Major rift in relations after British sank 'Belgrano'


Analysis:The conflict between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands led to the most dramatic foreign policy divergence between Dublin and London since Ireland’s assertion of its neutrality during the second World War.

With the latest release of internal documents to the national archives of both countries we have a chance to reassess the situation, without the tension and uncertainty that marked events back in 1982. Every schoolchild knows that the respective governments were led by strong – one might even say monumental – personalities: Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher.

Neither was politically secure when the Falklands saga began and John Major recalls in his autobiography that “immediately after the invasion Margaret Thatcher had her back to the wall”.

However, the British Tory leader emerged virtually invulnerable in the end whereas her Fianna Fáil counterpart was back on the opposition benches by the end of the year. Haughey had come to power after the February general election without an overall majority and relying on the votes of the Workers’ Party and Independents: this was the time of the much-criticised “Gregory Deal”.

Initially, the Haughey government was part of the international consensus in opposition to the surprise Argentine takeover of the islands on April 2nd by the repressive military regime led by Gen Leopoldo Galtieri. Despite some historic links with Argentina, the relationship bore no comparison with the British-Irish connection. Haughey went along with the prevailing view that Galtieri and his associates were in breach of international law.

With the dispatch of the British taskforce there were rumblings on the republican wing of Irish politics. Donegal Independent TD Neil Blaney, who had voted for Haughey as taoiseach, said the government should support Argentina, “because of the continued British occupation of the six counties”. There was open criticism also from within Fianna Fáil when Síle de Valera MEP said on April 22nd that “the influence of Britain . . . has eroded our neutral stance”.

It is possible matters would never have come to a head if Thatcher and her “war cabinet” had not ordered the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, by the nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror, on May 2nd, 48km outside the 320km Falklands exclusion zone, with a death-toll of 368, mostly sailors in their teens.

British “aggressors”

First out of the blocks was minister for defence Paddy Power who told a Fianna Fáil meeting at Edenderry, Co Offaly: “Obviously Britain themselves are very much the aggressors now.” He linked it to a recent incident in which an Irish trawler, the Sharelga, was sunk when a British submarine, HMS Porpoise, got entangled in the fishing nets.

Ireland was a member of the United Nations Security Council at the time and, on May 4th, the Haughey government issued a statement that it was seeking an immediate meeting of the council to prepare a resolution calling for a ceasefire by both sides, but made no reference to a previous resolution demanding an immediate Argentine withdrawal. The statement also rejected European sanctions as “no longer appropriate”. Although ultimately there was no UN ceasefire resolution and the EEC did renew the sanctions, with Ireland and Italy dissenting, the statement marked a major rift in British-Irish relations.

We now learn from the archives in London how Thatcher requested home secretary William Whitelaw to explore the removal of voting rights from an estimated 500,000 citizens of the Republic living in the UK.

State papers released in Dublin reveal the Irish Exporters Association (IEA) told Haughey the trade “backlash” in the UK because of Ireland’s policy of opposing EEC sanctions was “the most severe since at least 1969”.

A senior diplomat in London describes how a member of the Guinness family warned the embassy that the firm might have to play down its links with this country because of adverse reaction to government policy on the Falklands and to recent IRA bombings. We learn from London archives how Thatcher told US president Ronald Reagan that “relations between London and Dublin have certainly taken a turn for the worse as a result of some damaging Irish interventions in the EC and UN over the Falklands”.

The intensity of British government feeling about Ireland’s policy shift is reflected in a Department of Foreign Affairs report on a lunch hosted by the British embassy in Dublin. “The British representatives stressed that we ‘should not underestimate the damage’ to Anglo-Irish relations that had been caused by Irish actions over the Falklands crisis.

“The damage in their view was not merely a short-term problem, on the contrary our actions would be long remembered in Britain.”

British ambassador Sir Leonard Figg prepared a report on the “serious worsening” of relations, which suggested the damage “may be long lasting”.

“Ridiculous war”

We also learn that Haughey described the Falklands conflict as “a ridiculous war, a war that should not have happened” in a private conversation with president Petar Stambolic of Yugoslavia at a UN gathering in New York.

Six-and-a-half years after his death, Haughey’s stock remains very low, due largely to revelations about his personal finances. Thatcher’s forbidding image, on the other hand, has softened thanks in no small measure to a sympathetic portrayal in the film, The Iron Lady. When the movie was released over a year ago, it was reported that, in some British cinemas, cheering broke out when Meryl Streep as Thatcher ordered the sinking of the Belgrano as it sailed away from the exclusion zone.

To observers at the time, the most shocking aspect of the crisis was the speed and viciousness of its deterioration into open war. We can only speculate as to what would have happened if the British recovery of the islands had initially failed and the prime minister felt it necessary to hit targets on the Argentine mainland.

Whereas Thatcher was enabled to assume the aura of a latter-day Churchill through her martial efforts and Haughey’s withdrawal of support failed to ensure his re-election, it could be argued that, for all his well-publicised failings as a political leader, this was, in the Churchillian phrase, Charlie’s finest hour.

Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish Times Political Correspondent

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