Newly released State papers in Dublin for 1984 reveal how Anglo-Irish relations were thrown into what taoiseach Garret FitzGerald termed “a very grave crisis” by Margaret Thatcher’s uncompromising “Out! Out! Out!” rejection of the New Ireland Forum’s options.
The forum was set up by Dr FitzGerald to discuss new political structures in Ireland, North and South, and was attended by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and SDLP politicians. Its report, published on May 2nd, 1984, listed three possible structures: a united Ireland, a federal/confederal Ireland and joint British/Irish authority.
At a press conference after the November 1984 Anglo-Irish summit at Chequers, Mrs Thatcher rejected the three options. This was the known position of her government but such was the tone of her dismissal that it became infamous as her “Out! Out! Out!” moment.
It put at risk the considerable progress made after months of secret London-Dublin negotiations to agree a role for the Irish government in the North.
FitzGerald complained that “we had moved from one of the most favourable positions ever achieved” to quite the reverse. It would need “skill, ingenuity and determination” to escape.
FitzGerald and tánaiste Dick Spring, summoned the British ambassador, Alan Goodison, and communicated their profound dismay at the outcome of the Thatcher press conference. FitzGerald faulted her “manner of presentation” and especially her rejection of the forum “in such brutal terms”. It had been the “biggest boost to the IRA that he could ever remember”, and the SDLP was “in a state of shock”.
FitzGerald was hopeful some public amends could be made before Thatcher came to Dublin at the beginning of December for a scheduled European Council summit. The ambassador then announced that Thatcher “was not going to come to the Dublin summit – for security reasons”.
FitzGerald replied that no head of state should be prevented from carrying out his or her normal duties by terrorist threats. “If that sort of thing were to happen, desperate damage would be done to the community, to democracy and to Anglo-Irish relations.”
In the event, Thatcher came to Dublin for the summit and, in a brief private meeting with FitzGerald, claimed to have been helpful. “I am doing everything I can. I have been smiling all day.”
Challenged by FitzGerald on her “Out! Out! Out!” reply, she said: “I was asked a direct question: I gave a direct answer. That is my way.”
Political earth tremor
The voluminous Department of Foreign Affairs archives diligently track the fallout from what Ireland’s London ambassador Noel Dorr described as “the political earth tremor” which had followed her televised press conference. These papers show all the key British players, except Thatcher, appreciated that considerable damage had been caused. Even the Northern Ireland Office officials were reported as accepting “that the situation had got out of balance”.
The papers also record the contemptuous verdict of James Prior at a pre-Christmas reception in London at the Irish Embassy. Dorr reported Prior as “very sharp” in his references to Thatcher: “She doesn’t know anything.”
Dorr had his own concerns about Thatcher’s level of knowledge on Northern Ireland and discussed her frankly with a key British negotiator David Goodall on December 7th.
He had been reading the account of Thatcher’s contribution at the Chequers summit and was especially struck by her “incomprehension” on why the minority in Northern Ireland “required special political arrangements” compared with other European minorities. This seemed to Dorr to raise “a serious worry about a very basic lack of understanding of the nature of the problem”.
Admitting that Irish politicians and officials had a tendency to delve back into history to too great an extent, he complained “she seemed to have no comprehension at all of the historic dimension of the problem” and without such a sense, “it was difficult to see how she could bring herself or be brought to agree to the fairly substantial measures that were necessary to address it”.
Dislike of unionists
Goodall did little to defend Thatcher from this charge, save to say that she had largely been making “debating points which did not necessarily reflect her whole outlook”. Her starting point was unionist, “though she does not at all like the unionists”.
Goodall then confided his assessment of the British politicians most closely concerned with Northern Ireland policy. Thatcher was “still interested in the effort to do something at a deeper level but she does not know how to get there” and it was her “impatience” which could lead her into difficulties.
He reckoned new Northern secretary Douglas Hurd on the other hand was not in favour of trying to act at a “deeper level”, with foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe probably “interested to see if such an effort could be made”. Dorr later reported his detailed impressions of Howe, whom he rated as the British minister “most sympathetic to our concerns”. If anyone was to play what he termed the “Carrington role” of bringing Thatcher along “despite her occasional baulkiness, which Carrington played on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe it could be he”.
Howe had echoed Goodall’s verdict that Thatcher had lapsed back to debating points at the Chequers summit which “did not reflect her true considered feeling on the subject”. And he advised that the Irish should best think of the summit as educational for Thatcher and not forget that the amount of detailed exposure to the problem which she had got at Chequers “was in many respects probably greater than she had ever had before”.
Howe’s view was that Thatcher was concerned about Northern Ireland. But she was “very cautious about what to do – and is particularly so until she can see clearly where she would end up”.
As 1984 closed, Michael Lillis, head of the Anglo-Irish section at Foreign Affairs drafted “a purely personal view”. He allowed that some of the opinions might be thought “to range beyond the normal territory of bureaucracy” but hoped “that, in the difficult circumstances we now face, such ‘excesses’ might be indulged”.
He ruefully concluded it was optics and not content which then seemed to matter in Anglo-Irish relations and, as someone who had worked so hard on a rational, pragmatic and bespoke agreement, he could be forgiven if he found the way forward difficult to chart. On the last day of 1984, he drafted a paper for his colleagues. A policy of “retreat from initiatives” was tempting, but he concluded that there was “no tolerable alternative to a positive activist policy”.
The Irish side “should try to restore credibility” by engaging in a sequence of summits, “each of which would be presented as part of a continuing process and each of which would gradually restore and reinforce credibility”.
It would surely be wisest to withhold the major elements, the joint arrangements and devolution, until the later phase “when their real substance could be more advantageously ‘sold’, while anticipating them in the earlier successive communiques”.
This proved prescient. Chance can play an extraordinary role in history. So who is to say that the “seismic shift” caused by Thatcher with her “Out! Out! Out!” debacle did not somehow accelerate and focus the efforts of the players in the talks on Northern Ireland led by Irish government secretary Dermot Nally and British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong? Within 12 months they resulted in the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement signed at Hillsborough in November 1985.
Some measure of the nationalist gains in that agreement was the mammoth unionist rally against it in Belfast which was likened to the anti-Home Rule rally of 1912. And it was the failure of this “Ulster says No!” protest which helped to persuade Northern nationalists that their gains at the Hillsborough agreement must indeed be substantial. The “Irish dimension” had finally found expression.