Haughey rejected criticism for not condemning violence in US speeches

Former taoiseach offered to ‘run a course for British diplomats’ on how to handle Irish Americans

A number of speeches delivered in the United States by taoiseach Charles Haughey in April 1988 in which he did not condemn violence provoked an angry response from British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a cooling in their relations.

Thatcher wrote to Haughey harshly criticising his speeches, and questioning his commitment to the Anglo Irish Agreement. He replied rejecting her allegations and scolded the British for failing to recognise that his trip to the US had been a “total success”.

Suggesting the British did not understand Irish Americans, Haughey said “I would gladly run a course for British diplomats and ministers” on how to handle that cohort.

"I am exaggerating this a bit here of course but it is still basically true," he told the British ambassador to Ireland Nicholas Fenn.


Thatcher and Haughey met three times in 1988 on the fridges of EU gatherings – the first in Brussels in February, the second in Hannover in June, and the third in Rhodes in December, where further tensions arose over the Irish government’s policy on extradition.

Thatcher's letter in April was delivered to Dublin by a special queen's messenger taken off a flight to Moscow especially for that purpose. Her ambassador Fenn told senior Irish officials the letter was a "personal cri de coeur from the prime minister".

In it Thatcher took Haughey to task for not condemning violence.

“I feel I must tell you how deeply upset I was with your speeches in New York and Harvard. They did a disservice to Anglo-Irish relations, and to the prospect of making a success of the Anglo Irish Agreement.”

Haughey had opposed the agreement while in opposition, but pledged his support for it when entering government in 1987.


In her letter, Thatcher said: “You have reiterated your adherence to the Anglo Irish Agreement. Your speeches make me doubt this.”

Haughey strongly defended the speeches in a testy meeting with Fenn, whom he summoned to Government Buildings. In a subsequent letter to Thatcher he said he was “perturbed” by many of the things she said.

At his meeting with Fenn, Haughey described the US visit as a "total success", and added that Noraid [the pro-IRA group in the US] had been reduced to a "impotent rabble" and its protests against his visit had "completely fizzled out".

He said he was addressing a respectable American professional audience of bankers and lawyers.

“It is an insult to them to tell them not to support violence. They do not believe in it…To suggest that I should lecture them is totally to misread the situation.”

Haughey said Irish Americans would resent being lectured to on violence, and they were more interested in the economy than Northern Ireland.

He then intimated there was collusion between the British and opposition leaders.

“Apparently by a strange coincidence, Des O’Malley [leader of the Progressive Democrats] in his criticism has emphasised the same theme. I wonder if someone has been talking to him?”

Fenn took exception to the suggestion. “I have not spoken to Mr O’Malley. I exchanged two sentences with Mr [Alan] Dukes [then leader of Fine Gael] on the margin of a rugby match. Please don’t entertain that suspicion. I do not see it as my business to make life more difficult for you politically. But I do see it as my business to understand.”


Haughey said that his predecessor as taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had lectured Irish Americans about violence and that had been counter-productive.

The ambassador reminded Haughey that British ministers had been “shocked” by the absence of references to violence in the speeches, and asked could he restate his position condemning violence at an early opportunity.

When he said that was not unreasonable to ask, Haughey disagreed and said it was unreasonable.

“How many objectives of British policy are taken for granted without constant reiteration? The government has strong positions on many issues but it does not find it necessary to repeat it constantly on every occasion. Words begin to lose their effect. We run out of words. The word ‘barbaric’ has become commonplace.”

Fenn reminded him of British colleagues blown up in Brighton and elsewhere.

“The issue between us is whether it needs to be constantly reiterated. I do not think so,” said Haughey.

In concluding Haughey said: “My meeting with you this morning was partly to clear my mind of some irritation, but mainly to get across that my visit to the USA was a total success because I understand the realities there.”

Fenn said he would try to convey Haughey’s views on the matter to the British government, but could not promise that Thatcher would respond well.

In mid-June, Haughey wrote to Thatcher in an effort to diffuse the row over his US speeches.

“I am deeply perturbed by some of the things you have written and said, and reject many of them. I feel nevertheless that it would not serve the best interests of the people of these islands to start up a counterproductive correspondence between us,” he wrote.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times