'Totality of relationship' dominated Thatcher dealings

ANALYSIS: Haughey brought Iron Lady to boiling point in year of teapot summit and hunger strikes

ANALYSIS:Haughey brought Iron Lady to boiling point in year of teapot summit and hunger strikes

THATCHER AND Haughey were both charismatic leaders, strong-willed with a hint of infallibility in their respective – and contradictory – analyses of the Northern Ireland issue.

Haughey was the recipient of copious advice and intelligence from the Irish embassy in London as to the state of British policy on Northern Ireland. A month before his first summit with Thatcher, the Irish ambassador in London, Eamon Kennedy, sent an appraisal of the new British prime minister, then just a year in office. He painted a picture of a bossy, abrasive leader, schoolmistress rather than delegator.

Kennedy emphasised Thatcher’s lack of experience which could lead her to unwise decisions and he suggested a fault which Haughey might well have decided to exploit: Thatcher had “a dangerous tendency” to ignore her cabinet and even on major issues to come quickly to decisions “on a kind of intuition and then, as it were, to let Cabinet try to change them if they can”. On Northern Ireland, although the murders of Neave and Mountbatten had “left deep psychological scars”, this was not to say that “she would be hostile to bold, pragmatic and imaginative proposals aimed at coming to grips with the problem at last in a radical, even, indeed, revolutionary way”. This advice from Kennedy must have appealed to Haughey.

He had already told Northern Ireland secretary Humphrey Atkins that “nothing was ruled out – not even the most revolutionary or radical solutions”. And he invited the British to take particular notice that so far as he was concerned, “there was nothing restrictive, intransigent or inhibited” in his policy-making on the issue. Indeed the “important thing was to approach the whole problem in a broad historical context”. Citing Asquith, Gladstone and others, Haughey claimed that Thatcher now had the opportunity “of achieving what no other prime minister had ever achieved”.

And less than a week before his first summit with Thatcher he called in the British ambassador to emphasise that he wanted to “lift the discussion to a different plane – away from the dreary steeples” – a reference to Churchill’s complaint that the Ulster conundrum never changed.

Haughey added yet another historical parallel saying he had “very much in mind the situation under which Chamberlain and de Valera had met prior to the outbreak of the 1939 hostilities”. He suggested that the international scene was again “tense and dangerous”. He was now seeking “the beginning of a process from which the end to the present historic problem could develop”. The summit itself became known as the teapot summit because of the personal gift of a Georgian teapot which Haughey presented to Thatcher. In her memoirs she writes that he was “tough, able and politically astute, with few illusions”. She also records Haughey at this meeting as continually drawing the parallel which seemed to her “an unconvincing one” between the solution she had found in Rhodesia and the challenge presented by Northern Ireland. “Whether this was Irish blarney or calculated flattery”, she was uncertain.

During the six months before their second summit of 1980, officials on both sides teased out what was to become known as “the totality of relations” between Dublin and London. There is copious evidence on the British side that they were interested – as was Thatcher – in developing this strand of policy: this was especially the case in the aftermath of what they regarded as the “lamentable” response to the Atkins White Paper by James Molyneux. The paper was understood on all sides to have reflected Haughey’s line at the May summit.

The second Haughey-Thatcher summit at Dublin Castle in December was overshadowed by the hunger strikes. Haughey told Thatcher of a recent meeting in Belfast of strikers’ relatives which had been “taken over almost wholly by Provo supporters. The relatives were mystified by what was going on while the platform was occupied by people who had not been heard of for years.” Thatcher insisted that what had to be communicated to the strikers was that political status could not be conceded: not in the United Kingdom “or anywhere else in the civilised world”. If ever conceded “no one in the world would be safe”. Turning to political issues Haughey claimed that if “some movement could be shown now he would be confident that he could come out for a crusade to end violence – and be listened to. He would put his full personal prestige behind this crusade, and could muster considerable forces behind him. He could argue that political developments were being considered by the two governments and that while this consideration was going on, violence should be ended to see if we could get anywhere through political argument and discussion.” Haughey also suggested a conference in 1981 “to review the totality of the relationship between the two countries”. Thatcher suggested that it was “too soon” to be talking about a conference – doubtless aware that he was again invoking the Rhodesian parallel.

Haughey reiterated his belief in the importance of joint studies as a basis for a future meeting. Thatcher suggested that she would like the joint studies to have “a practical format”. According to the Irish note-taker – Dermot Nally – “She added ‘I think we need to look at joint studies’ and appeared to agree with the Taoiseach’s proposition”. While our access to this tete-a-tete is limited on the Irish side to Nally’s summary of the points made and is not a verbatim record, one senses that Thatcher was being persuaded by Haughey into agreeing to a form of joint studies to which he would give further importance in all the subsequent media interviews.

Haughey argued that if the two governments were seen to be co-operating, then perhaps the people in Northern Ireland might be able to live in peace with one another. “What was involved was a great historic move. If the situation was handled right the two governments could, perhaps, between them solve the problem.”

Haughey then echoed what de Valera had promised Chamberlain in the 1938 talks. The Irish appreciated that the British had concerns about defence. “We would fully accept these in any new arrangements.” He could reassure them “that Ireland would never be used as a base for an attack on Britain”. Thatcher’s verdict in her memoirs is that this meeting “did more harm than good”. Unusually she had not involved herself “closely enough” in the drafting of the communique and had “allowed through” the statement that Haughey and herself would devote their next meeting in London “to the totality of relationships within these islands”. She faults Haughey for overselling it at the press conference “which led journalists to write of a breakthrough on the constitutional question. There had of course been no such thing.”

That Haughey was using broadcast interviews to stitch in the historic importance of the breakthrough and that he was using the “totality of relations” phrase as a blank cheque can be gleaned from the annotated transcripts of so many broadcast interviews in the Irish files. Thatcher was annoyed. When they next met in the margins of a European summit, she railed against him. The meeting was described by witnesses as “a monologue, a diatribe”. Thatcher “couldn’t speak coherently, she was in such a rage”. But that would be in 1981 and we must wait for next year’s diplomatic papers to reveal to what euphemisms Irish diplomats resorted when describing that encounter.


TOMORROW:How Haughey dealt with the mandarins