Northern Ireland leaders no match for Dublin, Thatcher aide said

MP later killed by IRA thought unionism ‘weak’ and Haughey’s tactics admirable

Conservative MP Ian Gow, who was killed in an IRA car bomb in 1990. Photograph: PA

Conservative MP Ian Gow, who was killed in an IRA car bomb in 1990. Photograph: PA

 

Northern Ireland was at its “greatest moment of peril” because its political leaders were no match for the Dublin government, a close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher later assassinated by the IRA confided in a diplomat 30 years ago.

Documents stamped “confidential” and “seen by Taoiseach”, newly declassified under the 30-year rule, show Conservative MP Ian Gow thought unionism was “weak” while then taoiseach Charlie Haughey’s tactics were to be admired.

Gow, himself a strident unionist who the IRA killed with a car bomb because of his closeness to Thatcher and sway over British policy on Ireland, met Richard Ryan of the Irish Embassy in London for lunch in May 1988.

The then chairman of the influential Tory backbench committee on Northern Ireland said he was interested in potential movement from unionists amid a political stalemate after the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

‘Weak element’

Haughey’s approach in trying to reach a breakthrough was “quite coherent and understandable” unlike the “weak element” of Jim Molyneaux, the then leader of the dominant Ulster Unionist Party, he said.

“Although Molyneaux is a friend of Gow, and Gow of course stands for Molyneaux’s interests, Gow has really lost faith in Molyneaux’s capacity as a leader,” the diplomat reported back to Dublin.

Northern Ireland’s foremost unionist leader at the time “does not fully understand what he is at or what he may be getting into” or is not “equipped with enough statesmanship or courage to deliver in exchanges with Dublin”, Gow said.

Ryan said that Gow had “moved in a major way” insofar as he used to believe that Haughey could not “easily do business with the British, and could not at all do business with the unionists”.

“Gow now acknowledges that he was wrong in this regard,” he wrote.

“He said he can not blame the Taoiseach for his tactics – indeed, he had to express admiration for them.

“It all adds up, in his view, to the ‘greatest moment of peril for Ulster’ because Dublin has got its act together and Ulster has no leaders of sufficient quality to engage at an equal level of efficiency in debate with Dublin.”

Proposed meeting

During the lunch, Gow asked if the taoiseach “would be prepared to receive him” and two others from Friends of the Union, a one-time Tory grouping committed to the union between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“I probed him a little about what he thought could come out of such a meeting,” Ryan reported.

“He said they had given the suggestion much thought. They understand that there is a great distance between them and the Taoiseach as to where the long-term solution for Northern Ireland may best lie.

“However, they noticed some of his recent statements with great interest.”

Gow said he would understand, however, if no meeting was granted on the basis it would hardly “result in profound changes of attitude on either side”.

Two years later, Gow died after being blown up by an IRA bomb placed under his car at his home in East Sussex.

Shortly afterwards, a visibly shaken Thatcher told reporters at Downing Street that the death of one of her closest friends was an “enormous loss”.

Haughey said in a statement that Gow was “a man of honour, of integrity and of deep conviction”.