth.

It was a moment at which everyone round the table felt acutely uncomfortable. Peter Barry said audibly to me “I’m not going to sit and listen to this” and made to walk out, but I put a restraining hand on his arm and he stayed in his seat.

Thatcher’s early reflections on the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland

The prime minister asked why arrangements could not be made to transfer those members of the minority community who did not wish to remain under British rule to the Republic. After all, she said, the Irish were used to large scale movements of population. Only recently there had been a population transfer of some kind, she said.

At this point the silence round the fire became transfused with simple bafflement. After a pause, I asked if she could possibly be thinking of Cromwell. “Cromwell: of course.” “Well, prime minister, Cromwell’s policy was known as ‘To Hell or Connaught’ and it left a scar on Anglo-Irish relations which still hasn’t healed”. The idea of a population transfer was not pursued.

She was convinced that the Republic was half-hearted in its opposition to the IRA and the security battle against it. Her overriding interest was to improve cross-Border security co-operation; and she was deeply suspicious of anything that might be thought to touch in any way on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

The argument that northern nationalists felt “alienated” from the institutions of law and order in the province, and that measures were needed to end that alienation, had no appeal for her. Indeed, the mere word “alienation” (which she regarded as Marxist) had the same rebarbative effect on her as “magnanimity” had had in the aftermath of the Falklands campaign: she seemed to regard both as codewords signalling the substitution of sentiment for rational calculation.

Thatcher’s view of the state of Anglo-Irish relations in 1983

Her lack of sympathy for Irish nationalism had been fuelled by the long IRA terrorist campaign, still at its height in 1983; by the assassination of Airey Neave, a personal friend and mentor; and by the mutually embittering tensions of the hunger strikes.

Then the anti-British stance adopted by the Haughey government during the Falklands crisis had come not just as an affront, but as a stab in the back at a time when she was under great personal strain and needing the support of all her European allies – support which had been forthcoming even from president [François] Mitterrand, who had telephoned her himself to assure her of his understanding of what the British were having to do.

Instead (as it seemed in London), Mr Haughey had chosen to act once again on the principle that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity.

Thatcher’s moods

The prime minister’s reaction came at a meeting held immediately after cabinet on May 24th. Her mood was not benevolent. The starkness of the Irish bid for joint authority savoured of effrontery and stung her into more than usually unguarded outbursts of irritation which, I noted in my diary, were the authentic echo of “British ignorance, arrogance, contempt and dislike for Ireland down the ages”.

However, I spoke up as well as I could; Geoffrey Howe did his patient best; and at the end of a bad-tempered discussion the show remained on the road. However unattractive the prime minister might sound when blowing off emotional steam, she was usually prepared to listen to a clearly and concisely deployed argument.

More important, she realised that the fact that we were talking to the Irish about a possible political initiative was a protection against unwelcome pressure over Northern Ireland from the United States, from our European allies – and perhaps even from within the Conservative Party.

Sir John Hermon, RUC chief constable

As part of the process of educating myself about the problems we were dealing with, I had lunch on January 10th, 1984, with Sir John Hermon, the chief constable of Northern Ireland. I had heard him speak at the BIA [British-Irish Association] conference and been impressed with his forceful and articulate answers to difficult questions; but I expected him to be dour and cautious in talking to me. In the event he was quite remarkably frank.

In the long term, he thought the unification of Ireland in some form or other was inevitable, and he was strongly against any further integration of the province into the United Kingdom.

If I were to give Mrs Thatcher a full-frontal view of what Irish nationalism thinks of a British minister's word, she'd be more shocked than if I gave her a full-frontal view of something else

First impressions of FitzGerald

“A large, unassuming man, face papery in colour, no side, good sense of humour, discussed everything as an equal . . . talking in quick machine-gun bursts, sudden gusts of hearty laughter. Realistic and perceptive on the prospects for an (agreed) initiative, realistic and a shade rueful about Mrs T.”

The bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton

In the light of her atavistic suspicions about Irish support for terrorism, Mrs Thatcher would have been only human if she had responded by withdrawing from the negotiating process which it was already clear that she disliked. In the event, however, although her scepticism continued to grow, the Brighton experience had no immediate impact on the Armstrong-Nally talks.

FitzGerald on British untrustworthiness

“I know,” he said, speaking with an indignant flood of rapid, half-swallowed words, “that British ministers think that their word is their bond. But if I were to give Mrs Thatcher a full-frontal view of what Irish nationalism thinks of a British minister’s word, she’d be more shocked than if I gave her a full-frontal view of something else.” . . . Having delivered himself of this memorable outburst, the taoiseach allowed us to calm him down and explain the reasons for the British position.


[The Irish negotiating team] warned us that there was a risk of a split within the SDLP, where Seamus Mallon would not be satisfied with measures to reform the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] and bring its part-time members under better professional control, but wanted to insist on its outright disbandment.

Thatcher’s ‘Out! Out! Out!’ comment

[Established by FitzGerald, the New Ireland Forum of 1984 was a discussion among nationalist politicians on the future of Northern Ireland. It sketched out three possible alternative structures: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state, and joint British/Irish authority. At press conference, Thatcher dismissed the three ideas.]

The following morning, the full extent of Irish outrage and of the embarrassment caused to the taoiseach become apparent. Always inclined to inflate the magnitude of British misdemeanours and put the most malign interpretation available on the actions of British ministers, the Irish media, egged on by Mr Haughey and Fianna Fáil, proclaimed that the forum report had been deliberately rubbished, and the taoiseach resoundingly humiliated . . . Robert Armstrong reported that she was dismayed and even a little abashed at the damage her remarks had done: characteristically, however, she was in no mood to apologise outright.

With this language, now put to the Irish for the second time with the prime minister’s personal endorsement, the British government formally offered the Irish government a “right” to be consulted and to have their views taken into account, and conceded that the range of subjects to which this right would apply should extend beyond security to other matters affecting the confidence of the minority in the institutions of government.

The importance of this offer seems to have been overlaid for the Irish at the time by the negative flavour of the taoiseach’s conversations with the prime minister during the summit itself and the traumatic episode of their conflicting press conferences which followed.

It was, however, this offer which was to bring about a fundamental change in the Anglo-Irish landscape and form the bedrock of the eventual Anglo-Irish Agreement – even though the condition on which it was predicated (that the Irish would amend their Constitution) was not met.

Initial comments on draft agreement by Tom King

Tom King, the new Northern Ireland secretary of state, paid lip service to the desirability in principle of reaching an agreement with the Irish, but saw the one now in prospect as "offering considerably more to the Irish than it does to us" . . . Robert Andrew, Northern Ireland Office, whose hand was clearly discernible in the drafting, rang me with a mild apology during the afternoon.

I had no doubt that if Tom King was given free rein to put all these points to Peter Barry, the Irish would conclude that we were reopening the whole negotiation with a view to scuppering the agreement altogether.

Thatcher’s hesitations

Mrs Thatcher’s feeling that officials were moving ahead too fast under their own negotiating impetus was understandable and probably right. But it was clear that her doubts went deeper, and that the more feasible an agreement with the Irish began to appear, the less she liked the idea.

How far this dislike reflected her own instinctive mistrust of the Irish and how far it was fuelled by unionist arguments impressed on her privately by Ian Gow (her parliamentary private secretary and trusted confidant), Enoch Powell and others, it was impossible for an official to judge; my impression is that these private contacts were an important influence on her throughout.

At all events, although the argument that it was better to be seen to be engaged in a negotiation than to be doing nothing continued to carry the day, it did so only by a narrow margin.

Thatcher’s message to FitzGerald before signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement

In somewhat grudging terms . . . she allowed the message to conclude on an upbeat note: “We are embarking on something entirely new and exciting in the hopes and possibilities it contains for making life better for all the people of Northern Ireland. We both know that it is not going to be all plain sailing. I am sure that as the new arrangements bed down during the coming months we shall need on both sides patience and forbearance, as well as the understanding and good will that have been brought up during these long months of negotiation. They will be forthcoming on our side, I can assure you.”

The Making Of The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 – A Memoir, by David Goodall is published by the National University of Ireland