Posted By: August 02, 2013

Files show how far we’ve moved in our relationship with Britain
Diarmaid Ferriter . Irish Times ( Dublin). Thursday, August 1,  2013

The files just released from the British archives in relation to Anglo-Irish
relations in the early 1980s are a reminder of just how far both sides have
travelled in recent years and the extent of the friendship that now exists after
decades of mistrust, frustration, skulduggery, failed initiatives and racial

What is also striking about the files relating to 1983 is how they demonstrate the
endurance of many of the themes that dominated Anglo-Irish relations from the early
1920s: the status of Northern Ireland; the role of violence; propaganda; the view of
the United States; the possibilities or lack of them in relation to a solution; and
whether to intervene or remain inactive.

As far back as 1886, British prime minister William Gladstone, when introducing the
first home rule bill, announced that the bill “will, above all, obtain an answer – a
clear, we hope, and definite answer – to the question of whether or not it is
possible to establish good and harmonious relations between Great Britain and

But as the newly released files make clear, almost 100 years later, in 1983,
Margaret Thatcher, in discussions with Jim Prior, secretary of state for Northern
Ireland, wondered if the British government “would ever be able to solve” the
Northern Ireland problem.

For all Thatcher’s stubbornness in public and her assurances of support for the
Ulster unionists, she was less sure in private, wondering if British withdrawal
might be tactically wise – a reminder that historically, what British prime
ministers said in public was often very different from what they admitted in

Prime minister David Lloyd George, for example, announced in November 1920 that
victory had been achieved over the IRA – “we have murder by the throat” – yet was
also prepared to authorise private approaches to Irish republicans and less than six
months later admitted: “I will meet Mr De Valera, or any of the Irish leaders,
without condition on my part.” This process led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of
December 1921.

Jim Prior assured Thatcher in 1983 that British withdrawal would lead to civil war,
which was also the view, according to Irish government documents, of some on the
Irish side, including Garret FitzGerald.

British ambassadors to Ireland regularly sent their impressions of the Irish to
ministers in London and could be insightful. Ambassador Alan Goodison in 1983
suggested that many in the Republic had little interest in seriously engaging with
the idea of a united Ireland, but that there was “a raw nerve which never sleeps” in
relation to British misgovernment and events like Bloody Sunday and the IRA hunger

This was true; Bloody Sunday had created great anger in the Republic, but in the
same year, Taoiseach Jack Lynch when asked by the British ambassador at that stage,
John Peck, about how the Irish people felt about unification, gave a response which,
in Peck’s words, “amounted to saying they could not care less”.

Another British diplomat was also accurate in identifying in the aftermath of the
hunger strikes in 1981 “the real fear of the Irish that violence could erupt here
and destroy their institutions”.

But these files also reveal that British diplomats, especially in their gossipy and
bitchy memos on Irish diplomats, could lapse into crude racial stereotypes that, it
seemed, had not changed much since the ‘Punch’ cartoons of the 19th Century.

One staff member at the British Embassy, referring to one of the most senior
diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs, complained about his
anti-Britishness when he drank to excess. “Many Irishmen become bellicose with drink
and bellicosity here has only one direction.”

The British government was also worried about US president Ronald Reaganvisiting
Ireland in 1984, which a diplomat in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office thought
would be “most unwelcome to us” because of the danger of him speaking about Northern
Ireland. Again, the continuity is revealing.Winston Churchill had admitted as far
back as 1921 that the Irish question was “the greatest obstacle which has ever
existed to Anglo-American unity”.

Of course, there is an onus on the historian to look at files from both sides of the
Anglo-Irish divide. What is interesting about these files is that their release is a
result of a British decision to release state files after 20 years; traditionally,
both British and Irish government records have been opened after 30 years. This
raises a certain dilemma on the Irish side in relation to Irish releases about the
same subjects lagging 10 years behind British releases.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD