Sir Robert Armstrong: ‘Nothing will ever be the same again in NI’

State papers 1986: UK secretary said Anglo-Irish Agreement resulted in ‘fundamental change’

British Cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong in 1986.

British Cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong in 1986.

 

In any assessment of the historic importance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Irish diplomats who had delivered it in November 1985 paid special attention to the opinions of British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, who had done so much to persuade prime minister Margaret Thatcher to sign it in the first place.

In September 1986, Armstrong confided to Irish ambassador to London Noel Dorr that the agreement had resulted in “a fundamental change”, adding that “nothing will ever be the same again in Northern Ireland”.

Although it was taking a long time for the Unionists “to adjust to that and accept it”, he thought it right that this process “be allowed to work itself through fully”, counselling patience until this happened.

But within days , Armstrong was telling Dorr that a cornerstone of Dublin’s policy, the proposal for three-judge courts in Northern Ireland, had been denounced at the special Cabinet sub-committee by Viscount Hailsham, who as lord chancellor, had responsibility for the judiciary.

It was, said Armstrong, “a case of all the guns and the battleship blazing”.

Richard Ryan of the London embassy staff had already been given a more detailed account “in strictest confidence” by John Houston, political adviser to foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe.

Hailsham had made an “extraordinary, impassioned and emotional” appeal, arguing that the Northern Ireland judiciary, “these brave men”, were “owed something”, Houston reported.

Yet the introduction of three-judge courts would be to “impugn their integrity and to insult them”. Were they to be “given the back of the hand by the Government just to give a sop to Dublin?”

Attorney general Sir Michael Havers “unexpectedly” agreed. Although it was felt he “had no good reason to go crusading on this issue”, Houston felt Havers, “who wants Hailsham’s job more than anything on earth, was doing Hailsham’s work for him.” And Whitelaw, who had been “vacillating back and forth on this issue”, also came down against.

Northern Ireland secretary Tom King, “to the surprise of everyone”, had submitted a paper supporting three-judge courts.

Howe had agreed, as had Hurd, “very strongly”. Thatcher, in Houston’s judgement, was “very affected by the wily Hailsham’s argument”; and this meant taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s prospects of carrying his argument on this question were “grim”.

‘Friendly tip-off’

Dorr gleaned further detail from Tom King when he met him at the Conservative Party conference some days later. King professed to be giving Dorr “a friendly tip-off about some measure of resentment aroused in certain quarters on the British side, by the remarkable extent [his words] to which we have now penetrated the British decision-making system.”

Dorr reminded Iveagh House of the accepted convention in Britain that the mere existence of Cabinet sub-committees, still less their subject matter or conclusions, should not be publicly referred to.

The question for Dorr was whether King was “giving vent to his own suspicious disgruntlement” or whether he was “echoing to me” the resentment of other committee members.

Dorr’s interpretation was that King was “suspicious of our easy access and slightly resentful of it”. Dorr was inclined to put this down “largely to King’s own character”.

And Dorr reported that Havers was also “a bit taken aback” about how much the Irish knew of the British decision-making process.

But Dorr did not think his embassy staff should be “frightened off” from their endeavours as there was “nothing in the manner of our lobbying” which should cause any resentment.

The 1986 files are replete with reassurances from Thatcher that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be implemented.

This was as much her insistence that she would not be intimidated by Unionist or Loyalist blackmail as by any indication on her part she thought it was delivering what she had been promised.

But after a year of the agreement, Ted Smyth of the London embassy offered his personal observations of the prospects for the agreement for the short-term future.

He believed Thatcher could not be taken for granted.

“For even with Mrs Thatcher none of the old certainties prevail: the lady who was ‘not for turning’ now shows distinct rudder problems on sacrosanct public expenditure policies because of growing public criticism.”

Smyth added that if the British public saw no major improvement in security “that too will affect her commitment”.

And this was another reason why the Irish government would have to demonstrate “again and again to either a sceptical or indifferent British audience that it is able to deliver handsomely on its side of the bargain”.

In a paper The Political Situation in Northern Ireland – one year on to mark the anniversary of the Hillsborough signing, the Anglo-Irish Section of the DFA stated that the majority of Unionists were still opposed to the agreement and believed it could be destroyed.

That it amounted to joint authority had initially taken hold amongst them and had “not yet been dispelled”.

Shock to ordinary Unionists

The agreement had come as a shock to most ordinary Unionists “for whom political beliefs and expectations had frozen in 1920”.

And because they had always seen politics as a zero-sum game, they could not appreciate how, if both sides operated from the basis of equality, they could all move forward together.

When Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald met in London on December 6th for their final meeting of the year, the taoiseach expressed concern as to whether he could deliver the revised extradition legislation shortly to come before the Dáil. “If we do not get this, it would be disastrous.”

FitzGerald told Thatcher that Charles Haughey, if elected taoiseach, would not “disturb the agreement”; nor would he disturb any extradition legislation if it was already on the statute book, “though he himself could not, politically, introduce it”.

If passed, the new legislation would come into force in June, without Haughey being required “to take any positive action”, that is, added FitzGerald, “if he is in my position then”.

They later went on to discuss cross-border security, with FitzGerald at one point claiming that forces, north and south, had “a next to impossible border to watch”. To which Thatcher responded: “Yes, we got it wrong in 1921.”

They concluded by reviewing the agreement. Thatcher was relieved the first anniversary had passed “without more trouble”. But it was now “like an open wound”.

When she had first signed it, she believed the Unionists would take reassurance from its guarantees. But now they would “have to settle down with it”.

Nally’s note of the meeting added the observation that Thatcher concluded the exchanges with “rather a wistful reference to whether she could continue, in all seriousness, to send young men to their death in Northern Ireland”.

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His most recent book is Ireland: the Autobiography, published by Penguin

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