Love/hate: the Haughey-Thatcher relationship revisited

The December 1980 summit was to have a lasting effect on the state of Anglo-Irish affairs

RTÉ's new drama Charlie, which charts the life and times of arguably Ireland's most notorious – not to mention corrupt – politician Charles J Haughey, is likely to ignite new interest in the Irish political landscape of the 1980s. This decade will be remembered for its prolonged economic recession, mass unemployment, institutionalised emigration and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. Haughey, Fianna Fáil leader from 1979 to 1992 and Taoiseach on three separate occasions, was at the centre of Irish life during this time. He was dynamic, ruthless and brash. He never suffered fools gladly.

One of the defining aspects of Haughey’s political career was his relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Writing in July 1980 H. A. J. Staples of the British Embassy in Dublin aptly described the connection between the two and their respective countries as a “love/hate relationship”.

Initially, at least, Haughey and Thatcher had got on with one another. Lord Powell, a senior Whitehall civil servant, even recounted that during the first Haughey-Thatcher summit meeting held in May 1980, “there was a glint” in Haughey’s eye which Thatcher had “found attractive”. This initial attraction, however, soon soured.

Important questions remain about the impact that the Haughey-Thatcher relationship had on Anglo-Irish relations. Specifically, how historians have interpreted the second Haughey-Thatcher summit meeting, held in Dublin on December 8th, 1980. Famously, the joint communiqué issued in the aftermath of the summit referred to the phrase the “totality of relationships”, to describe the relationship between the British and Irish governments. At first glance the phrase seems innocuous. At the time, however, this subtle use of nomenclature caused a political tremor.


Writers almost universally agree that the summit meeting between Haughey and Thatcher in December 1980 marked a new chapter in Anglo-Irish relations. Stephen Collins (Irish Times Political Editor), for example, wrote that this meeting "heralded a genuinely important breakthrough". Such observations are, indeed, correct. However, there has been a persistent failure on behalf of political commentators and historians, alike, to explain precisely why this summit meeting held such importance.

Only now with the recent opening up of government archival files from the National Archives of Ireland and the National Archives of the United Kingdom can we reassess the significance of this meeting. The research findings from my forthcoming monograph, Charles J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945-1992, reveals for the first time that behind closed doors senior members of the British civil service, against Thatcher's wishes, were willing to concede that the Irish government be entitled to play a legitimate role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. My research also unearths the devastating impact the meeting had on the Haughey-Thatcher relationship; which thereafter failed to heal.

Dilemma The major dilemma facing the British and Irish governments in the aftermath of the summit meeting was the media’s obsession with the wording of the joint communiqué. A memorandum prepared by British officials in advance of the gathering had wisely advised that both Thatcher and Haughey “must stand by the language of the communiqué in the period following and not let it be interpreted in a way that, by arousing Unionist anxiety, would jeopardise future discussions”. To the frustration of Thatcher and irritation of Unionists, Haughey did precisely what the mentioned memorandum advised against.

Almost immediately the two prime ministers were at loggerheads regarding how they perceived the true significance of the phrase “totality of relationships”. The Taoiseach depicted the meeting as an “historic” breakthrough in Anglo-Irish relations. The British government, he said, were now willing to consider the possibility of new institutional structures, including citizenship rights; security matters; and economic co-operation.

Annoyance To the annoyance of Thatcher, Haughey also hinted that the reference to the commencement of “joint studies” was a subtle indication that London might consider making constitutional changes to Northern Ireland’s political status. Caught up in the excitement of the moment he made the exaggerated declaration that joint studies would “go beyond the planes of Inter-Departmental and Inter-Governmental studies to a higher plane”.

Haughey’s bold comments, which had effectively (if not explicitly) announced that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was up for debate between Dublin and London, was a far cry from what had actually been discussed at Dublin Castle. The available British and Irish archival files indicate clearly that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was never mentioned.

Thatcher was furious and embarrassed. The taoiseach’s remarks, as noted by Dermot Nally, Haughey’s trusted civil servant in the Department of the Taoiseach, “drove Miss Thatcher around the bend” and “destroyed the feeling of trust” between the two leaders.

In her post-summit interviews she was adamant that constitutional issues had never been discussed. Rather she said a more general conversation took place on more broad topics of the H-Block hunger strike, European integration and world affairs. Furthermore, the joint studies, Thatcher affirmed, would in no way jeopardise Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom. “United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland’, she declared . . . United, united, united, Have you got it?’.

Haughey had failed to get it. Consequently, the summit meeting was to leave a lasting legacy for the state of Anglo-Irish affairs. Two particular consequences stand out. First, Haughey’s handling of the affair shattered the bond of trust developed between the two over the previous 12 months. From this moment onwards she retained a deep suspicion of Haughey believing him to be, in her own words, “a romantic nationalist” and a political opportunist, not to be trusted.

Lastly, in a more positive light, the summit meeting undoubtedly shifted the playing field in Anglo-Irish relations. Privately, by this period, senior Whitehall officials (including Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary in 10 Downing Street) recognised the Irish government’s legitimate right to be consulted on the affairs of Northern Ireland; irrespective of Thatcher’s personal protests. Due to Haughey’s continued co-operation on cross-Border security and intelligence and Thatcher’s commitment to foster the “unique relationship” between the two countries, British officials argued that it was now time to realise that the solution to the ongoing Troubles “. . . is not to be found exclusively within a narrow Northern Ireland framework”. Rather, it was envisaged that the Irish government be permitted a functional role in finding a solution to the North’s problems, to quote a secret memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

This consultation process between Dublin and London was initially facilitated through the establishment of a series of joint study groups and subsequently with the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council in November 1981. In fact, the summit meeting played an important role in paving the way for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985 and for the peace process of the 1990s, which was brought to fruition by Fianna Fáil taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

Dr Stephen Kelly is lecturer in modern history at Liverpool Hope University. His forthcoming monograph is Charles J Haughey and Northern Ireland (2016).