The Irish Times view: When Anglo-Irish ties were fraying

Perusal of 1988 files should persuade officials to do all they can to avoid a return to violence

Then-taoiseach Charles Haughey on the steps of No 10 Downing Street in London with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. File photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Then-taoiseach Charles Haughey on the steps of No 10 Downing Street in London with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. File photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

Brexit may have provoked some tension between the Irish and British governments but documents released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule show it bears no comparison to the naked hostility that existed between Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher at the end of the 1980s.

Back in 1988, during one particularly difficult meeting on the margins of a European summit, Haughey was prompted to remark: “I don’t know how we can get away from this constant bickering, attacking each other after each incident.”

The cause of the constant bickering was the running sore of terrorist violence and the reaction of both states to it. The archives are a reminder, if anybody needs it, of the damage wreaked by violence for almost three decades and its poisonous impact on relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

That is why the casual indifference of some senior figures in British politics to the negative impact of Brexit on the Belfast Agreement is so worrying. A perusal of the Government files from 1988 should be enough to persuade politicians and officials to do everything they can to avoid a return to the bad old days.

Appalling and distressing events

March 1988 saw some of the most appalling and distressing events of the Troubles. It began with the shooting dead of an unarmed IRA team by the British Army SAS in Gibraltar. That was followed by the gun and grenade attack on the funeral of the IRA members at Milltown cemetery in Belfast, which left three people dead and 70 wounded. To compound the horror two British Army corporals were abducted, beaten and killed after driving into the funeral cortege of the IRA members killed in the cemetery attack.

Every month brought its own litany of violence. In May three British soldiers were killed by the IRA in Holland, to be followed a week later by a savage IRA bomb attack at the end of a charity run in Lisburn which left six soldiers dead.

The discussions between Haughey and Thatcher were dominated by the violence and how to respond to it. Thatcher was particularly incensed by the failure of the Irish legal system to implement extradition arrangements while Haughey sought to focus on political solutions.

It was not all doom and gloom in 1988. Some of the positive elements of modern Ireland were also beginning to emerge. In September Haughey laid the foundation stone of the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, while in October the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of David Norris in his case against the criminalisation of homosexuality.

The importance of the documents highlights the need for further resources to be made available to the National Archives so that the Government departments now failing to meet their legal obligations to release files can do so in the future.

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