1988: A year of constant bickering between Haughey and Thatcher
State papers show the taoiseach and the British PM 'at loggerheads' over the IRA
Margaret Thatcher visiting the site of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, a year in which security concerns dominated her dealings with the Irish government. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Throughout 1988 Anglo-Irish relations seemed vulnerable to a surprise ambush. Taoiseach Charles Haughey and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher would meet three times during the year – always in the margin of a European summit.
At their first such meeting in Brussels in February, Haughey claimed they were doing well on security until “we were upset by a bolt from the blue”. He was referring – amongst other surprises – to the rejection of the appeal by the Birmingham Six. Haughey insisted that he must impress on her “the deep, deep anxiety and emotion” which such decisions could trigger among nationalists throughout Ireland.
When Thatcher asked how long such emotions lasted, Haughey answered “700 years in our country”. Thatcher said she had read the court’s decision upholding the conviction of the Birmingham Six and had found it “very impressive”.
On security co-operation, Thatcher insisted they had mutual interests: both faced a threat from the IRA, whom she saw as not only terrorists but a group displaying “a good deal of Marxism”. To combat these threats she would rely on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, “the hope for the future”.
The lack of a common wavelength between Haughey and Thatcher was best exemplified by her ballistic response to the speeches he had made on Northern Ireland during his visit to the United States in April.
She let it be known to her ambassador in Dublin, Nicholas Fenn, that she was especially concerned that in no speech had Haughey condemned violence. Haughey would presently tell Fenn that he was irritated by such criticism, as any such condemnations were unnecessary since his US audiences were already anti-IRA.
The trip had been “a great success” and he had marginalised Noraid, reducing them to “little more than a disorderly rabble”. Fenn still insisted that the absence of the taoiseach’s condemnation of violence had caused “great concern” to Thatcher.
Haughey endeavoured to explain the Irish-American psyche. Whereas the older generation was dying out, there was now a new wave of Irish emigrants who could be “ready-made for Noraid” unless “we keep in close touch with them – which I did. I want to emphasise that there is a very thin dividing line here”.
Her letter informed him of “how deeply upset” she had been by his US speeches
Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Noel Dorr noted that, as Fenn was departing, Haughey admitted that he had been so irritated at hearing of the British criticism that he had been “letting off steam”. This prompted a jocular admission by Fenn that the role of an ambassador was to be a doormat “laid down between governments on which either side could walk”. These parting exchanges had “served to ease somewhat the general severity of tone of the meeting”.
But the very next day Fenn was back in Haughey’s office with what he called “a personal cri de coeur” from Thatcher, without Fenn or the Foreign Office knowing its content.
Her letter informed him of “how deeply upset” she had been by his US speeches – “alarmed that you seemed to be arguing that the persistence of violence actually calls into question the existence of Northern Ireland as an entity”. This was tantamount “to a surrender to terrorism”. She added that she even now doubted his support for the agreement itself.
Dublin also learned from Fenn that when he had spoken to Thatcher in London of the importance of building on the “common interests” of the two countries, “she had virtually denied that there was now anything other than a minimal common interest between Dublin and London”.
In advance of a scheduled European summit in Hanover, Richard Ryan, an astute Thatcher-watcher in the Irish embassy in London, wrote to Dorr with his reading of the state of the Haughey-Thatcher relationship and its likely impact on Anglo-Irish relations.
That this document is now in the files of the Taoiseach’s department suggests that it was originally written for Haughey’s attention. The original is annotated: “Read by Taoiseach”.
Ryan understood and lauded Haughey’s success in marginalising the Irish-American extremists on his US tour, and believed London should at the very least recognise this. Any other British reaction was “incomprehensible except at the level of British pigheadedness, naivety or basic unwillingness to accept his judgment in these matters”.
Ryan concluded that if there was truth in his analysis then it seemed clear that Haughey and Thatcher were “at loggerheads”. Progress was not possible, and further difficulties were inevitable unless and until Thatcher was made to understand the coherence of Haughey’s philosophy.
Ryan added that Thatcher was becoming an ever more difficult figure to do business with: she was “more metallic, more implacable, more certain in her convictions, more dismissive of any critical or querulous voices, more autonomous, more monolithic”. This was also her style on other issues; her most recent statements about her vision of Britain were, according to Ryan, “not short of being messianic”.
Ryan believed that the only way forward was for Haughey himself to “take on” Thatcher and “make her shift her ground”. Were he to succeed he would have brought Thatcher “into a real dialogue which he could then lead forward”. And if she “refused to budge” then he would be seen by British ministers and observers “to have done everything that a reasonable man could do”.
He concluded that there “may be a strong strategic argument for the Taoiseach now seizing the moral high ground and making every effort to make her see sense”.
On June 15th, Haughey wrote to Thatcher suggesting that they should not “start up a counterproductive correspondence” but rather ensure that at the forthcoming European summit at Hanover they could take the opportunity “to talk substantively”.
We are doing our best. We have a public opinion to deal with. But to be constantly ballyragged does no good at all
Then, doubtless emboldened by Ryan’s call that he should educate her on the complexities of Anglo-Irish relations, Haughey sent her an aide-memoire in advance of the summit. This had the advantage that she could not tetchily interrupt him, as was her wont, when talking face-to-face with adversaries.
Haughey insisted that the fact that his government’s approach to the IRA differed from Britain’s required “not your condemnation but your understanding”. His government was “dealing with the hearts and minds of an entire population”.
Furthermore, she had better accept his judgment as to “how best I and my government deal with that environment”. She would also need to appreciate that the Irish “stake in the struggle” was “many times greater” than hers.
When they met at the Hanover summit, the meeting lasted one hour and 15 minutes. Haughey said he was motivated by his belief that violence was “completely souring and disrupting and bedeviling Anglo-Irish relations”.
He complained that the British kept coming back with suggestions to which, in his considered judgment, there would be “a political backlash which would make them ineffective or worse”.
On extradition he faulted her for the changes in policy which she had negotiated with his predecessor Garret FitzGerald. “We are doing our best. We have a public opinion to deal with. But to be constantly ballyragged does no good at all.”
Thatcher remained wedded to her familiar complaint that the Irish were not delivering enough on security. She admitted that in recent times her feelings had “run far higher than ever before” in her life. She dismissed Haughey’s talk of a united Ireland, predicting “there would be the worst civil war in history. And it would spread to the mainland”.
Haughey said that he was sorry “that she was so disappointed. We get no credit for what we are doing. If you keep on belittling what we are doing, we lose heart. We are putting immense resources into this. Do you not appreciate that?”
That the meeting ended “reasonably amicably” was recorded by the government secretary Dermot Nally, whose reports of these exchanges were “in direct speech” but made no claim to be “a verbatim record”.
By the time of the final summit of that year at Rhodes, an extradition debacle centring on a former priest and alleged IRA activist, Fr Patrick Ryan, was the current controversy.
At the summit Thatcher opened by detailing her anger at how Belgium had handled Britain’s request that Fr Ryan be extradited from Belgium to Britain. She praised the Belgian courts and police, but then blamed the Belgian cabinet for what she described as “a thoroughly bad decision” of flying him – avoiding British air space – to his home country of Ireland.
We can never get to the major questions which we should be discussing – like the possibility of progress with the North
Ryan, she said, was “a really bad egg”. She suggested that as much as £850,000 from Libya had been traced to his bank accounts and said bombing devices were found when he was arrested.
She placed great emphasis on the need for co-operation on extradition. “Wording previously accepted by your side is not, we find, acceptable now. There are quibbles over commas and duplicates.”
Haughey regretted that every time they met “we have one of these difficult issues on something that is marginal between us. We can never get to the major questions which we should be discussing – like the possibility of progress with the North, how Northern Ireland is to be governed, relations with the Unionists and suchlike matters”.
Haughey did not know how they “could get away from this constant bickering, attacking each other after each incident”.
1988 ended as it began. Thatcher was focused on security. Haughey was anxious to reframe the challenge in what – almost a decade before – they had both agreed was “the totality of relations within these islands”.
Instead, had they not been reduced in 1988 to what could be called the diplomacy of the latest atrocity?
Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His latest book is Ireland: The Autobiography (Penguin).