Canal-bank conversation pivotal to shift in British-Irish relationship

Former British diplomat David Goodall recalls the initiation of the dialogue that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Among the most pivotal conversations in the recent history of Anglo-Irish relations came between two relatively obscure officials during a walk along Dublin’s Grand Canal in September 1983.

David Goodall, a British diplomat who had been seconded to the Cabinet Office, was in Dublin for a meeting of the steering committee of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council, when Michael Lillis, head of the Anglo-Irish section at the Department of Foreign Affairs, suggested the stroll.

As they walked, Lillis outlined a series of far-reaching ideas about the future of Northern Ireland and the roles of the British and Irish governments, to which he said recently elected Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald had been giving thought.

Goodall remembers his first response being astonishment, not least because, although some of his ancestors came from Co Wexford, most of his Foreign Office career had been focused on Europe, particularly Germany, and he had little background in Anglo-Irish affairs.

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“I thought: if this really is a proposal that Dr FitzGerald wants to embark on, is he really choosing me? I mean seriously, I couldn’t quite believe it,” he recalled in an interview at his home in Ampleforth, in Yorkshire.

Margaret Thatcher, who had just won a second term in office following Britain's victory over Argentina in the Falklands conflict, had decided something should be done to advance the political situation in Northern Ireland and improve the relationship between the nationalist minority and the authorities. The trouble was that her government and its officials had run out of ideas and her own attitude to the problem fluctuated.

“She had said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley and all that. And just as in the Falklands, the idea that British territory full of people who had voted to be British should be just overrun by terrorists was appalling and monstrous,” said Goodall. “But at the same time she recognised that we had come to the end of the road on other solutions and this came out of the blue so it was worth talking about to the Irish.”

The talks could have been destroyed on October 12th, 1984, when a Provisional IRA bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference, killing five people and injuring 31. Goodall feared that this attempt on her life could turn Mrs Thatcher against any further negotiations with the Irish.

“I thought: well, it will be a miracle if she wants to go on after that. And I couldn’t have blamed her. I mean, it was an appalling act of savagery, apart from anything else. However, it made surprisingly little difference. Except that the next summit was due to be in Dublin and she said to me: ‘I suppose they’ll get me in the end but I don’t want to hand myself to them on a plate.’”

Honest man

Goodall says Thatcher liked FitzGerald, even if she found his “flow of words” frustrating, and she regarded him as a transparently honest man. After she left office, she said she regretted signing the

Anglo-Irish Agreement

but Goodall insists that she understood what she was doing and that she was fully informed about the negotiations every step of the way.

“Did she know what she was signing up to? She did, but she never actually convinced herself that it was ‘the right thing to do’. It presented itself to her as the only available thing to do, with all kinds of cuts in it that made it tolerable. I think that’s what I would say. And she knew that was what she was doing,” he said.

“It led to her being accused of treachery by the unionists, which was painful to her, especially as she half felt herself that she was being treacherous to unionists.”

Despite her misgivings, Thatcher stood by the agreement as long as she was prime minister and Goodall believes that this support, along with that of successive Irish governments, was crucial to its success.

Although the unionists in Northern Ireland were unhappy with it, the fact that they were not parties to it, unlike in Sunningdale, meant they could not bring it down. “It was the start of something important. The mere fact of the British and Irish governments getting together with a great deal of openness on this thorny subject I think really did make a lot of subsequent things possible,” said Goodall.

“It was bitterly opposed by the unionists, for reasons which I well understand. But it meant that when the time came to move on to another agreement, the fact that it superseded the Anglo-Irish Agreement was something they’d been fighting for.

“So I think in all kinds of ways it changed the balance of the British-Irish relationship in relation to Northern Ireland quite fundamentally.”