National Archives 1984: Reagan visit was a focus of protests

While taoiseach in 1982 Charles Haughey fulfilled the invitation to the White House for St Patrick’s Day that had been extended to his predecessor Garret Fitz-Gerald. Mr Haughey then invited the president to Ireland on a state visit.

“There is nothing Nancy and I would like to do more than visit your country,” the president replied. “When my schedule allows it, you can be sure that I will take you up on your kind invitation.”

The Haughey government collapsed before the end of the year following a series of “gubus”. FitzGerald was back in office by the time Reagan was ready to come to Ireland. In the wake of the successful visit to the US around St Patrick’s Day 1984, intense preparations were put in train for the Reagan visit to Ireland.

His family was traced back to Ballyporeen, a village of about 300 people in south Co Tipperary, near county boundaries with Cork, Limerick, and Waterford.

Michael Regan, the president’s great grandfather, was baptised in Ballyporeen in 1829 and lived there until he was about 20, when he moved to London before immigrating to the US in 1857.

As part of the welcoming arrangements, the Irish government organised the awarding of an honorary degree from the National University in Galway, and arrangements were made for the president to address a joint session of the Oireachtas, which was an honour only once previously accorded — to President John F Kennedy in 1963. These arrangements were met with intense opposition from some quarters.

A coalition of disparate dissidents came together to oppose the visit. They organised the Irish Campaign against Reagan’s Foreign Policy, which had the backing of 27 organisations, such as the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Irish Friends of Palestine, Irish Sovereignty Movement, Pax Christi, and the Union of Students in Ireland.

The umbrella organisation included sponsors like Dr Noel Brown, Senator Michael D Higgins, Tomas Mac Giolla, Catherine McGuinness, Brendan Ryan, Robert Ballagh, Sean MacBride, and Sr Stanislaus.

The protest campaign organised a National Petition Day for 19 May, calling on everyone to sign a petition opposing Reagan’s foreign policy.

Members of the academic staff at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, passed a resolution disassociating themselves from the NUI’s decision to honour Reagan. Prominent politicians like Michael D Higgins, Brendan Ryan, Tony Gregory, and Proinsias de Rossa wrote a letter of protest to US media including the New York Times and Time.

Opponents accused his government of responsibility for death squads that had backed the murder of 40,000 people in four years.

Reagan did make some particularly helpful comments while in Ireland, and Irish authorities warmly welcomed his overall performance. American presidents normally avoided any mention of the partition, but Reagan referred to Northern Ireland on each day of his visit.

“We pray tolerance and reconciliation will one day unite Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in a spirit of communion and community,” he declared in Shannon upon arrival.

The Report of the New Ireland Forum had recently been published, but it was being largely ignored internationally, so his references to it were deeply appreciated in Government circles.

Reagan went on to suggest that Oscar Wilde’s comment on war was just as applicable to terrorism: “When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular”.

Bishops reacted as if US president had plague

By Ryle Dwyer

Various Catholic bishops reacted as if the American president had some kind of plague during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit to Ireland.

Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway took a particularly strong stand against Reagan’s foreign policy in relation to Central America. He was described in the Washington Post as “a vehemently outspoken critic of Reagan’s approach in El Salvador”. He had been one of those who had attended the funeral of the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Romero, on March 30, 1980.

Mgr Romero had been shot dead on the altar while saying Mass. There was a turnout of around 250,000 at his funeral, during which a bomb exploded outside the cathedral and government soldiers were accused of firing indiscriminately into the crowd, killing 43. Nobody was ever prosecuted.

In December of that year Jean Donovan — an Irish-American lay sister, who had spent a year as an exchange student at University College Cork — was raped and murdered, along with three American nuns, by government soldiers. Five of the military were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Bishop Casey accused the government forces in El Salvador of murdering their own citizens. He stated he would not be accepting the invitation to take part in the welcoming reception for the president in Galway.

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich had been told well in advance that he would be invited to the state dinner at Dublin Castle, but he declined by telephone without giving a reason.

Seán Donlon, general secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, noted: “The Taoiseach invited Dermot Ryan, the Archbishop of Dublin, to the dinner, but he declined, explaining he wou-ld be absent in Rome.”

Joseph Cunnane, the Archbishop of Tuam, declined to attend the Galway function saying he had a confirmation ceremony.

Bishop Joseph Cassidy of Clonfert declined to attend the Galway cere-mony.

Ballyporeen was in the diocese of Waterford, but its bishop, Michael Russell, declined all invitations for the Reagan visit.

Main events of 1984

1 Jan — The Department of Posts & Telegraphs split into An Post and Telecom Éireann

3 Jan — Michael Mills becomes country’s first ombudsman

10 Jan — death of former Tánaiste Seán MacEntee, 94, last surviving member of first Dáil

17 Jan — Closure of Ford Motor Plant in Cork announced

30 Jan — Singer Luke Kelly of Dubliners dies

31 Jan — Ann Lovett, 15, died after giving birth to a baby boy in a grotto in Granard, Co Longford

3 Feb — Patrick Lindsay, former Master of High Court, loses libel action again TJ Maher MEP

20 Feb — Tánaiste Dick Spring announces a government embargo on meeting members of Provisional Sinn Féin

5 Mar — Youghal Carpets announces closure of its factory in April with loss of 106 jobs

12 Mar — Taoiseach meet UN secretary general Perez de Cuellar in New York

14 Mar — Sinn Féin MP Gerry Adams shot and wounded in Belfast

15 Mar — Taoiseach address joint houses of US Congress

16 Mar — Taoiseach meets President Ronald Reagan in White House

18 Mar — Dominic McGlinchey of INLA extradited to Northern Ireland, following his arrest in Co Clare the previous day

1 Apr — Pilot Arthur Wignall killed when his plane crashed on a Sligo beach during an aerobatics display

9 Apr — Magistrate Tom Travers and his daughter, Mary, murdered by IRA after Mass in Belfast

17 Apr — Waterford Glass Company offered for sale

18 Apr — Des O’Malley expelled from Fianna Fáil

24 Apr — Baby’s body found on Kerry beach, which later led to Kerry Babies Tribunal

2 May — New Ireland Forum Report published

5 May — Linda Martin of Ireland finished second in Eurovision contest

1 Jun — US president Ronald Reagan arrives in Shannon Airport at start of four-day state visit

2 Jun — Ronald Reagan visits Galway, Ballyporeen, and Phoenix Park

3 Jun — 10,000 people protested outside state banquet for President Reagan at Dublin Castle

4 Jun — Ronald Reagan addressed a joint session of the houses of the Oireachtas

6 Jun — Secreto, trained by David O’Brien wins English Derby, beating odds-on favourite El Grand Senor, trained by his father Vincent O’Brien, in a photo finish

14 Jun — Elections for European Parliament in Ireland and Northern Ireland

— Brian Cowen elected to Dáil in by-election following death of his father

4 Jul — Teacher Eileen Flynn loses circuit court appeal against dismissal

7 Jul — riot in Slane on eve of Bob Dylan concert

14 Jul — Columban missionary Fr Niall O’Brien arrives in Dublin after release Philippines jail

17 Jul — Workers picket Dunnes Stores in Henry St, Dublin, in dispute over sale of South African produce

19 Jul — Earthquake off east coast registers 5.5 on Richter scale

23 Jul — Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened between Howth and Bray

2 Aug — food subsidies halved

10 Aug — Detective Garda Frank Hand, 27, murdered in Drumree, Co Meath

12 Aug — John Treacy wins silver medal in Olympic marathon

— Sean Downes, 22, killed by plastic bullet fired by RUC in Belfast

2 Sept — Cork defeat Offaly to win all-Ireland hurling final

12 Sept — ESB strike causes nationwide blackouts

13 Sept — ESB strike called off next day

18 Sept — Glasgow Rangers fans riot in Dublin after team lost 3-2 to Bohemians

23 Sept — Kerry beat Dublin in All-Ireland football final

27 Sept — Marita Ann arrested off Kerry coast with illegal arms consignment for IRA

28 Sept — The Dublin telephone system collapsed due to network overload as a result of a phone-in competition on an illegal radio station

1 Oct — Queen Elizabeth II awards royal charter to the University of Ulster

5 Oct — Women workers on strike at Dunnes Stores for 11 weeks in support of a dispute over the handling of South African fruit begin a sit-in at the Dublin store

9 Oct — Toddler Colin McStay has liver transplant in the US

12 Oct — IRA kills five people in a bomb attack at Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the British Conservative Party’s annual conference, narrowly missing prime minister Margaret Thatcher

21 Oct — Country’s first toll bridge opens on East Link Bridge, Dublin

22 Oct — The Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice Bridge over River Suir opens to road traffic in Waterford

5 Nov — RTÉ Radio current affairs programme Morning Ireland broadcasts for the first time

8 Nov — Charles Mitchel retires as RTÉ newsreader after 24 years

14 Nov — Irish Shipping Ltd is wound up owing over £100m

19 Nov — Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher meet at Chequers

3 Dec — European Council begins two-day meeting in Dublin

7 Dec — The most sophisticated naval vessel ever built in the country — the £25m LÉ Eithne — is commissioned at Haulbowline.

— Ford motorcar and Dunlop tyre factories in Cork closes.

21 Dec — Closure announced of Atari plant in Limerick with loss of 270 jobs

28 Dec — Kerry babies Tribunal opens

Cork-Swansea subsidy passed despite opposition

By Sean McCarthaigh

There was disagreement among Fine Gael ministers over whether to offer a ferry company a financial lifeline to operate a summer service on the Cork-Swansea route in 1985.

The crossing had proven uneconomic over many years, even though the Government had made a number of efforts to support a ferry service between Cork and Wales after B&I had pulled out of the route in 1983.

A new company, Swansea Cork Car Ferries, was set up in June 1984 but the promoters believed there was little hope of offering a summer service the following year without State funding.

State papers show communications minister Jim Mitchell declared he was opposed to providing a subsidy to operate the route.

However, recognising Cork’s economic problems and the fact that the city’s was celebrating the 800th anniversary of its charter in 1985, Mr Mitchell said he was prepared to recommend a once-off subsidy of £500,000 to help get the service off the ground.

He stressed the funding would be made available on the understanding there would be no subsidy in 1986 or any subsequent year.

The Government had previously compelled B&I to operate a summer service on the Cork-Pembroke route against the company’s wishes with the offer of a £500,000 subsidy to compensate it for any losses. B&I actually incurred losses totalling £765,000.

Irish Continental Lines had shown interest in operating a replacement service but ultimately decided the route could not be profitable. ICL also declined to take up the offer of a 40% shareholding in the new service being run by Swansea Cork Car Ferries.

Mr Mitchell rejected a request by the promoters to ask either B&I or ICL to provide a vessel to operate the new service to Swansea.

Cabinet documents show finance minister Alan Dukes opposed giving a £500,000 subsidy to the new company on the basis the Government was already “burdened with enormous financial difficulties in the shipping area.”

He estimated that the losses of running a service between Cork and Swansea could be as high as £1m which the State would be under pressure to cover.

The minister for tourism, John Bruton, also disagreed with the proposed subsidy on the basis that the capacity on existing routes was more than sufficient to cater for expected traffic demands.

Mr Bruton claimed he was more concerned about getting funding for urgently needed improvements at other ports like Rosslare and Dún Laoghaire. He also recognised that the establishment of a Cork-Swansea service could impact on B&I’s own efforts to return to profitability.

Despite such opposition, Mr Mitchell managed to persuade his Government colleagues to back his proposal and the new service was offered a subsidy of up to 40% of any losses up to maximum of £500,000.

Bruton spoke up for Cork chemical plant

By Sean McCarthaigh

The minister for industry and trade, John Bruton, resisted the recommendation of an inter-departmental group to close the Nitrigin Éireann plant at Marino Point in Cork in 1984.

State papers show that Bruton proposed the NET fertiliser plant in Cork should be allowed to continue its operations on the basis they would be reviewed in 1985.

However, the proposal was opposed by the minister for agriculture, Austin Deasy, who argued the plant should be mothballed due to the fact that NET had run up debts of £202m including losses of £27.6m in 1983 alone.

Bruton justified keeping the Marino Point facility open on the basis that world ammonia prices had rocketed which had resulted in an improvement in its financial performance.

He claimed it would be prudent to wait until early 1985 before making any long-term decision on NET’s facilities in Marino Point and Arklow, Co Wicklow. His view was supported by the minister for finance, Alan Dukes.

The minister for energy, Dick Spring, claimed the improvement in ammonia prices was not sufficient to justify the continuation of ammonia and fertiliser manufacturing at both plants.

The company employed more than 900 staff, including 360 workers at Marino Point.

NET was subsequently merged with a private company to form Irish Fertiliser Industries, which shut down in 2002.

British claim on sunken trawler ‘difficult to accept’

By Sean McCarthaigh

State papers show the Government found it “difficult to accept” the British government’s claim that a British naval submarine was unaware it had sunk an Irish fishing vessel in the Irish Sea in April 1982.

Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs said it was not clear why the submarine had failed to detect in advance the presence of the fishing gear of the trawler Sharelga or subsequently noticed the extra drag and noise when the trawler’s nets were snagged.

However, they acknowledged such an explanation was “technically feasible” and they had no firm evidence to reject it.

The vessel, whose home port was Clogherhead, Co Louth, was dragged for almost two miles before it eventually sank. The captain and four crew were rescued by another trawler.

The documents also record that Irish officials questioned why it took the British government 13 days before they admitted one of their submarines was responsible. They showed concern that the British had also provided no reassurance that any specific steps were being taken to avoid a recurrence.

State papers also reveal the Government decided not to seek compensation from the British government for the costs of a search and rescue mission for the Sharelga.

Civil servants from the Department of Transport advised the Government not to bill the British government for the £53,000 costs incurred by the Naval Service and Air Corps because it could open up a “can of worms” relating to who should pay for air-sea rescue services off the coast.

They pointed out the British were already questioning their funding of the operation of Irish lighthouses. The Government was also forced to make representations to the British embassy about delays in paying compensation to the owners of the trawler.

‘Shoot-to kill’ policy in spotlight

By Sean McCarthaigh

Tensions increased between the Irish and British governments over an alleged “shoot to kill” policy by the authorities in Northern Ireland after the acquittal of three RUC officers in June 1984 for the fatal shooting of three IRA members.

The killing of Eugene Toman, Seán Burns, and Gervaise McKerr in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in November 1982 raised fears in the nationalist population and in Dublin that the security forces in Northern Ireland were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

State papers show the Government’s belief such a policy existed was heightened by remarks made by trial judge, Lord Justice Maurice Gibson. At the end of the case, Gibson praised the RUC officers for bringing the three dead men “to the final court of justice”.

The foreign minister, Peter Barry, contacted the Northern Ireland secretary James Prior to point out that the acquittal had strengthened the feeling in the Republic that the legal system was heavily biased against Catholics. He warned Prior that it would also hamper security co-operation and extradition.

However, Barry’s attempt to get the British government to distance itself from Gibson’s remarks were rebuffed. The situation between the two governments worsened after Barry made a public statement in Cork on June 9, 1984, in which he criticised Gibson’s comments and the question of a shoot-to-kill policy.

Gibson and his wife were subsequently killed in an IRA explosion near the Border while returning from a holiday in 1987.


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