John Bowman: 1989 a calm year in Anglo-Irish relations

State Papers: Haughey and Thatcher only held one hour of discussions in the year

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with taoiseach Charles Haughey on the steps of 10 Downing Street, London, in May 1980. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with taoiseach Charles Haughey on the steps of 10 Downing Street, London, in May 1980. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

It was not a high-profile year in Anglo-Irish relations. Everything seemed becalmed in 1989. Yet Charles Haughey was constantly being asked questions in the Dáil on whether he had any plans for a dedicated Anglo-Irish summit meeting with Margaret Thatcher.

His response, that such meetings could readily be arranged if needed, scarcely hid the reality that neither of these leaders had much to say to one another that year.

Thatcher was, by now, fretting that she had signed the Hillsborough Agreement with Garret FitzGerald in 1985; and Haughey, who had belittled that nationalist breakthrough, was now reduced to being its reluctant custodian.

Not only did Thatcher and Haughey just meet face to face for a mere 60 minutes in total in 1989 but they then spent more time discussing European politics than Northern Ireland.

In advance of the European Council summit in Madrid in June, the British ambassador in Dublin, Nicholas Fenn, informed the taoiseach’s department that Thatcher was “particularly concerned” about the Social Charter which, were it to be implemented, “could price Europe out of world markets and damage employment”; Fenn said that, on anybody’s definition, the EU’s Social Charter contained “a lot of codswallop”.

Fenn – clearly wooing Irish support for the British approach – added that Thatcher often felt “a mite lonesome” in making her case at European Council summits.

Government secretary Dermot Nally’s record of the Haughey-Thatcher meeting in Madrid characterised it as “discursive and friendly”.

‘Airy fairy talk’

After the preliminaries, Thatcher remarked that there was “a lot of airy fairy talk” about European Monetary Union, much of it quite uninformed. Thatcher believed that a community where three members contributed and nine were net beneficiaries “just wouldn’t survive”.

Such pronouncements chimed with what many saw as her messianic final period as prime minister. Messianic was indeed was among the epithets used by diplomat Richard Ryan to describe Thatcher in a memo the previous year from the Irish embassy in London.

This memo had advised Haughey to take Thatcher on and tell her that his government’s stake in the North was “many times greater than hers”. And so critical was Haughey’s letter to her that it had triggered a much lengthier encounter at the next European Council summit than was the normal half-hour allotted to such meetings.

Haughey had also told her that he was tired of having Irish efforts belittled at these encounters: he could no longer accept her ballyragging. His reproach seems to have realigned their relationship, though there is no trace of the substance or merits of Haughey’s scolding in the chapter covering Northern Ireland in her autobiography.

This chapter was almost certainly ghosted for her by her foreign policy adviser Charles Powell and is clearly written with the benefit of early access to the official records. And she signed off on a text which is self-serving, myopic and leaves readers with a one-dimensional perspective on the complex Anglo-Irish relationship.

Both Thatcher and Haughey had first come to power some 10 years before. But while Thatcher had enjoyed continuity in office since 1979, Haughey had as often as not been in opposition and had had to endure the accolades being heaped on his arch-rival Garrett FitzGerald as he signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Thatcher in 1985.

Haughey had initially stranded himself by dismissing the agreement as partitionist and treasonable. When returned to power he had no option but to embrace it by executing a slow incremental U-turn with as much grace as possible.

Small talk

When he met Thatcher in the margins of the European Council summit in Strasbourg in December, Haughey opened with some small talk; he told her he had seen her recent television interview with David Dimbleby on BBC’s Panorama, adding that she had “come off best”.

Her reply was that Dimbleby “had deserved it”. This refers to a tetchy interview in which she was reluctant to discuss her weakening grip on the Conservative leadership.

It may be observed that she shared with Haughey a reluctance to become available for such interviews, save in the circumstance of a leadership “heave” when they would each adopt a “business-as-usual” tone aimed solely at calming the nerves of flaky back-benchers.

On the EU Heads of State conference itself, Haughey reassured Thatcher that her contributions had been “very reasonable”. Thatcher for her part said she could go along with most things except the Social Charter. It was a misnomer, being merely “a charter for unemployment”.

Haughey said it was only a declaration but Thatcher reckoned the commission would build on it “to implement measures which would put up costs and destroy employment in Europe”.

They agreed to differ on the Birmingham Six case, Haughey insisting that arguments for re-opening it were now “unanswerable”. Thatcher said they had to continue the battle on security, regretting there had not been “many successes recently”.

Thatcher commented that the Anglo-Irish Agreement seemed “to be alright”. She told Haughey that “we are going to have a go at devolution once again”. She did not seem optimistic. The politicians would, she said, “talk forever” but when it came to “a point of action they disappear and the whole thing breaks down”.

They also discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall and a united Germany – to which Thatcher was opposed. She complained that attitudes were becoming “more and more Germanic”. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was “like a bulldozer”. East Germans were “flooding into his country”. Haughey allowed that the whole situation was “very tricky”.

Thatcher also complained about “this wretched European Monetary Union idea”, reckoning that it would trigger inflation. “Then the European Parliament will also be looking for a say. Nobody gives a damn about the European Parliament. It is not a parliament at all. It is an assembly.”

****

Thatcher had had no fixed policy on Northern Ireland: it had constantly frustrated her; it had cost Airey Neave and Ian Gow, two of her closest political allies, their lives; and she had herself been shaken by the IRA’s attempt to murder her at her in Brighton in 1984.

In the Iveagh House files, there is testimony that after that experience, she no longer believed she would die in her own bed, fearing the IRA would some day be successful.

In truth, Thatcher had little understanding of Irish complexities; she was a chameleon, far too taken with the latest opinion to which she had been exposed.

It could even be said she was “unreadable” on Northern Ireland: she had described it as being as British as her own constituency of Finchley; she had also toyed with the idea of redrawing the border further north; and – on one occasion at least, in July 1983 – she had asked her then Northern Ireland secretary James Prior whether he believed Britain should organise a “tactical withdrawal”.

After a decade wrestling with the issue, Thatcher believed she was without success. Although many would credit her Anglo-Irish Agreement as transformative concerning the “totality of relationships within these islands”, she herself had disavowed it and even seemed to think it could be reversed.

Her retrospective verdict is best revealed in her memoir The Downing Street Years. In this account, she reverts to regarding Northern Ireland as essentially a security issue, claiming successive British governments had “studiously refrained” from any security policies which might alienate Irish nationalists “in the hope of winning their support against the IRA”. And she reduced the Anglo- Irish Agreement to being “squarely in this tradition”.

Alienated Unionists

But she complains the policy had only alienated Unionists without winning the level of security co-operation which the British “had a right to expect”. She concluded that in the light of such experience it was “surely time to consider an alternative approach”.

There was one other dimension to her Northern Ireland policy which she did not mention in her memoirs. It was she who replaced Tom King as Northern Ireland secretary with the much more sophisticated and creative Peter Brooke. When Brooke’s name was first mooted to Dublin, the London embassy did not even consider it necessary to mention her name: it was sufficient to say he would be a “no-nonsense man” and that he enjoyed “her strong confidence”.

Brooke himself reveals, in Charles Moore’s final volume of his brilliant biography of Thatcher, that she had made it clear when appointing him to the post that “she didn’t want anything happening, except keeping the place on an even keel”.

This underestimated Brooke’s creativity and his interest in making a difference. It is to the British records – long since in the public domain – that one must turn to discover just how tentative Brooke was at the start of his important exploration of what changes in British policy might entice Sinn Féin towards the talks table.

He did write to Thatcher in March 1990 telling her there was discussion within the IRA concerning “the circumstances when violence might come to an end”. Her drawing of a wiggle under that phrase was a sure indication of scepticism. Brooke won a rebuke from her for his efforts which he henceforth underplayed, well appreciating just how irascible and fickle she could be on Northern Ireland.

He continued his efforts – but below the Thatcher radar – and was well-placed to help nudge the incipient peace process forward when Thatcher was replaced in 1990 by John Major. Her initial choice of Brooke could be listed as among her positive achievements on her Irish policy, even though she would not have considered it so.