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Dublin: 3°C Monday 25 January 2021

Haughey intervened over detention of British journalists during Falklands crisis

The Taoiseach was asked to provide assistance as Ireland was looked upon favourably by Buenos Aires during the Falkland Island conflict.

Members of A Company : 40 Royal Marine Commandos  on the deck of the carrier HMS Hermes as she heads south for the Falkland Islands with the British naval task force.
Members of A Company : 40 Royal Marine Commandos on the deck of the carrier HMS Hermes as she heads south for the Falkland Islands with the British naval task force.
Image: CLEAVER MARTIN CLEAVER/PA Archive/Press Association Images

AN TAOISEACH CHARLES Haughey was thanked by the British Sunday Times for the part he played in the safe return of three British journalists from the Falkland Islands.

However, State Papers have revealed that he was advised not to press the issue too hard as it could “only succeed in irritating the…very tense and insecure Argentine authorities”.

Haughey asked the Ambassador in Buenos Aires to call on the appropriate people and express Ireland’s anxiety about the detention of three correspondents, accused of espionage at the outbreak of the conflict in 1982.

He did so after receiving a letter from Cal McCrystal, another journalist at the London newspaper, on 25 May.

Written on headed paper, McCrystal’s letter details the arrest and detention of Simon Winchester – a correspondent with The Sunday Times – and Ian Mather and Tony Prime of The Observer in Ushuaia.

The writer assured the Taoiseach that the activities the three men were carrying out were purely journalistic in nature.

“While we have no clear evidence for asserting that the judicial process may be influenced by political considerations, we are nevertheless concerned for their welfare and of the possibility that pursuit of journalistic assignment may result in their being found guilty of spying against the Republic of Argentina,” he wrote.

“That concern has prompted this letter to you.

“While I fully realise that you are intensely preoccupied with matters of much greater moment, I hope that you might consider the possibility of adding your voice to the numerous appeals being made on the three journalists’ behalf.

Since Ireland is among those nations which are not regarded with disfavour in Buenos Aires, I am confident that any representation you might care to make in this matter would be most carefully considered by the Argentine authorities.

On the 7 July 1982, McCrystal sent a telegram to thank the Taoiseach for his intervention in the matter.

“As you will know, the three British journalists on whose behalf you so generously intervened some weeks ago have been released on bail from prison in Argentina. All of us are deeply grateful for your help in the campaign which undoubtedly brought this about.”

Haughey responded by letter, stating that he wished “we could have done more from this end when things were critical but ‘all’s well that ends well’”.

Confidential documents between the Irish Ambassador in Argentina and the Taoiseach’s Assistant Secretary reveal what he meant by the line.

A telegram sent in early June had advised the Taoiseach that pressing the issue further “would not bring positive results”.

“The omens are not good, particularly with the battle for Port Stanley apparently about to begin,” said the Ambassador from Buenos Aires. “In this content [sic], I consider that it is highly unlikely that even strong sustained pressure from Ireland could secure their release.”

One possible solution cited the suggestion of contacting the British-interests section of the Swiss embassy “with a view to seeking access to their dossier in the case of that informed and meaningful discussion could take place with the authorities”.

However, the Ambassador added, “Such contact, however, would, not I feel help our general interests here.”

Days later, he told Assistant Secretary MacKernan that a reliable source close to the Interior Minister in Argentina indicated that the authorities believed the three men should be bailed.

“[The source] said the Federal Judge in the case was likely to allow them to go to Buenos Aires in about two weeks time or perhaps even sooner and to stay there awaiting the trial which should take place about three months later. They would be allowed to move freely in BA subject to a guarantee by the Swiss embassy that they would not leave the country. This was the best that could be done at this time.”

The men were released on 17 June.

Since the ordeal, Mather has written about the “highly effective international campaign” that was organised on their behalf. It is understood that 600 telegrams of protest were sent to Argentine authorities. The Observer writer was never officially found guilty or innocent of espionage as the statute of limitations expired seven years after he left the country on bail (they were eventually granted bail, with freedom to leave).

Other documents show that journalists in London were not happy with the briefings given to them by British authorities at the outset of the conflict in the Falklands. They complained that there was “more information available in Buenos Aires or in Washington than in London” and that too much of what was given to them was “colour” pieces.

See National Archives, References 2012/90/866-875; 2012/59/936; 2012/59/16-17; 2012/59/66-68; 2012/59/71-72

Read an account of Mather’s detention here>

1982 State Papers: Haughey Government in row over royal baby message>

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