British-Irish relations have come a long way in 30 years

Amid a wealth of interesting material, the British and Irish State papers for 1979 show for me how good both governments were for much of the time at diplomatically concealing the depths of their disagreements, even at the onset of the Thatcher period. This you remember, was when the UK suffered two blows that naturally coloured the new prime minister’s outlook: INLA’s murder of Airey Neave in the Commons precincts just before the election that brought her to power, and the assassination of the iconic figure of Lord Mountbatten three months later. However, I suspect that the papers will go on to confirm that Thatcher’s bark at more or less anything Irish was worse than her bite, with the single significant exception of the hunger strike. I do remember the anger felt at Jack Lynch’s strange dilatoriness in taking three days to return from holiday in Portugal. Did he feel the need to respond to the Mountbatten murder in his own sweet Irish way by not seeming to dance to a British tune, in a faint echo of Dev’s notorious condolences on the death of Hitler? Or was he just tired and gearing up to resign, which he duly did three months later? Oddly enough, the British papers revealing the depth of British anger at lax security for Mountbattlen’s boat in Mullaghmore harbour doesn’t accord with my doubtless fallible memory. What I do remember is closer to Lynch’s briefing for a meeting with Thatcher immediately following the state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Lynch should express resentment at “the fact that if there is a security lapse in Britain it is put down to human error but if in Ireland it is regarded as a form of deliberate negligence or worse”. He instanced British security’s failure to prevent Airey Neave’s murder in the precincts of the House of Commons, and the Provisional IRA being filmed parading in uniform in Belfast in August. Yet when the Mountbatten tragedy occurs off the Irish coast “the nation is pilloried and the government attacked – even though the security offered was shrugged off by Lord Mountbatten”.

As John Bowman writes, the British papers reviewed by John Bew record threats including an impractical one of depriving Irish citizens in GB of the right to vote in UK elections and this little “spat”

The minutes of the meeting also record a spat between tánaiste George Colley and British foreign secretary Lord Carrington. “Mr Colley attempted to argue that Northern Ireland was an artificial creation, and adduced as evidence the fact that there had never been a change of government in Stormont. He did not deny it when the foreign and commonwealth secretary pointed out that there were many states in the world whose creation might, for one reason or another, be said to be artificial, but whose existence was nonetheless a fact.”
In the following weeks, the two governments came to a compromise and agreed a new security package on October 5th. The full details were not released to the public to avoid a reaction from the more republican wing of Fianna Fáil.

Is this the same Lord Carrington who had cheerily greeted a horrified Garret FtizGerald during the Heath era with the comment that of course a united Ireland was the only solution? 1979 was indeed a year of transition. British –Irish relations were to suffer fresh traumas including the hunger strike and Charlie Haughey in his prime. But for all Thatcher’s fire-breathing, they weathered the storms and cam through on a much firmer footing by 1985 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By then it was” never, never, never” Unionism that was breathing fire. A small testimony to the improved relations that were to lead – all too slowly – to the GFA was the attendance of Thatcher’s cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong at Dermot Nally’s funeral yesterday.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London