Margaret Thatcher's cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, confided to the Irish ambassador Noel Dorr that before the 1983 election, she had "very much wanted" to ignore Ireland.
But by 1985, it had been brought up “on her list of priorities”. She was reading about it “a good deal” but yet lacked “much real deep feeling for the history of the issue”.
This picture was confirmed by another Dorr informant, Lord Gowrie, Thatcher's minister for the arts. "No sense of history," he said. However, he also told Dorr that Thatcher "really does like" the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, reckoning him "essentially 'a good man' and 'goodness' does matter greatly to her".
Gowrie advised that, on Irish policy, then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe was "the key figure". He was "essentially a country solicitor" who would "always want to settle the case out of court".
Confiding in Irish officials, Gowrie had insisted that he was not “an Irish nationalist in disguise”, nor an Irish “mole”. That said, he was sympathetic, though he had been promoted as high as he “can ever go” and wondered whether he should not now “make a throw to get the prime minister to do the right thing”.
Gowrie had recently been appointed to Thatcher’s broadened cabinet subcommittee on Irish policy and told Dorr that although Thatcher was “central”, she was not “all-important”. She was capable of being “brought along by others, in something she did not initially want”, he said.
This is a recurring theme in the advice the Anglo-Irish division was collating in Iveagh House in Dublin. Michael Lillis, who headed the division, was indefatigable in gleaning information on the thinking of the key players on the British side.
Time and again Lillis is informed how Thatcher, preoccupied by other responsibilities, was inattentive to the finer detail of the ongoing negotiations being led by Armstrong on the British side and his opposite number Dermot Nally, secretary in the taoiseach's office.
Both men had the confidence of their political leaders, a trusting, mutual relationship and a preoccupation with developing what had become known as the Irish Dimension and thus recasting British-Irish relations on what they believed would be a more constructive footing.
There was asymmetry in these negotiations. Whereas FitzGerald had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Northern Irish politics and was investing considerable political capital and diplomatic resources in the project, Thatcher was reliant on quickly absorbing a brief, since her own knowledge remained patchy and her attention intermittent.
She had a further disadvantage: her two main strategists, Armstrong and Sir David Goodall of the foreign office, were broadly on FitzGerald's wavelength. In the voluminous files covering the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the critical issue is rarely the substance of the many drafts of the putative new agreement but rather, as one British adviser confided, how to manage "the lady".
Goodall went so far as to venture – "with some trepidation" – to ask Lillis to pass some advice on to FitzGerald on how he should approach his first Thatcher meeting of 1985. This was scheduled for the margins of the European Council summit in Brussels at the end of March.
Goodall said "the essence of the situation" was that FitzGerald had "greater standing" with Thatcher on these issues than even Howe and her Northern Ireland secretary Douglas Hurd.
‘Capture her imagination’
What FitzGerald should now do was “capture her imagination” and somehow “contrive to do this without frightening her”. He should avoid the detail of the exchanged draft documents and content himself with emphasising that they should both have “the courage and the imagination” to avail of their unique “window of opportunity”.
At the summit, FitzGerald broadly followed this advice. The meeting lasted no more than 40 minutes. Lillis noted that the atmosphere throughout had been “extremely relaxed and friendly” and credited Thatcher with showing “a closer awareness than previously of the detail of politics in Northern Ireland”.
She still managed a howler when FitzGerald mooted the idea of “an unarmed community police force working with the RUC”.
Thatcher intervened: “You mean like the B Specials?”
Thatcher's most telling intervention concerned FitzGerald's proposal that the North's single-judge, non-jury Diplock courts, used in terrorist cases, should change to three-judge courts, including one judge from the Republic. Thatcher declared she was struck "at how passionately" the North's chief justice, Lord Lowry, opposed this proposal. FitzGerald replied that perhaps Lowry was unaware of the entire context.
In fact, FitzGerald had already discussed the issue with Lowry, having invited him to lunch with the Irish Chief Justice on the occasion of the Ireland-England Rugby match at Lansdowne Road.
FitzGerald now sought more background information on Lowry. SDLP leader John Hume recommended a briefing from the eminent Roman Catholic QC, Charles Hill, himself a member of Lowry's Supreme Court.
‘Clever and Machiavellian’
At a lengthy meeting in late April, Hill had informed Daithí Ó Ceallaigh of the Department of Foreign Affairs that appointments to the Northern Ireland Supreme Court were "absolutely appalling". Lowry's tactics were to ensure that the Court of Appeal "would remain in strong unionist hands", said Hill, noting he was "very clever and Machiavellian", was recognised on all sides as an "operator" and had, at a recent Bar golf outing, mentioned his Dublin meeting and had "laughed and scoffed" at the idea of joint courts, promising to resign if they were introduced.
Dublin was advised from all its sources that this amounted to an effective veto on the Irish proposal. Thatcher's attorney general Sir Michael Havers said Lowry was "playing a political card game, knowing that he has some aces, and knowing that the Government knows he has some aces".
Dublin was also advised of how Gowrie read Thatcher’s response to this turn of events: it was, “curiously”, a response of “personal relief” on her part. Gowrie believed Lowry’s opposition had “confirmed her own unionist instinct” which she had previously “bottled up” under the influence of Armstrong, Howe and FitzGerald. “She feels as though she has been headed off at the pass by an unexpected sniper, and on reflection may feel that the pellmell ride to the pass may have been hasty, not fully considered and against her first instincts.”
Meanwhile, the "pellmell ride to the pass" continued with regular meetings of what came to be known as the Armstrong/Nally talks taking place in the Cabinet Office, Iveagh House, London clubs, various country houses, Barretstown Castle and the foreign office. These were aided by constant tick-tacking between British ambassador in Dublin Alan Goodison and Noel Dorr and his colleagues at the Irish Embassy in London.
When Thatcher and FitzGerald next met in Milan in the margins of another European Council, FitzGerald began by saying, “There is a certain amount of progress.”
At which, Thatcher quipped: "There is a lot of progress."
FitzGerald proceeded to give her what amounted to a briefing on the Lowry veto. He could tell Thatcher other judges had confronted Lowry insisting that, were the Irish proposal of joint courts to be introduced, they would accept their constitutional duty. “There was no question of their resigning. They have written a letter on this.”
Thatcher, clearly discomfited to be learning such detail from Irish sources, intervened: “We have no such letter.” FitzGerald added more detail new to Thatcher. He understood Lowry had also been claiming that there “were not enough suitable people to act as judges”.
Thatcher interrupted him with what reads like a reprimand: there could be “acute difficulties if you tell me what goes on in my territory about the Court system”.
FitzGerald insisted the question had “to be considered now”. Unless such confidence-building measures were operated immediately on the signing of any agreement, his critics would say that “we had been wasting our time.”
Thatcher complained the unionists would argue the agreement “gives you a foot in the door” and the constitutional position had been endangered. “They will say that the door has been opened. Under the agreement there will be an institutionalised right to consultation. You will be there. Each side must understand the other if this thing is to work.”
FitzGerald then listed his complaints of how British governments had lacked resolution since 1969, noting it was always "too little and too late". FitzGerald warned that Libya's Colonel Gadafy was "deeply involved", was backing the IRA with millions of pounds and was "trying to manipulate the Irish state in that way." This represented a strategic threat to Britain's security.
By now FitzGerald was in full flight. There are very few transcripts of Thatcher summits where she is in listening mode for such a sustained lecture. One may only hope that FitzGerald had remembered Armstrong’s warning that Thatcher did not always understand what he was saying “because of the rapidity of his delivery”.
FitzGerald went on: “There is a certain current flowing now. I am ready to take the opportunity and run with it. This is a historic opportunity. I do not know what history will say if we miss it.”
Thatcher appreciated the potential hostility to any agreement. “Both parts of Ireland could be in danger. There could be civil war.”
FitzGerald then elaborated on how sensitive the policing issue could be. He cited the recent promotion to one of the highest offices of a policeman who had been involved in the notorious 1969 police attacks in which a child had been killed in Divis Flats and two streets of Catholics in west Belfast burned out.
“What kind of sensitivity is that? Do you think that a minority community can support a police force where that sort of thing happens?”
Thatcher replied: “I am sure that Douglas Hurd would never . . .”
FitzGerald interrupted: “That is the very point. Someone is not telling him.”
FitzGerald had “serious doubts” about how Hurd was being briefed by the Northern Ireland Office. He was not suggesting “a witch hunt”, but he was insisting that if the Irish were involved, “that sort of insensitivity would be far less likely”.
Thatcher offered no challenge to FitzGerald’s testimony, even inquiring: “Are there any other similar incidents of which you can tell me?”
When FitzGerald talked about a new code of conduct for the police, her response was: “Go on. I want to hear all about this.”
They concluded the summit by discussing the venue and date of the signing of any agreement. It must have seemed to the officials present that Thatcher was back on “the pellmell ride to the pass”.
FitzGerald and herself would not meet face-to-face again until they arrived at Hillsborough over four eventful months later to sign the agreement. And nobody appreciated better than the officials involved that there could be “many a slip ’twixt cup and lip”.
Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He is author of De Valera and the Ulster Question; 1917-1973. His most recent book is Window and Mirror: RTE Television:1961-2011.
* This article was amended on December 30th, 2015. Michael Lillis was head of the Anglo-Irish division in the Department of Foreign Affairs, rather than head of the department, as originally reported. The error occurred in the editing process.