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Thatcher was a chameleon on Ireland even after Anglo-Irish Agreement

State Papers 1986: the year after agreement was signed relations remained complex

Margaret Thatcher was complicated about Ireland. This was scarcely surprising. So many of her associations with Ireland had been negative: her falling out with Charles Haughey; the challenge of the Hunger Strikes; the killing of Airey Neave; and her narrow escape at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the Provisionals attempt to kill her had left her – as she privately admitted – fearful that she would not die in her own bed.

On Ireland she was a chameleon. Her own cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, recalled how she would often emerge from a meeting with Garret FitzGerald re-energised on the subject of Northern Ireland. But following their signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough in November 1985, she seemed more circumspect. Her verdict to FitzGerald was: "You've got the glory and I've got the problems."

She did not much revise that analysis throughout 1986. Indeed, it summarised her attitude at her first meeting with the taoiseach in London in February.

Dermot Nally, a veteran of many such summits, noted this encounter had been one of the "most vigorous" he had ever attended, FitzGerald acknowledging at one point the meeting had become "slightly heated".

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Thatcher opened by complaining that the process was facing “a very, very difficult time. All things could crack . . . the whole thing could break.”

She complained to FitzGerald that some of his ministers were over-selling the agreement, claiming that it gave more power to Dublin than was the case; the SDLP was “doing nothing whatsoever” in support; and that, as far as improved cross-border security was concerned, she “might as well not have had the agreement”.

FitzGerald characterised the latter complaint as "absolute nonsense" and advised her he found her repetitive criticism of John Hume "one of the most upsetting things".

Couldn’t stand UVF and UDA

Thatcher told FitzGerald she had been inviting unionist civic and church leaders to Downing Street to discuss the situation and they were opposed to Dublin’s consultative role, likening it to joint authority.

As for unionism’s political leadership, she believed a consultative mechanism needed to be developed. But should they insist on an abrogation of the agreement as a precondition to talks, she would say: “Of course not.”

She expressed the hope her forthcoming meeting with Ian Paisley and James Molyneux would not be "an ultimatum type of meeting".

Thatcher also allowed herself to reveal her antipathy to Northern Ireland. “We simply can’t go on putting massive resources of money and manpower into the place,” she said, adding that Britain had “practically to give ships away to sell them from Harland and Wolff.”

Later she added that she couldn't stand the UVF and the UDA. "I'll really crack down on them if they do anything. They will suffer the same surveillance as the IRA."

Thatcher's chief whip, John Wakeham, had also confided to the Irish ambassador Noel Dorr that Thatcher had been "from time to time quite furious with 'the Ulstermen' and has said some very harsh things about them".

Equally she could compose herself and would never show such feelings at meetings with them.

In the margins of a European Council meeting at the Hague in June, FitzGerald told Thatcher his government was "very happy" with her solidarity on the agreement and while Dublin was content delivery could be prudently "limited" during the difficult marching season, progress must be seen to happen in the autumn. Of special importance would be the establishment of three-judge courts which FitzGerald suggested "should not be controversial".

Thatcher demurred. She worried lest the change be seen as a reflection on the existing court, wondered whether she had enough judges and, anyway, could only act "on the instigation" of the Northern Ireland lord chief justice Robert Lowry. The NI judges were "marvellous" and had done their job "despite the dangers". FitzGerald insisted that "we must have the three-man courts".

The exchanges were less fraught than at their February meeting, but Thatcher again warned the agreement had “produced nothing for us except problems”.

Such official notes of the summit meetings do not necessarily capture the substance of how Anglo-Irish relations fared during 1986, but that the relationship itself had been irrevocably churned at Hillsborough was clear.

‘Bloody mood’

The scale of that churn only becomes evident when the detailed notes of Department of Foreign Affairs mandarins are studied. Through the assiduous work of the Irish embassy in London, the Anglo-Irish desk at Iveagh House learned during the year that many of the best-informed players in Westminster believed the union was itself being weakened by the behaviour of unionist politicians.

That these views came from figures as diverse as Conservative MP Ian Gow and Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock is testimony to the extent to which the unionist response to Hillsborough had been counterproductive.

Indeed John Cope, Thatcher's deputy chief whip, had suggested at a lunch with Richard Ryan of the Irish embassy that the unionists were "shooting themselves in the feet, but with cannon!" He added that "the oft-cited man on the Clapham omnibus" was now "quite fed up with the whole Irish business and that something like a royal assassination would put the prospect of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland on the political agenda here".

Dublin would have listened with particular attention to the opinions of Gow, whose advice on Northern Ireland Thatcher trusted, although not sufficiently to stay her hand before signing the agreement. Her very signature triggered his resignation that day from her government.

However, Gow remained deeply engaged on Northern Ireland, confiding to Ryan his belief that the unionists were “stretching Westminster’s patience dangerously” and it could have “real implications for the union”.

Kinnock, as Labour leader – and at the time a possible future prime minister – talked of “a growing view” in London that the union was “beginning to rock seriously”, with the shifting of opinion among Tory backbenchers “the most significant thing of all”. Moreover, given “the sort of bloody mood” that they were now in, it might not be “more than a further short step to seriously questioning the union.”

‘Exasperation’

Northern Ireland minister Nicholas Scott was reported as characterising the Anglo-Irish Agreement as “an historical watershed” which was now recognised by the unionists who know “that things will never be the same again and that it is their fault”.

Ryan, who had sent this assessment, also prepared a comprehensive strategy of how the Irish embassy should approach what he termed “our Westminster policy”, now that the British political parties were looking towards the next election.

He argued the greater appreciation for the Irish Government’s approach since the signing of the agreement had been helped by the “pretty near hopeless performance” of the unionists.

There was “a distinct new appreciation” that Britain’s “exasperation, hard-tried patience and continuing sacrifice in the teeth of intransigence, stupidity and lack of appreciation”, had been widely endured in the Republic.

Ryan argued that there was a readjustment taking place in how London perceived the London-Belfast-Dublin relationship. Yet this changed perception was “a tentative and frail one” and could be damaged by hiccups when “we all get lumped together as ‘the bloody Irish’ or whatever”.

Also reflected in the Department of Foreign Affairs files is a general lack of confidence in Northern Ireland secretary Tom King, with little dissension from the early verdict of Bishop Cathal Daly, who had confided in February that he had found King a "totally unimpressive politician".

That same month, in an attempt to better their personal relations, King had hosted a dinner in London for his opposite number, minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry.

In an account afterwards, Dorr described King as “not very clever or sensitive politically”.

‘Tightrope walk over chaos’

He reckoned that King had been “deeply influenced” by unionist reactions and was taking them “at face value”, lacking the political judgment “to look carefully at the expected bluster to judge how far it is bluster and how far it is a serious threat”. As a result, King was “running scared”.

Also in February – and at King's request – FitzGerald invited him to dinner at the Irish embassy. King confided that he was new to Ireland "and was trying his best to learn". He admitted that he had been "rocked on his heels" by the unionist reaction to the Hillsborough Agreement. He considered the secrecy of the negotiations themselves had been "a disastrous mistake". The unionists felt they had been "treated like children" and Ulster nationalism "had reared its head" with the province "now at the precipice".

On April 29th, King paid a two hour visit to the Irish government's redoubt in East Belfast where the Maryfield secretariat was based. Senior DFA official Michael Lillis reported he now feared that such was King's desire to keep the unionist politicians in play that he might accede to Paisley's preconditions of non-implementation of the agreement and a suspension of the secretariat while talks with unionists got under way.

This could then be presented as the only “tightrope walk over chaos”, with Dublin wrong-footed if they objected.

All of this was not only conceivable but, in Lillis’s view, “very likely” unless Barry sought an early meeting with King to make it “starkly clear” Dublin would not accept any interruption of the agreement to meet Paisley’s preconditions.

Throughout the year, King's reluctance to sell the agreement remained a disappointment to the Irish side. At one informal meeting with one of the British architects of the agreement, David Goodall, Dorr expressed his fear that King did not "really have a sense of using the agreement creatively to achieve peace and stability".

But Goodall resisted the bait and although it was obvious to Dorr that Goodall had his own “very strong views on King”, both men contented themselves with the verdict that King was “the best secretary of state for Northern Ireland that we have got at the present moment!”

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His most recent book is Ireland: the Autobiography, published by Penguin.

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