The impression I’ve gleaned from the extracts so far published from the British and Irish records is that while the British- Irish relationship had a long way to go to reach a shared understanding, the Conservative establishment respected the Irish much more than the the Unionists who exasperated them with their relentless negativity. Established judgements are therefore confirmed.
Admittedly this is reflected more in the Irish than the British papers. But the disillusion Thatcher was thought to feel over the failure of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 to produce quick security results was apparently not as pronounced as it seemed.
To his own surprise, the damage caused by the resignation from the government of her close friend and strong Unionist ally Ian Gow had left him isolated with he and his friends described as “rats” by fellow Tories ( whip sources probably), for breaking with the government on the Anglo- Irish Agreement. An Irish source says Gow now felt he’d made ” a bit of an eejit of himself”. Nevertheless his old closeness to Thatcher singled him out for assassination by the IRA in 1990.
The big issue for the British was an extradition treaty with the Irish which for Thatcher personally was the main reason for signing the Agreement in the first place. Her feelings were based on defeating terrorism rather than warmth to Unionists. In this she to some extent differed from the Foreign Office and her Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong who wanted to build a closer relationship generally with the Dublin. She suspected that Armstrong had oversold the Agreement to her. Nevertheless she allowed herself to be captured by her officials in the absence of strong feelings in her party. There is no sign in the extracts I’ve seen of any sympathy with the idea that the Unionists had been left unfairly out in the cold, although this strand of opinion must be reflected sonewhere.
In turn Dublin officials were equally keen to develop Irish policy from narrowly based sympathy for nationalism to a broader understanding of unionism and deeper engagement with the British. This was deemed essential as their diplomats were under virtual siege in Maryfield, the premises near Holywood where they’d established a controversial presence as a result of the Agreement.
1987 was an Irish election year and Charles Haughey who was a fierce critic of extradition was expected to win. But sure enough, Charlie did his usual somersault in government and while he delayed and modified the proposals in the extradition treaty, it survived.
Both he and FitzGerald sucked up to Thatcher throughout.
Elsewhere the papers carry shards of interesting gossip. Running with Gerry Adams the alleged informer setting up the SAS Loughgall ambush suggests the British hadn’t decided yet whether to discredit him entirely or set him up as an effective interlocutor for a peace process. Similar rumours about Adams were spread after the Eksund laden with arms was intercepted at sea.
Ian Paisley’s stomach seems to have interested them more than his mind and a “report” that MI5 wanted the UVF to.assassinate Haughey was all in a day’s work.
Nobody talks about an endgame but an Irish source quotes Willie Whitelaw saying that if power sharing really took off, there could be Irish unity in fifty years.
The brutality of real life intruded with a vengeance on Remembrance Sunday 1987 in Enniskillen. Irish security sources dismissed republican claims that the timing of the detonation of the bomb was an accident and gave their judgement that it had been carefully planned to provoke a unionist reaction.
But “even after Enniskillen, ” Haughey complained of difficulties in passing the Extradition Act, with sections of Fianna Fail “going berserk” because of deficiencies” in the criminal justice system in the North. Nevertheless the Bill went through the Dail ; despite British objections however, the Irish Attorney General had to approve every application for extradition from the northern authorities before it could be executed.
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
Living History 1968-74
A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.
Live interviews with: Bernadette McAliskey, Austin Currie, Brid Rogers, Baroness Blood, Dennis Bradley, Baroness Paisley, Lord Kilclooney, Tim McGarry, Danny Morrison, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and others…