Indecision on whether Hillery should attend royal wedding

 

ROYAL WEDDING:THE QUESTION of whether the president should attend the royal wedding caused procrastination and conflicting opinions among government officials, 1981 files from the taoiseach’s department show.

The government decided not to send President Patrick Hillery to the July 29th wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, with the president having already indicated that he did not wish to attend. The indecision was compounded by the RSVP date of June 26th, which was after the general election but before a new government was formed.

Some in the taoiseach’s office, including assistant secretary Richard Stokes, advised in favour of compelling the president to attend, as staying away would “make a nonsense” of all progress in Anglo-Irish relations.

An unnamed taoiseach’s department official criticised the Department of Foreign Affairs’s “very inadequate” briefing document which posed questions rather than coming up with advice and supporting arguments.

“The government have been very badly served by the Department of Foreign Affairs” whose tone indicates that it did not favour acceptance but it did not “advance any compelling argument”.

The foreign affairs brief said such an invitation from a friendly country should be accepted “unless there are compelling arguments against” it. It then refers to the ensuing “unfavourable comment” due to general feelings of dissatisfaction with the British government over the H-Blocks.

This argument could “hardly be described as a compelling reason”, the civil servant wrote, adding that most of the unfavourable comment would come from the Provisional IRA and H-block committee. He described as “naive” the assertion by foreign affairs that refusal “would not impair political dialogue with London”.

The British prime minister “would almost certainly regard a refusal as a rebuff” and it would be viewed by the “hostile British press” as presidential support for the hunger strikers.

However, another note to the secretary to the government by another civil servant in the taoiseach’s office recommended against attendance and advised deferring the decision until after the election. “Whichever decision is taken will give rise to criticism.”

The Fianna Fáil government made an informal cabinet decision to defer the RSVP. After the election, but before the formation of the new Fine Gael-led coalition, it decided that the president should be advised not to attend and to send the ambassador in his place.

The reply to the palace was issued on the final day possible, June 26th, with the excuse of the president’s “prior commitments”.

New Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald reviewed the matter three days into office, but decided the decision stood (although he may have had little choice since the RSVP was sent a fortnight earlier). Fianna Fáil in opposition tried to place the blame on the Fine Gael- Labour government by denying it had discussed the matter. The Haughey government had also decided not to send a message of congratulations on the prince’s engagement in February. Foreign affairs advised against it due to precedent as no message or gift was sent to Princess Anne or Queen Elizabeth.

Despite this, a civil servant in the taoiseach’s department recommended that a message be sent as a “gracious and popular act” in a climate of improved relations. However Haughey decided against sending such a letter.