FitzGerald to fore as diplomatic ice broken

Margaret Thatcher: No bilateral meeting with Haughey during 1982.

ANGLO-IRISH relations were seriously scarred by the Haughey government’s attitude during the Falklands War in 1982.

It was not that Mr Haughey adopted a policy of neutrality, but rather that he adopted what Mrs Thatcher and some of her colleague thought was an anti-British strategy.

There was no bilateral meeting between Mr Haughey and Mrs Thatcher during 1982. Neither had shown any interest in meeting each other. During the Irish general election campaign of Nov 1982, Dr FitzGerald stressed “the need to re-establish the working relationship with the British Government”.

“There will be no radical initiatives on Northern Ireland as long as Mrs Thatcher is in power,” a member of the Taoiseach’s department predicted on the day Dr FitzGerald returned to power. She showed little interest in meeting him after his return to power.

According to British government sources, “the prime minister feels she allowed herself to be persuaded to place too great an emphasis on the London/Dublin axis and this had the effect, among other things, of souring relations with a significant element among her natural friends within the Conservative Party”.

Dr FitzGerald was told that he could have a short meeting with her on the periphery of the European summit meeting in Brussels in Mar 1983. He hoped for a two-hour meeting, but the prime minister clearly wished to keep her distance from Irish issues until after the British general election in June.

“My own assessment is that we are being deliberately put off,” an official at the Irish embassy in London reported, “even minor requests are being rebuffed and we are being encouraged to think that the Anglo-Irish relations has no real future.”

The meeting in Brussels on Mar 22, lasted just 45 minutes. Mrs Thatcher was accompanied by a couple of her officials, while Dr FitzGerald was joined by Dermot Nally, secretary of his department.

The affairs of Northern Ireland figured prominently in their brief discussion, which was never much more than superficial. He explained that he was establishing the New Ireland Forum in order to provide support for the SDLP. She replied that the members of the SDLP could sit in the Northern Assembly if they wished, but they were boycotting it.

It was not that she was any great admirer of the assembly. Initially she had no time for it, until she learned that Mr Haughey was opposed to the proposals of Northern Secretary Jim Prior. It was only at that point that she became supportive.

“Young people in the North were being alienated from the political process,” Dr FitzGerald explained. “If the SDLP went into the assembly they would become even more alienated.”

He stressed that the forum was also designed to show unionists that the future could be less destructive than they might have imagined, but Mrs Thatcher argued the Forum could be “very, very damaging” in the case of the unionists.

The Prime Minister asked Dr FitzGerald about the likely results of the elections in Northern Ireland.

He predicted that the SDLP would win three Westminster seats, and Sinn Féin would take two. She was particularly interested in the likely fate of Gerry Fitt in West Belfast. She described as “a very very courageous man.”

The Taoiseach’s prediction proved well wide of the mark. The unionists won 15 of the 17 seats, while the SDLP and Sinn Féin were reduced to one seat each.

In summing up the meeting Mrs Thatcher said that “activities for the moment should be totally behind the scenes.” She added, “it was necessary to be careful now about what not to do, with an election coming”. North/South relations could be promoted by organisations like the Irish Rugby Football Union, she said.

In a BBC interview afterwards she described the meeting as friendly with no new initiatives. Their next meeting would again be against the backdrop of the European Council.

They only met for 30 minutes during the Stuttgart summit on Jun 19. That meeting began at 8.30am.

Dermot Nally noted that Dr FitzGerald “took some time in explaining the background to the Dowra case and made certain suggestions as to how it might be handled”.

They spoke again for some time about the election in the North and the amount of personation and republican intimidation. Sinn Féin people threatened one woman after she turned away about 240 people trying to vote illegally at her booth. She had to be driven away afterwards in a Saracen armoured car.

Mrs Thatcher was very interested in this and asked if John Hume might raise the issue in the House of Commons. She wished Dr FitzGerald to ask Mr Hume, because she could not meet him. If she did, she said she would then have to meet Ian Paisley, too, and she clearly did not wish to do that.

Although the meeting was quite short, the two leaders got on well together.

“We should meet more often,” the prime minister said.

There was considerable Irish anxiety over the possible reintroduction of capital punishment at the time.

Northern unionists were rallying intensely to bring back hanging. They were especially vocal during the Jul 12 celebrations, but next day the measure was roundly defeated in the House of Commons, with Mrs Thatcher voting quietly against the proposal that she had always previously supported.

The first full Anglo-Irish summit in two years was duly held in Downing Street on Nov 7, 1983. Dr FitzGerald was accompanied by Tánaiste Dick Spring and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry, while the prime minister was joined by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Northern Secretary Jim Prior.

“Relations between our two countries are back on as good a footing as they were two years ago,” they announced afterwards.

The diplomatic ice had been broken.


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