Newly released documents at the UK National Archives in London reveal how Anglo-Irish relations were carefully reconstructed and reset during 1983, in three meetings between taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in which exchanges were curt but tempers remained under control.
Today’s release of the state papers for 1983 is the first stage in the UK’s move from a 30-year to a 20-year embargo on official government materials, which will now be made available to the public twice a year.
The papers paint a picture of much-improved relations which, according to British officials had “deteriorated sharply during 1982 . . . largely due to the hostile and unhelpful attitude of the then taoiseach, Mr Haughey” in criticising Britain’s decision to go to war over the Falklands, coupled with a sharp divergence on Northern Ireland policy.
Although an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council had been established two years previously, no summit had taken place since November 1981.
The first move towards rapprochement came from the Irish ambassador in London, Dr Eamon Kennedy, in January 1983, when he told British officials about the new Irish government’s “desire to restore Anglo-Irish relations to normal”, while acknowledging that “rush would be counter-productive and that confidence must be rebuilt gradually”.
The following day, on January 15th, 1983, British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong made clear his view that the responsibility for the deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations “lay with the Irish”.
He maintained the British government had “no interest in seeking to force the pace, still less in appearing to woo or pursue the Irish”. Officials were given a personal directive from Thatcher that it was to be left to the Irish “to do the running”.
Although substantive discussions were postponed until after the British general election in June 1983, Thatcher did agree to see FitzGerald on the margins of the European Council meeting in Brussels on March 22nd. Privately she was insistent this “must not be a formal meeting” and said she could spare 20-30 minutes, not the hour the Irish requested.
She was negotiated up to 40 minutes by Sir Leonard Figg, her ambassador in Dublin.
At the meeting, Thatcher’s tone was curt and abrupt with her Irish counterpart. When FitzGerald said that “the aim of re-establishing contact should be to lay foundations for the future relationship”, Thatcher replied “it was more a matter of keeping in touch”.
When FitzGerald mentioned the need to bolster the SDLP against the growing electoral threat from Sinn Féin, Thatcher observed it was difficult to give support to a party that was “anti-unionist”. In his first sign of frustration, FitzGerald retorted that the SDLP was “also anti-IRA”.
The two leaders met again on European Council business in Stuttgart on June 19th.
When her civil servants put pressure on her to agree to an official Anglo-Irish summit before the end of the year, she expressed her irritation, scribbling in her trademark blue fountain pen: “I don’t like this at all. The truth is that we haven’t anything to talk about save security and EEC matters.” This was the kind of activity that got the British government “into difficult situations with the unionists”.
Following her victory in the general election in June, Thatcher nonetheless relented and agreed to host FitzGerald at Chequers, the prime ministerial residence, in November. This prompted a flurry of activity between British and Irish officials, in which the latter indicated their desire to adopt a new approach to the Northern Ireland problem.
In September, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland told the cabinet that there “were signs that the implications of a united Ireland were being more seriously and realistically considered in both parts of Ireland than for many years”.
Much of the running was made by Michael Lillis, the head of the Anglo-Irish division in the department of foreign affairs in Dublin and a close associate of FitzGerald, in contact with the senior British diplomat David Goodall.
Both were later involved in the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
In a tête-à-tête in Dublin and a follow-up discussion at a meeting of the British-Irish Association at Oxford, Lillis told Goodall the outcome of the recent abortion referendum in Ireland – in which there was a two-thirds vote in favour of a “pro-life” amendment being added to the Constitution – “would put paid, at least for the time being, to any prospect, of early success for the Irish government’s policy of seeking to remove Protestant and liberal concerns about the Republic’s Catholic ethos”.
While this was regrettable, it would also have “the merit of clarifying the situation and forcing nationalist opinion to face up to the reality of Partition and the fact that unification was at best a long-term aspiration, not a political objective”.
A memo from cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong to Thatcher on October 3rd laid out some of the proposals which Lillis was floating, including a commitment to accept Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and perhaps even an amendment to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, in return for allowing gardaí and judges to be involved in the policing and judicial processes in the North.
When British officials discovered that SDLP leader John Hume was not aware of the new proposals, as Lillis had claimed, it was agreed it “would be wise to stand off from Mr Lillis” in case he was overstating the Irish position. Nonetheless, in the forthcoming summit with FitzGerald, Thatcher was advised to “listen sympathetically to what he has to say: probe him as to the realism of his approach and, while striking a strongly sceptical note, make it clear that you would be prepared to look at any practical and realistic ideas which might help to reduce the level of violence in Northern Ireland”.
The year ended on a grim note, when the IRA bombed Harrods in London on December 17th, killing six people and injuring more than 90.
At a British cabinet meeting on December 22nd, however, Thatcher observed that despite some high-profile incidents in recent weeks, the overall situation was calm and casualty figures for 1983 were the lowest for a year since the Troubles began.
In the first indication she was willing to respond to the Irish government’s renewed efforts, she told the cabinet that, in the new year, “consideration would need to be given to the wider aspects of the Irish question and the possibility of finding new approaches to it”.
John Bew is a reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department of King’s College London