Leaders' warmth ruffled by political impasse


Anglo-Irish relations:RECENTLY-RELEASED papers at the national archives in London confirm that 1978 was a problematic year in Anglo-Irish relations.

Despite evidence of personal warmth between taoiseach Jack Lynch and British prime minister James Callaghan, tensions arose over the British government's perceived drift towards a more unionist position and over cross-Border security co-operation.

Much of British policy on Northern Ireland was driven by Roy Mason, the secretary of state since 1976. In focusing on security and economic development, his tenure had seen a reduction in overall levels of violence.

However, both the Irish government and the SDLP expressed frustration at the fact that he seemed content to continue with direct rule from London for the foreseeable future, as part of his policy of avoiding destabilising political experiments.

Political progress was even less likely in 1978 due to the fact that all the parties were preparing for a British general election in the near future.

A source of nationalist frustration was the fact that the Labour government had a small majority at Westminster and unionist MPs had much enhanced influence because of parliamentary arithmetic. Despite some misgivings, Callaghan acceded to unionist demands for a Bill providing for a greater number of seats for Northern Ireland at Westminster.

The SDLP feared that this represented a drift towards an increasingly integrationist position on the part of the government, although Callaghan denied that this was his long-term attention.

With both sides seen to be adopting increasingly entrenched positions, Callaghan was advised on March 7th, 1978, that there was "little alternative for the government but to continue with direct rule, which is not unpopular with the people of the province, and to wait for the political atmosphere to take a turn for the better".

On January 8th, a mini-crisis in Anglo-Irish relations had been caused by a television interview in which Jack Lynch reiterated Fianna Fáil's 1975 call for a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

To the fury of the British, he also suggested that, in the future, an amnesty might be offered to IRA prisoners in the Republic. The British believed this broke a gentleman's agreement of September 1977, in which Callaghan and Lynch had agreed to steer away from provocative public statements on Northern Ireland.

Tensions escalated following the La Mon House restaurant bombing in Co Down on February 7th, in which 12 Protestant civilians were killed. Shortly after the attack, Roy Mason provoked an angry response from the Irish government by speculating that the bombers might have fled south of the Border and questioning the Irish commitment to security co-operation, a source of tension in previous years.

At a meeting between Lynch and Callaghan in Copenhagen on April 7th, the personal warmth between the two leaders could not disguise underlying tensions. Lynch began the meeting by saying relations had "been a little ruffled in recent months", and Callaghan replied that there was "no need to argue who had started this game of ping pong".

Lynch then restated his position that if the British government "were to declare their interest in Irish unity, progress would be advanced in allowing all Irishmen to come together".

Callaghan responded that the result of such a move would be "bigger trouble" in Northern Ireland than already existed.

Lynch also refused to accept Callaghan's view that the internal management of Northern Ireland was, first and foremost, a concern for the British government. Referring to the precedent set by the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, the taoiseach claimed that the Republic had a "special status" on matters relating to the North.

Callaghan replied that the situation had changed since then.

Lynch also stated that he "had been worried by Mason's statements after the La Mon tragedy" that the terrorists had "gone over the Border". Callaghan replied that the Border was an important factor in the security situation and that co-operation was still not operating at 100 per cent.

In the following month, May 1978, in another sign of deteriorating relations, the British foreign office suspected that the Irish "would obviously like to make some propaganda mileage" out of recent Amnesty International reports detailing alleged abuse of prisoners by the RUC.

However, because allegations had also been made against gardaí by Amnesty the previous year, it was felt that the Irish government would be "inhibited from making too much play" of the issue.

In the recently published second volume of his Downing Street Diary, Callaghan's special adviser, Bernard Donoughue, records how the senior foreign office minister Frank Judd stated that he was "worried about the deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations" in this period. Callaghan also voiced a fear "that we are sitting in the trenches with Protestants" and stated that he did not want any more attacks on Lynch,, "who he thought was a good man, though getting particularly weak because he would probably not stay in office too much longer". He specifically named Michael O'Kennedy, the minister for foreign affairs, as one of the young ministers "manoeuvring to succeed him".

Donoughue was also critical of what he saw as Mason's abrasive approach on a number of occasions during the year, as too close to the unionists, "offhand about the Catholics and scathing about the Republic". On March 7th, 1978, Donoughue wrote to the prime minister to express "general worries about our stance on Ireland - or, at least, on how that stance is now perceived in Ireland, and particularly among the Irish community, that lives and votes in Britain". Donoughue's diary also records how Mason often called him "green" when he raised such objections. "I suppose I am a bit," he reflected, "although I hate the IRA." Before he met Lynch again on November 27th, officials advised Callaghan to explain that the British government "understands and respects the aspirations for Irish unity sincerely held by Irishmen North and South of the Border". But, while they "rule out nothing in the long-term", the British did insist "that changes can only come about with the free consent of the majority in the North and even if we had an interest in ultimate Irish unity it would be counter-productive for us to try to persuade the majority to take a different view of unity". In the course of the meeting, Callaghan reiterated to Lynch that "it was very important to discourage any expectation that the British government would pull the army out of Northern Ireland after the election". There was "no such intention and speculation on these lines would only encourage the IRA".

"If the army ever withdrew," he stated, "this would be the result of the elimination of force in Northern Ireland, not of the use of it." Callaghan also reassured the taoiseach that "there was not a 'scintilla' of movement towards integration".