How Jack Lynch helped lay the foundations for powersharing in North

Lynch-Heath summits at the height of the Northern troubles reveal thegrowing complexity of their relationship

Lynch-Heath summits at the height of the Northern troubles reveal thegrowing complexity of their relationship. John Bowman examines theState papers of 1972.

The Taoiseach Mr Jack Lynch pictured at the signing in Brussels of the Treaty of Accession to the EEC with Prime Minister Mr Edward Heath in the background. The two leaders met prior to the ceremony on January 23rd when Mr Lynch warned that even if the IRA were beaten by efforts at securing a military solution trouble wiould break out again if there was no political solution. Mr Heath believed the IRA was "certainly taking hard knocks" and at some stage " may give up violence and look at the situation in another way." AT first glance the DFA 2003/13 list of files from the Department of Foreign Affairs covering Anglo-Irish summits looks promising. Files 6 to 11 concern meetings between Jack Lynch and Edward Heath.

On closer inspection however the researcher's optimism is dampened: files 6 and 7 are accounts of two 1971 summits released last year and already reported in these pages; file 8 is the Lynch-Heath summit at Brussels on January 23rd, 1972 but is annotated "file empty" and so it proves - only the cover having survived; file 9 concerns the Lynch-Heath meeting at Munich on September 4th, 1972, but the file is marked "Restricted" and so is not available under the 30-year rule.

After these disappointments one is pleased to receive files 10 and 11 being accounts of the Lynch-Heath talks in Paris on October 21st and a more comprehensive exchange at Downing Street on November 24th, 1972. To appreciate how much Heath had to learn about what we may call the Irish dimension can be gleaned from an earlier account in these DFA files of a meeting in 1969 which Heath had sought with Erskine Childers at a London reception. Childers, then Tánaiste, had recently advised UN Secretary-General U Thant of the situation in Northern Ireland.

The then Irish ambassador in London J.G. Mulloy recorded Heath as warning Childers "in a somewhat hectoring tone" that the Tories would soon be in power in London and that he took grave exception to the Lynch government's presumption that they had a right to interfere in Northern Irish politics. The Childers visit to the UN was "the last thing the Irish Government should have done".

Heath also promised that an incoming Conservative government would revisit the terms of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement. Mulloy suggested this "amounted to a threat of economic sanctions" unless the Lynch government ceased "threatening the unity of the United Kingdom".

Writing his memoirs 25 years later Heath remembered none of this and claimed that as early as 1969 he believed some way would have to be found "of involving the government of the Republic directly in the affairs of the province."

Thirty years on, as the diplomatic archives are opened, the picture of the Heath-Lynch relationship is shown to be more complex. When Heath won the 1970 election he proved to be a slow learner on Anglo-Irish relations, much to the despair of his ambassador in Dublin, Sir John Peck. In 1971, Peck characterised one Lynch-Heath meeting as an example of the "dialogue of the deaf" and had described the two men at another summit as "brawling publicly".

The newly released 1972 papers begin with Lynch's own note of a conversation with Peck on January 6th. Lynch noted that Peck "seemed to suggest" the civil service advice in Whitehall was "in the direction of a worthwhile political move but it seemed to be killed on reaching Ministers who were influenced by the tough attitude of Right-wing Tory backbenchers."

Later that month Heath and Lynch were both in Brussels to sign the treaty of accession to the EEC. They met for one hour on Sunday morning, January 23rd. Although the official file, as already noted, is marked "empty", there is a duplicate record of this meeting in the papers of the department secretary, Hugh McCann.

Lynch warned that "even if the IRA are beaten by the present efforts at securing a military solution that will not be the end of the matter. The kids on the streets, who are already involved in the conflict, will be 18 and 19 years of age before too long and trouble will inevitably break out again if there is no political solution." Heath claimed for his part that he was open to talks at any time. He had "never stopped reappraising the situation to see what progress can be made." The IRA was, he believed, now "certainly taking hard knocks".

He reckoned that "at some stage they may give up violence and look at the situation in another way." Lynch emphasised the need for some concession on internment: if it was to end and talks were to begin "there could be a significant move forward. The IRA now realizes that they cannot achieve a united Ireland at one fell swoop and they are realistic enough to see a slow movement towards that goal".

Lynch also spoke about his concerns at the high rate of unemployment in the Republic. There was a danger that the young unemployed "would be taken up by the IRA who enjoy passive support within the country because of the situation in the North."

Later Lynch said he did not believe the Northern troubles would "spill over" into the South but also revealed Cardinal Conway's less optimistic opinion that the "crust of peace" in the South was "very thin". These exchanges took place just one week before the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry and the subsequent burning of the British Embassy in Dublin. All policy options were now up for consideration. An unsigned note in the secretary's file, and in McCann's hand, lists the key points of a conversation he had with an unnamed individual on March 9th: internal evidence conclusively suggests he is reporting a conversation with Peck. His informant had been in London and at a meeting of ministers. "Press stories of split in Cabinet on political initiative are true. Line-up not as given. PM for action. Exceptional and radical change. Big stuff."

This clearly refers to the debate about abandoning Stormont and imposing direct rule. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Heath's foreign secretary, had written privately to him on March 13th claiming that no sustainable framework was possible to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and backing a united Ireland as the long-term solution.

Lynch met Heath again on September 4th in the margins of the Munich Olympics. A controversy followed when Heath reverted to a line critical of the Republic's role. The diplomatic note of this meeting is restricted and has not been opened under the 30-year rule. The two men took another opportunity to meet after a European summit in Paris on October 21st. Lynch registered his disappointment at the contents of the British communiqué issued after the Munich meeting. He complained about London's emphasis on Dublin's failures on the security front to stem IRA attacks on Northern Ireland. "It was helping nobody to exaggerate the position. There was no point in telling the Irish Government to do more. We had no inhibition about doing what was necessary and possible. In fact suggestions coming from Westminster could be inhibiting."

Lynch would have been aware of Peck's advice the previous April to McCann that the Irish Government should "play the EEC card for all it was worth". He now proposed to Heath that in the context of European regional policy that "a tangible suggestion" might be the exploration by officials "to see what we might do together in a border area, preferably west of the Bann, without regard to the Border itself."

Lynch was keen to announce to the waiting press that civil servants from Dublin and London would be examining such a proposal as it "would help to relieve the feeling of frustration" among nationalists. Heath's cautious reply was noted: "He would not like to have anything said about this until he had an opportunity to think about it."

Before the publication of theseminal British White Paper on Northern Ireland, Lynch was invited to a working dinner in Downing Street on November 24th. Heath reassured him that the British government wanted "to move ahead rapidly". Responding to Lynch's call for a Council of Ireland, Heath "agreed that he could see it having important functions in the economic and social spheres especially in the context of the Common Market. There could be 'consultation, discussion and contact' with Dublin on the scope of the council but he could not agree to 'negotiation' on it." The Irish ambassador Donal O'Sullivan's note of the exchanges adds that Heath "agreed later to a significant advance on this position". This was when Lynch returned to the topic and persuaded Heath to agree to early meetings between officials to discuss the scope and functions of such a body.

O'Sullivan's note is more a summary rather than a detailed account of the exchanges. Historians of broadcasting will regret the lack of detail in the paragraph which covers an exchange of views on the Irish Government's decision earlier that day to dismiss the RTÉ Authority because it had circumvented government policy by authorizing the broadcast of the transcript of an interview with the IRA's chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain. O'Sullivan notes that Heath had shown "considerable interest" in the dismissal of the authority. "This led to a general discussion on the problems which governments face with television and radio services. The Prime Minister admitted that he has his problems too and would wish at times to be able to take the same forthright action against the BBC." In conclusion, Lynch emphasised - with what O'Sullivan described as "great candour and considerable force" - the need "to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past". Power-sharing within any Northern Irish executive was a prerequisite for stability as was a strong Council of Ireland with "the possibility of evolution".

These were themes which Lynch had emphasised at the three earlier meetings in 1972. But these had been held because both men had been engaged on other business in Paris, Munich or Brussels. It was at this Downing Street dinner that both leaders appreciated how much common ground there was between them on Northern policy. By the time Lynch's hard work bore fruit in the British White Paper Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals, published in March 1973, he was out of office having been replaced by Liam Cosgrave. But there is evidence in these newly released archives that Jack Lynch helped to lay some of the foundations for the Sunningdale Agreement, which was to follow in December 1973.

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian