NI office saw Haughey as ‘pragmatic with few scruples’
North state papers 1987: Haughey’s security cooperation was ‘no worse’ than FitzGerald’s
Charles Haughey: ‘A highly pragmatic and astute politician with few scruples and a keen eye for the main chance,’ according to an NI official. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Northern Ireland officials viewed Charles J Haughey as “a highly pragmatic and astute politician” who had “few scruples” but had also laid the groundwork of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
The assessment of the controversial Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach between 1987 and 1992 is revealed in files released today by the Public Record Office in Belfast.
In an assessment of Mr Haughey’s record for secretary of state Tom King, dated December 12th, 1986, PN Bell, a senior official at the Northern Ireland Office, said: “The present Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) stems from initiatives taken on the Irish side by a Fianna Fáil administration, led by Mr Haughey.”
His successor as taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, had “often observed [that] the AIA was the result of initiatives begun by his predecessor”, the official said.
The memo noted: “The relatively warm relations with Mr Haughey had deteriorated since 1982 due to his position during the Falklands conflict and his attitude to the Northern Ireland Assembly established by Jim Prior. ”
In an accompanying paper entitled, “Doing Business with Mr Haughey”, Bell anticipated an Irish general election in 1987, possibly resulting in the return of Haughey as taoiseach.
“Faced with such a possibility, the official argued it was in Britain’s interests “to tie any Irish government to the AIA: there is no better framework available for improving security co-operation”, including extradition.
In the case of a Haughey administration, the existence of the agreement might serve to discourage him “from taking extreme positions” about Northern Ireland.
“For example, it would be harder for a Fianna Fáil government to try to use the powerful Irish-American lobby to our disadvantage.”
However, he later moderated his stance, informing British ambassador Sir Alan Goodison that there was no question of his government repudiating an international agreement undertaken by its predecessor.
He felt that “while Mr Haughey is likely to bang the Republican drum in public, he would endeavour not to put in danger the benefits which the Agreement offered”. This was “a tricky policy but he is, by nature, a tricky man”.
In the official’s view, “Mr Haughey‘s record reveals him a highly pragmatic and astute politician with few scruples and a keen eye for the main chance. It also displays him as the Irish statesman who did most to promote the Anglo-Irish dialogue which culminated in the present Agreement.”
Time warp: Why the files are out of sync
The Public Record Office in Belfast has today released 692 previously confidential files from the Northern Ireland Office and Stormont departments from 1987.
This follows from a decision by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 to move from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule governing the release of classified documents.
To close the gap, the records office is carrying out two releases a year, the second one due after Christmas, for the next eight years. However, the National Archives in Dublin is continuing to operate under the 30-year rule, which means that declassified files from Dublin and Belfast will fall increasingly out of sync. Last Christmas, the 1984 state papers for the Republic were published.
Of the 692 Belfast files, 542 are fully open while a further 150 contain some “blanking out”, removing sensitive data which would otherwise prevent their release. Some 108 files remained fully closed.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and principal lecturer in history at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University, Belfast, and a member of the Taoiseach’s advisory committee on centenaries