Subscriber OnlyPolitics

John Bowman: Haughey ‘misread’ bid for peace in North – but was right on one major issue

State papers: History shows former taoiseach correct not to unilaterally abandon Articles 2 and 3

Taoiseach Charles Haughey and British prime minister John Major leaving Government Buildings in May 1991. Photograph: Eric Luke

Political initiatives on Northern Ireland were rare. Failed initiatives were not without cost, and the significant diplomatic resources involved could only be justified if there was a credible chance of success. In 1991 Charles Haughey and John Major looked an unlikely couple to make much progress.

Nevertheless, Haughey remained upbeat. He repetitively told Major that only by the intervention of the two sovereign governments could any progress be made. And Haughey even suggested he could see “a window of opportunity”.

But any such window depended on political stability, a point well understood by those mandarins in Dublin and London who had most experience in Anglo-Irish relations. They knew that a change of political leader – either a new prime minister or an exiting Haughey – would stymie the high-risk diplomacy an initiative would need.

In Dublin, Haughey had been weakened when winning by only 55 votes to 22 in a leadership challenge in autumn 1991, and he had purged some of the leading dissidents, among them his finance minister Albert Reynolds.


And in London there was an innocent in No 10. On Northern Ireland Major was totally without baggage – he was a virgin. And he had inherited a somewhat confusing legacy from his predecessor Margaret Thatcher.

She was experienced: she had endured the political fallout of the hunger strikes; she had lost two of her closest political allies, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, both murdered at the hands of Irish republicans; and in 1984 she had herself narrowly escaped death when the IRA bombed her hotel suite in Brighton during the Conservative Party’s conference.

And she had drawn the wrath of Ulster unionists by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The scale of their outrage helped to impress nationalists with the merits of the deal. But Haughey’s response confused many. He had dedicated his career to realigning Irish-British relations. He now disliked the FitzGerald-Thatcher deal. And his excoriation of it as partitionist and even treasonable was regarded by many as his most egregious political error.


Since returning to the office of taoiseach in 1987, he even had to endure the embarrassment that the template for Anglo-Irish relations was the very agreement which he had initially scorned.

Haughey now told Major that what was needed was “a clearing of the decks” which would lead “to some sort of normal relations”. He added that he hoped he was “not teaching my grandmother to suck eggs”. Major reassured him: “Indeed you are not.”

Haughey told Major that he was constantly being encouraged to bring Sinn Féin into the talks process. Perhaps both governments could examine how Sinn Féin could be included with the goal of ending the violence.

When Major responded by emphasising the importance of keeping the unionists on board, Haughey chided him that he sounded like Thatcher. Perhaps he had been given “one of her briefs”.

Major complained to Haughey that he found short meetings in the margins of EC council meetings unsatisfactory for such a “complicated subject”. Both men then agreed to arrange meetings which could be billed “ostensibly” as being about European business but would in fact be “developing a strategy for Northern Ireland”.

In October 1991 a draft document, A Strategy for Peace and Justice in Ireland, was shown to Haughey by John Hume, who told him that its text also had the approval of Gerry Adams.

The core proposal was one which had been reflected in Hume’s thinking on Northern Ireland for many years: that the traditional aspiration of nationalists for the unification of Ireland should be tempered by an acknowledgement that this would only be possible with the consent of a majority within Northern Ireland.

Many might argue that this was mere pragmatism, even self-evident. The challenge at the heart of the peace process – which dragged on for the rest of the decade – was to so frame these two interlocking ideas that it would bring the violence to an end: Republicans would see a political path to unity; whilst Unionists would take comfort from an assurance that their necessary consent to any new arrangement would guarantee them a veto.


Meanwhile Haughey had been coming under increasing pressure from Hume and from church leaders to join them in attempting to sell this political route to the Provisionals and end the violence.

At what would prove to be his last Anglo-Irish summit in December 1991, Haughey remained bullish, reminding Major that together they should take the whole situation “by the scruff of the neck”.

It was Major’s first visit to Dublin and the main business involved the forthcoming Maastricht Treaty. Haughey assured Major that the Irish wanted “an integrating Europe with Great Britain inside”. Major responded that there was “no question of a Europe without Britain unless Europe wants it”.

The implications of Maastricht for both countries formed most of the early exchanges. Before lunch Haughey introduced the Northern Ireland situation, wondering if progress could be made in “the context of the totality of the relationships between the two countries”.

It was Haughey himself who had introduced this phrase at his first meeting with Thatcher a decade before. Had he a more creative cast of mind he could even have claimed that the controversial Anglo-Irish Agreement was an example of a change which had its roots in his own fresh thinking on the totality of relationships.

But as regards a general review of Anglo-Irish relations, Major cautiously advised against any fresh initiative as it might “excite unnecessary suspicion” from the unionists.

Then Major approved Haughey’s suggestion that there should be two Anglo-Irish summits each year alternating between Dublin and London to discuss Northern Ireland, the EC and international issues.

Haughey duly talked this up after what was to prove his last Anglo-Irish summit. Within weeks the Haughey era was over; the Progressive Democrats gave him a fig-leaf of respectability in allowing him to choose his own date of departure. But it was the resurrection of older scandals which made their continuing participation in his government untenable. And on February 11th, 1992, the Haughey era ended.


He was disappointed that his protege, Bertie Ahern, did not immediately contest the Fianna Fáil leadership and he was humiliated that his immediate successor was the arch-plotter of the previous November, Albert Reynolds.

And when it came to his duty to brief his successor on Northern Ireland issues, he contented himself with succinct advice. He uttered just two words to Reynolds: “Ask Mansergh”.

He may have been less surprised than some others at the immediate priority which Reynolds gave to the Northern Ireland issue. Reynolds had not said much about the North before he won the leadership. He now embraced the peace process wholeheartedly, helped by an existing friendship with Major.

And on the very day of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the present writer recalls asking Reynolds what had happened in the Fianna Fáil rooms in Leinster House when they first heard the detail of the Thatcher-FitzGerald pact and when Haughey had immediately denounced it as partitionist and treasonable. Reynolds confided that he had advised Haughey that he was totally misreading the agreement and that it should be seen as a nationalist breakthrough: “I told him he should run with it.”

Thus did Haughey’s custodianship of Fianna Fáil’s Northern policy peter out. On one major issue his judgement would be proved sound. He had always ignored the liberal chorus in the South – led by FitzGerald – calling for a unilateral abandonment of Articles 2 and 3 as a confidence-building measure for unionists.

Haughey had treated such calls with disdain: he believed it would be naive to give the South’s trump card away gratis. Rather did he see it as bait to entice the unionists to the negotiating table, and there to leverage concessions from them by agreeing to drop the irredentist language of Articles 2 and 3 and reword them as a conditional aspiration for Irish unity based on unionist consent.

It is no exaggeration to state that the removal of Éamon de Valera’s original Articles 2 and 3 – offensive and clumsily worded anyway – would prove vital in the successful brokering and selling of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.