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Falklands War: Irish response to Belgrano sinking drew British anger

One of the most controversial incidents of the Falklands War saw a change in the Irish government’s approach to the conflict and a considerable backlash from the British media and public.

The Belgrano sinks in the South Atlantic Ocean after being torpedoed by the British Royal Navy's submarine Conqueror on 2 May.
The Belgrano sinks in the South Atlantic Ocean after being torpedoed by the British Royal Navy's submarine Conqueror on 2 May.
Image: AP Photo

ANGLO-IRISH RELATIONS worsened in the aftermath of the one of the most controversial incidents of the Falklands War in the summer of 1982.

Having supported the UN Security Council Resolution 502 which condemned the hostilities and demanded an immediate Argentine withdrawal from the islands as well as European Economic Community sanctions, the Haughey government’s position changed with the sinking of the Argentine navy ship on 2 May.

The sinking of the ARA General Belgrano, with the loss of 368 Argentine lives, was one of the most controversial incidents of the entire conflict and spawned the infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline on the front page of The Sun newspaper.

There were significant questions raised about the justification for the attack given that it happened outside the 200-mile exclusion zone that had been imposed around the islands by the British in April.

In a statement on 4 May, three days after the sinking of the Belgrano, the Irish government called for an “immediate meeting” of the UN Security Council, to prepare a further resolution for an immediate ceasefire.

The British were incensed by this, seeing it as an attempt to keep the Falklands in Argentine control while a diplomatic solution was worked on, a state of affairs that was unacceptable to the government of Margaret Thatcher.

‘Peace-loving nation’

At the UN Security Council in late May, Ireland sought to give a mandate to the UN Secretary General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, to forge a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Charles Haughey quoted in media reports at the time as saying this was part of Ireland’s role as a “peace-loving nation”.

This stance drew considerable ire from the British press, among them the country’s best-selling daily newspaper, The Sun, which in its editorial on 19 May blasted the government saying “as we stand at the brink of a shooting war, the Irish stab us in the back”.

The full text of the editorial – titled ‘Stick it Up Your Punt-a” – was reproduced in a telegram from the Irish embassy in London on the same day:

Five days later another telegram, marked with a handwritten note: “Taoiseach to see please”, outlined the depth of the British public’s anger towards Ireland.

The telegram states that the embassy told the Irish Press office in London that it “had received more letters on the government’s stand on the Falklands than we had on any other single issue for a long time (though I didn’t say so the last such occasion was the murder of Lord Mountbatten)”.

“I told them that most of the letters and telephone calls were not in agreement with the government’s policy and were generally of an articulate rather than an inarticulate nature,” the embassy message states.

The embassy message also summarised the content of the letters with those writing them questioning why Ireland was seen to be siding with the aggressor, pointing out that Argentina – under a military junta – was effectively a dictatorship.

‘Pro-IRA’

According to the Irish diplomats in London, the letters also conveyed claims from people that the Irish government was pro-IRA and not interested in improving Anglo-Irish relations.

Many of those who contacted the embassy said they were cancelling holidays to Ireland and were cutting off business links with the country.

“A general conclusion is that most of those who contact us wish to cut off all contact with Ireland and with Irish people in Britain,” the telegram states, adding that even members of the Irish community in Britain were calling the embassy to voice their opposition to the Irish government’s stance.

Despite all of this it noted at the end that the calls “should not be necessarily seen as reflecting the views of the general Irish community” and adding “our experience would indicate that there is a large amount of support for the Irish government’s policy on this issue”.

Letters to the Taoiseach were little better with a number disclosed in the state papers and marked in handwriting with the words ‘abusive’.

In one letter, dated 22 May, the author writes that Ireland was taking an “anti-British stand on the Falklands”. It went on to say:

In another letter, dated 25 May, Haughey’s contention that Ireland was playing the role of a “peace loving nation” was described as a “sick joke”.

The effect of the 4 May statement after the Belgrano sinking was described as the “greatest single controversy in Anglo-Irish relations for a decade” by Noel Dorr who was Ireland’s ambassador to the UN at the time at an event marking the 30th anniversary of the war recently.

Britain would eventually invade the Falkland Islands by land in late May before advancing to the capital Port Stanley and forcing Argentine troops to down their arms. A cease was declared on 20 June and Britain retook control of the islands which remain a British Overseas Territory today.

In total the war lasted 74 days and cost the lives of 259 Britain servicemen and 649 Argentinian soldiers as well as the lives of three female residents on the islands.

For further study, see National Archive Reference Nos: 2012/90/866-875; 2012/59/936; 2012/59/16-17;2012/59/66-68; 2012/59/71-72

Previously: After Falklands invasion, Thatcher sought Haughey’s ‘urgent help’

Explainer: What’s going on in the Falkland Islands?

Read all of TheJournal.ie’s stories on the 1982 State papers, just released>

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