Margaret Thatcher angered by Irish ‘inaction on terrorism’

Anglo-Irish Agreement appeared a ‘hollow sham’ after delay of IRA suspect extradition

Margaret Thatcher complained that the “behaviour of the Irish authorities in the Ryan case sapped confidence in their willingness to combat terrorism in the spirit of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and made that Agreement appear to many as a hollow sham.” Photograph: PA Wire

The Irish authorities' "total inability to act in a timely fashion" when it came to handing over to the UK those allegedly involved in terrorist activity in the 1980s, greatly angered then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, according to newly released state papers in the National Archives in London.

The papers indicate the British government questioned the effectiveness of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1988, due to what they perceived as the failure of the Irish government to cooperate on security. Cabinet discussions for November and December 1988 saw Mrs Thatcher, and her cabinet, return to familiar concerns about extradition of suspected terrorists, which had been a sore point in Anglo-Irish relations for many years.

The new documents relate to the slowness of Irish authorities to cooperate in the case of Fr Patrick Ryan, an Irish priest wanted in London for alleged connections to the Provisional IRA.

It was reported that Ryan was arrested in Belgium and found with large quantities of money and bomb-making equipment at his residence there. This was at a time when the Provisional IRA was extending its campaign against British targets on the European continent.



In March, the IRA had murdered three British servicemen in the Netherlands, which had swiftly been followed by the killing of three alleged IRA members by the British Special Air Service in Gibraltar, before a suspected bomb attack on a British base there.

When Belgian officials sent Ryan back to Ireland in late November, the British attorney general, Patrick Mayhew, pushed for his extradition to Britain. Speaking to the cabinet, Mr Mayhew, who later became secretary of state for Northern Ireland, complained that his Irish counterpart, John Murray, failed to return his calls over the weekend and to take any effective action for five and a half days.

“Effective extradition arrangements required swift decision-making,” Mr Mayhew complained, as exemplified by the fact that the relevant documents for Ryan’s arrest only had a legal validity of three days. This was despite the fact that the Irish were told that that Ryan “was undoubtedly in possession of a great deal of vital information for combatting terrorism in the Irish republic as well as the United Kingdom”.

When the matter came before the British cabinet, it was noted that the Agreement had led to much improved cooperation between the gardaí and the RUC “on a range of security matters not involving extradition.”

Ministers were also warned not to speak about the Ryan case in a way that presumed guilt, as this would encourage the impression that he would not receive a fair trial in Britain. Yet Irish authorities’ “total inability to act in a timely fashion” caused much consternation in London.

‘Hollow sham’

Summing up the cabinet discussions, Ms Thatcher complained that the “behaviour of the Irish authorities in the Ryan case sapped confidence in their willingness to combat terrorism in the spirit of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and made that Agreement appear to many as a hollow sham.”

When the cabinet reconvened again in mid-December, the Northern Ireland secretary of state Tom King reported back from a meeting with the tánaiste Brian Lenihan and the minister for justice Gerry Collins at the Anglo-Irish Conference.

According to Mr King, Mr Lenihan and Mr Collins were “acutely embarrassed by recent events and had accepted without bridling his candid reproof of the Irish government’s decision.”

Promises were made that extradition procedures would be reviewed. The secretary of state commented that the Garda had "made a real contribution in their successive discoveries of arms hidden illegally in the Irish Republic". However, they "seldom if ever managed to arrest offenders, and the Irish remained as emotional as ever in their inhibitions about the idea of handing over Irish citizens to the United Kingdom for due legal process. This ingrained resistance would have to be broken down."

According to the British army’s internal history of its campaign in Northern Ireland, Operation Banner, as late as 1988, ten out of the sixteen IRA active service units were operating south of the Irish border.

“It soon became clear”, Mrs Thatcher later wrote of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in her memoirs, that the gains for which she had hoped for from the Irish government “for the fight against terrorism were not going to be forthcoming.”