Margaret Thatcher doubted Irish resolve to combat terrorism

Files from 1988 show prime minister was angry at Garda and Haughey response to IRA

Newly elected UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Girdwood barracks in Belfast, 1979

Newly elected UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Girdwood barracks in Belfast, 1979

 

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher complained at the height of the Troubles that the IRA saw the Republic as a safe haven and that the Garda was slow to share information to counter terrorism, according to new files released in Britain.

Mrs Thatcher had become angered in 1988 by what she saw as a failure by taoiseach Charlie Haughey to criticise IRA terrorism and told him in a face-to-face meeting in Hanover, Germany, that the island of Ireland had the largest concentration of terrorists anywhere in the world, apart from Lebanon, yet there was better intelligence provided to the British from all other European countries.

Her frustration with Mr Haughey is set out in a series of correspondence and meeting notes released by the National Archives in Britain. In April 1988 Mr Haughey delivered a number of speeches about Northern Ireland in the United States but angered the British by not being sufficiently critical of violence. The issue provoked a strong letter of protest from Mrs Thatcher saying that speeches in New York and at Harvard “did a disservice to Anglo-Irish relations and the prospect of making a success of the Anglo-Irish Agreement”.

Tom King, then Northern Ireland secretary, subsequently met Mr Haughey and told him of “our serious dissatisfaction about the inadequacy of security co-operation, and about our unwillingness to accept the obstruction of contacts between RUC and Garda at senior level”. Mr King also said there was serious concern over Libyan arms that had not been recovered.

I urged upon the taoiseach the need for whole-hearted operational co-operation against terrorism

The British ambassador to Ireland, Nicholas Fenn, later met with the taoiseach and said Mrs Thatcher’s confidence had been shaken as a result of the American speeches.

“I stressed that the Anglo-Irish agreement had committed both governments to work together for the defeat of terrorism. We were disturbed that the results of this were still so inadequate, eg Libyan arms being recovered, meetings between police chiefs being cancelled for political reasons, inadequate pre-emptive intelligence and constraints on operational communications. I urged upon the taoiseach the need for whole-hearted operational co-operation against terrorism, as befits two sovereign partners against a common enemy,” Mr Fenn said in a memo to London.

800 years

Mr Haughey told Mr Fenn that he may have a few dissatisfactions of his own. “[Haughey said] personal confidence once destroyed could not be restored. I [Fenn] said this was a counsel of despair. [Haughey] said that the Irish had lived with despair for 800 years,” the memo stated.

The first meeting between the two leaders in 1980 had gone well, according to Dermot Nally, secretary to the government at the time. The relationship started to sour after then minister for foreign affairs Brian Lenihan snr later said Irish unity could be achieved in 10 years and because of Mr Haughey’s attitude towards the Falklands war, when Ireland supported a ceasefire, Mr Nally said in a meeting with Robin Butler, Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary.

Before Mrs Thatcher and Mr Haughey met in Hanover that June, the taoiseach replied to Mrs Thatcher’s letter saying that he was “deeply perturbed” by some of the things she had written and rejected many of them.

“I am by nature and conviction totally and utterly opposed to all violence and regard the taking of human life as abhorrent in any circumstances. All my political attitudes and actions are based on that belief.”

In another message, sent nine days later, Mr Haughey said he was a pacifist and had promoted the abolishment of the death penalty in the 1960s. He rejected suggestions he supported violence and said the IRA wanted to destroy the state. That Ireland had to deal with the problem differently to the British “requires not condemnation but understanding”, he said.

Her fear was that it was not a question of resources but rather the lack of whole-hearted commitment at every level of the Irish government and Garda

“For what we are talking about here affects every Irish man and woman in this island. We are dealing, in a way which you are not, with the hearts and minds of an entire population. The political environment in which we act is fundamentally different from that with which you have to deal. And you will, I am afraid, have to accept my judgment as to how best I and my government deal with that environment, knowing that our commitment against terrorism is at least as great as yours and our stake in the struggle against it many times greater than yours. If our methods are different, it is because our environment is different – not because we want them to be any less effective.”

Lack of intelligence

When the pair eventually met in Hanover, Mrs Thatcher complained of the lack of intelligence. “Her fear was that it was not a question of resources but rather the lack of whole-hearted commitment at every level of the Irish government and Garda,” Mrs Thatcher’s foreign affairs private secretary, Charles Powell, said in a letter detailing what had happened at the meeting. “The unpleasant fact was that the PIRA knew that they had a safe haven in the Republic and a great deal of sympathy from people there.”

Mr Haughey said she was not being given an accurate account of what was happening and that the Garda had been reorganised and a new assistant commissioners appointed. He said there had been plenty of failures with intelligence in Northern Ireland and did not like how the Republic was being blamed. He did acknowledge that there had been deficiencies in Irish intelligence, however.

The meeting was an outspoken exchange, said Mr Powell, but without rancour, and the mood was better at the end than at the beginning. Mr Haughey later wrote to Mrs Thatcher to detail the efforts that were being made by gardaí to tackle terrorism.