British ambassador, 1997: ‘Working with the Irish has never been easy’

Anglo-Irish relations beset by mistrust and misapprehension, archive files show

British ambassador Veronica Sutherland  warned that historical anniversaries such as Bloody Sunday and the Famine aroused strong emotions and should be dealt with sensitively even though they may appear of ‘secondary importance’ in the UK. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

British ambassador Veronica Sutherland warned that historical anniversaries such as Bloody Sunday and the Famine aroused strong emotions and should be dealt with sensitively even though they may appear of ‘secondary importance’ in the UK. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Mistrust, misapprehension, victimhood and a fear of marginalisation– just some of the defining characteristics of the Irish in the late 1990s, according to the British ambassador in Dublin at the time.

“Working with the Irish has never been easy,” wrote Veronica Sutherland in a memo in May 1997, as shown in records released on Tuesday by the UK National Archives in London.

“Even now, mistrust and misapprehension are still the defining characteristics on the Irish side, while to the Irish, the British approach frequently smacks of arrogance and insensitivity,” said the memo.

The reasons for the difference range from the Irish sense of “victimhood” where many see history as a “record of things being done to them” which has fuelled a sense of grievance against the British.

This has led to a belief that London never takes the issues seriously enough, wrote Sutherland: “As John Hume has put it, the reason the Irish never forget is because the British never remember.”

Her memo, to various senior British civil servants, was sent the day after the landslide victory of the Labour Party which resulted in Tony Blair becoming prime minister.

Other differences between the two sides were that the Irish government was mainly concerned with nationalist sympathies while the British had to “reconcile a much wider range of conflicting interests” from unionists to nationalists and the demands of security and civil rights. Added to that, said Sutherland, advisers such as Martin Mansergh and Sean O’hUiginn of the Department of Foreign Affairs had significant power in their “perceived role as guardians of the nationalist tradition”.

It was these differences which “do much to explain the mutual incomprehension which regularly arises between the two governments”.

Personal relationships

She said in order to improve relations between the two sides, the British should take account of these concerns and also build up personal relationships with Irish ministers.

“Stereotypes often mislead, but it remains true that the Irish manner of transacting business relies to a greater degree than the British on personal relationships. The more British ministers can build up close personal relationships with their Irish counterparts, the easier it will be to reach the personal understandings which can lead to an important breakthrough.”

Informal contacts played a crucial part of building up relationships, she said. “It is impossible to emphasise too strongly just how much the judiciously timed telephone call can improve the atmosphere in which business is transacted. Just as important, such an approach can prevent the public outbursts by the Irish which are an embarrassment to both sides, and thus an impediment to progress.”

Historical anniversaries

Sutherland warned that historical anniversaries such as Bloody Sunday and the Famine aroused strong emotions and should be dealt with sensitively even though they may appear of “secondary importance” in the UK.

The files come as part of a release of documents from the National Archives in London from the 1997 period when Labour entered government following the landslide victory over the Conservatives.

Sutherland said that working closely with the Irish was critical to the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland. She said there had been a more constructive relationship built since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 but “room for improvement nevertheless remains”.

“The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have much in common – history, language, close family ties and, for both countries, their only land border. Yet, these factors have too often served to divide, rather than unite,” she wrote.