Thatcher told FitzGerald there would be no problem – then came ‘Out! Out! Out!’

Dublin wanted more than ‘mere consultation’ on Northern Ireland

Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher at a December 1984 European Council meeting in Dublin the month after Thatcher rejected the New Ireland Forum report. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher at a December 1984 European Council meeting in Dublin the month after Thatcher rejected the New Ireland Forum report. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

 

Anglo-Irish relations had two dominant political players in 1984. Both Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald enjoyed secure majorities, with their next general elections some years away.

But whereas Thatcher was uncertain about the prudence of taking any Northern Ireland initiative, FitzGerald was impatient to intervene on an issue which had been a lifelong preoccupation, and was now a cause of great anxiety as he witnessed the increasing alienation of the Northern nationalists.

There was another factor favouring an initiative. Thatcher admired FitzGerald’s constitutional crusade to modernise the Republic. At their summit in November 1984 she would tell him: “We like you. We want to deal with you, and not with that other man,” a clear reference to Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey.

But Thatcher had often cautioned her colleagues to “go slowly” on Northern Ireland. It was, she told FitzGerald at a meeting in Downing Street in September 1984, a matter of “mythology, folklore and fear”. Later she admitted “we are walking on eggs”.

Thatcher was referring to the detailed exploratory talks which both leaders had sanctioned between the most senior civil servants in London and Dublin to explore whether a worthwhile initiative might be taken in Anglo-Irish relations.

Essentially this was to give substance to what had been known for the previous decade as the Irish dimension, a constructive role for the Dublin government. New detail about these talks emerges in the 1984 State papers released today.

On the British side was the secretary to the cabinet, Sir Robert Armstrong and his deputy David Goodall; and on the Irish side, the government secretary Dermot Nally, and Michael Lillis, who headed the Anglo-Irish division in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There can have been few episodes in Anglo-Irish relations when such a sustained effort was made to understand the challenge of governing Northern Ireland and to fashion an original policy in response.

At a day-long unpublicised meeting in Iveagh House in Dublin in September, Armstrong said he had been struck by something which FitzGerald had once said to Thatcher about these Nally-Armstrong discussions “that they were not really negotiations but rather an attempt to look in common at a problem which we share”. Armstrong believed “that described the British approach very well”.

Nally also accepted that the political instrument they were attempting to construct would necessarily be “most peculiar”. He had been impressed by an earlier point by Armstrong that any agreed structures “would be without precedent”.

Armstrong said that he was now “not retreating” from that statement. While ultimate sovereignty would remain with Westminster, he would defend the proposed role for the Irish government “as an exercise of political wisdom”, preventing the alienation of 500,000 people in Northern Ireland.

Confidentiality was paramount, and care had been taken that exploratory papers were not initially circulated to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in Belfast. When the NIO was eventually briefed on the progress already made, Goodall admitted “serious conflict” followed with “bitter overtones” in Whitehall.

This resulted in a new British paper envisaging a diminished role for the Irish government which proved wholly unacceptable to Dublin.

Lillis sent the British a detailed text aimed at “securing significant changes” in their description of the Irish role, “while at the same time trying to avoid driving the British out of the game at this stage”.

Lillis reckoned it was “essential to avoid detail” in his document as it was “almost certain” to be read by Thatcher.

Persuasive argument

In response, Goodall argued it was a time for both sides to “hold their nerve”. He himself suggested “the moment was right for an historic move”. Goodall admitted his own position was “not an easy one as he and Armstrong sought to pull the prime minister in one direction with help from [Geoffrey] Howe against the opposition of [Douglas] Hurd and the NIO”.

Howe was British foreign secretary and Hurd was the incoming Northern Ireland secretary.

Meanwhile, Armstrong privately advised the Irish ambassador in London, Noel Dorr, to strongly urge FitzGerald that he should not discuss a detailed text with Thatcher.

“In that case she will ‘get her teeth in like a lawyer’. Far better to talk more broadly of ideas and what should be done – not on the basis of a text.”

Lillis, when advising FitzGerald on the eve of the Anglo-Irish summit held in November 1984, echoed this advice: it was “critically important” that FitzGerald avoid “a drafting contest” with Thatcher which could only have one outcome – “narrowing the parameters for negotiation” .

Lillis added that “those well intentioned on the British side” had advised that Thatcher had “a considerable distaste” for the complexities of the Northern Ireland problem but had “a strong sense of her historic role”; and that it was the latter which was most likely to motivate her.

Consultation

The summit took place at Chequers on the morning of November 19th.

In Nally’s account, he noted both leaders “spoke rapidly and vigorously”, the tone of the meeting being “at times particularly robust.” FitzGerald laid great emphasis on the alienation of the Northern nationalists and the danger that “as a counsel of despair”, they might abandon the constitutional path and vote Sinn Féin.

Thatcher expressed no sympathy for the minority’s rights.

“She cited the Macedonians, the Croats, the Serbs, the Sudetan Germans as examples of minorities who were not, as of right, given particular prerogatives.” These European minorities did not make claims such as those of the minority in Northern Ireland, and she also wondered whether a possible answer “might not simply be a redrawing of boundaries”.

FitzGerald argued that would be “a fatal mistake”, and elaborated on the possibility of substantial Irish involvement in policy on policing, law and wider political arrangements. This would be through a Joint Security Commission whose Southern representatives would include the Irish minister for justice, the departmental secretary and the Garda commissioner.

FitzGerald insisted the Irish role could not be confined to security; “the whole idea would be shot down simply because we would be seen ‘as helping you along’.”

In reply, Thatcher said “joint authority or anything like it was totally out”. The unionists would characterise it as “giving up your constitutional claim but you are coming across the Border and don’t really need the claim. That would put us well on the way to civil war.”

FitzGerald insisted the Irish side had a difficulty with mere “consultation”. He had been considering a system where, if both British and Irish ministers failed to find agreement, “there would be appeal to the two prime ministers” .

Joint authority

There followed a plenary session with Dick Spring, Peter Barry, Howe and Hurd included. This covered much the same ground, and was marked by a hectoring, school-mistressy tone from Thatcher. On one occasion when Barry defended the right of the Northern nationalists to be involved in the government of Northern Ireland, Thatcher interrupted him with a complete non-sequiter, a short lecture on why her party always insisted on limiting government functions to defence, law and finance. And the Irish note-taker comments that she had made this interruption “threateningly”.

But the most telling exchange was when she stopped FitzGerald when he spoke of the putative Irish role as “involving the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland”.

“Involving?” she interrupted. “I never used that word and I never authorised anyone to use it on my behalf.”It was not “a word she could live with”.

And then turning to Armstrong, she asked: “Robert, have you been using that word? Has it appeared in documents? I remember that at a previous meeting certain people (at this point she directed her gaze at Mr Dermot Nally and pointed her finger accusingly at him) slipped in words in a communiqué which subsequently got me into great difficulties.”

This was a reference to the phrase “the totality of relationships between these islands” after the May 1980 Haughey-Thatcher summit in Dublin.

“That will not happen again,” warned Thatcher. “I will never let anything into a communiqué without going over it word by word.”

Irish position

And he added, what he surely knew was a fib: that it had “not been used by the British side”. Thatcher closed this heated exchange, contenting herself with one word: “Good.”

Armstrong remained silent and allowed the danger to pass. The truth was that the term involvement to describe Dublin’s role had been used repetitively in the Nally/Armstrong talks, often by Armstrong himself. At the conclusion of the all-day meeting at Iveagh House in September, each side had agreed to exchange papers, one of them covering “the involvement of the Irish government in the government of Northern Ireland”.

Thatcher began and ended this session by telling FitzGerald he looked depressed whereas she claimed at the conclusion to be quite otherwise, indeed pleased to be “tackling the problem in detail for the first time”. Perhaps her elation came from the fact that she was at last beginning to understand something of the issue. She called it “the best discussion we have ever had”.

After lunch both leaders travelled to London for separate press conferences. Thatcher had already reassured FitzGerald she did not want to cause him problems “back home”.

But that was just what was about to happen when, towards the end of her press conference, she rejected the three options in the report of the New Ireland Forum: a united Ireland, a federal/confederal Ireland and joint authority. This was the known position of her government but such was the tone of her dismissal that the broadcast became infamous as her “Out! Out! Out!” moment.

This triggered such anger among Irish nationalists that it threatened all the painstaking work of the previous 18 months.

But FitzGerald was determined not to give up and within weeks he was using the opportunity of a meeting with Thatcher at a European Council meeting in Dublin in December to restore relations and maintain the Irish pressure which would lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.