Peter Barry: the man who helped cajole the Iron Lady into Anglo-Irish Agreement

Business success of the Barry’s Tea owner was secondary to his political impact

Peter Barry, who died on Friday, aged 88, had a long career in politics but will be chiefly remembered for his contribution to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, which transformed relationships between the Irish and British governments and ultimately paved the way for peace in the North.

Barry was an extremely successful businessman, transforming the local family tea business into a major national brand, recognised by Irish people the world over.

For two decades he combined his business interests with a political career that brought him quickly to national prominence, twice to proximity to the Fine Gael leadership and – most productively of all – to the Department of Foreign Affairs in the government led by Garret FitzGerald in 1982-87.

A TD for Cork since 1969 and member of the cabinet since 1973, Barry was ready to contest the leadership of the party against FitzGerald when Liam Cosgrave announced his retirement after Fine Gael's defeat at the 1977 general election. However, when he compared notes on support with his rival before the vote – it was a more gentlemanly era in politics then – it became clear to him that FitzGerald had commanding support. In the circumstances, Barry thought he should support him, and withdrew in his favour. FitzGerald was elected unopposed.

A decade later, when FitzGerald resigned, Barry put himself forward for the leadership, but was defeated by Alan Dukes. He remained a TD for a further decade, retiring in 1997 when his daughter Deirdre Clune succeeded him in the seat.

Tumultuous politics

Barry was a key ally of FitzGerald’s during the tumultuous politics of the 1980s, not just on the Northern issue, but also on the liberal agenda pushed by FitzGerald, for which, as a natural conservative, his support in the party was crucial. He was deputy leader of Fine Gael, and became tánaiste briefly after

Labour

withdrew from government in early 1987.

An old-style Cumann na nGaedheal nationalist, his concern for Northern affairs was evident from his first days as a TD. Soon after being elected as a TD, he travelled to Derry and knocked on John Hume’s door unannounced.

"I told him that a lot of people down south who didn't know anything about the North were making fiery speeches, but I wanted to meet people who were affected by it," he later told The Irish Times.

"So he took me around Derry and then he gave me an introduction to people in Belfast. I heard first-hand what nationalists had to put up with. I described it later as the 'nightmare of the nationalists', and it was true. They had an awful time."

Unionists could smell his Irish nationalism, and he became a figure of odium for them.

When FitzGerald became taoiseach in 1982, Barry sought the Department of Foreign Affairs on condition that he was given responsibility for the North, which had been run from the taoiseach's department under Charles Haughey. FitzGerald agreed, though as taoiseach he would become intimately involved in the Northern problem, dealing directly with Margaret Thatcher and eventually cajoling her – with the active collaboration of her most senior officials – into the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

It was a measure of FitzGerald’s and Barry’s political and diplomatic skills that they persuaded the most dogmatic politician of the era into an agreement with which she was never wholly comfortable and which she would subsequently repudiate in retirement.

Vital contributions

Barry would later modestly play down his own role in deference to FitzGerald’s contribution in bringing Thatcher around, but contemporary accounts record his vital contributions.

He was close to and commanded the respect of Northern nationalist leaders, and developed a particularly close relationship with his British counterpart Geoffrey Howe, who had not yet reached the state of alienation from Thatcher that would freeze their relations towards the end of his term as foreign secretary. In addition Barry helped in and directly supervised the crucial contacts between officials on either side: Dermot Nally, Michael Lillis and Sean Donlon on the Irish side, and Robert Armstrong and David Goodall in Whitehall.

“I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was necessary to do it,” he said later. “I don’t say my role was significant, but it was one more shoulder to a very rusty wheel.” Others gave him more credit.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement changed the course of Irish history for the better, and Peter Barry's substantial role in bringing it about was the great achievement of his life in politics. But as the tributes this weekend testify, his widespread popularity in Cork and in Leinster House rested more on his personal qualities than his political achievements.

Barry’s involvement in politics appeared to stem more from a sense of noblesse oblige than any burning ambition, and his career was marked by an obvious commitment to public service.

He was a patrician, gentleman politician of a type now largely extinct.