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Haughey rebuked British ambassador after Thatcher questioned Ireland’s will to defeat IRA

An Irish official relayed that ambassador Sir Nicholas Fenn explained Thatcher had been speaking with a “certain sense of exasperation”.

Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher in April 1990.
Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher in April 1990.
Image: DPA/PA Images

THE UK’S AMBASSADOR in Ireland received a governmental rebuke after then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher questioned the state’s commitment to defeating the IRA.

National archive papers revealed Taoiseach Charles Haughey ordered a senior official to make clear to the ambassador his displeasure at Thatcher’s remarks.

The diplomatic row unfolded in the wake of an IRA attack on Air Chief Marshall and former Governor of Gibraltar Sir Peter Terry and his wife Lady Betty Terry.

2.1548314 The three IRA members who were shot dead in Gibraltar, Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Danny McCann. Source: PA Images

The couple both survived despite being shot through the window of their Staffordshire home in September 1990.

The attack was a revenge bid by the IRA because two years earlier Sir Peter, as governor of Gibraltar, sanctioned the SAS operation that led to the shooting dead of three IRA members on the British overseas territory.

In a media interview in Budapest following the shooting in Staffordshire, Thatcher said the IRA was engaged in “guerrilla warfare”.

She said there was a question whether “we can assure ourselves that the Republic of Ireland is doing all it can to track down terrorists, their sources of weaponry and their stores of weapons”.

The comments provoked the ire of Charlie Haughey, who requested secretary to the Government Dermot Nally to make contact with British ambassador Sir Nicholas Fenn to raise the issue.

What was said to the ambassador

In a previously confidential Department of the Taoiseach internal document, released after the 30-year confidentiality rule, Nally wrote:

On the Taoiseach’s direction, I asked Ambassador Fenn to call about the remarks attributed to the Prime Minister in Budapest. I said that this type of remark could be of assistance only to the Provos and would discourage those working against terrorism.

Nally said he had highlighted to the ambassador the attack took place in the UK.

“There was no way that anything Gardaí could have done could have prevented or deflected it,” he wrote.

What we really want to know was what the comments were all about.

Nally wrote there had been a recent cross-border meeting of government ministers and Thatcher’s apparent concerns were not raised.

“Nothing said then has given any grounds for anticipating the Prime Minister’s statement,” he said.

Nally relayed that ambassador Fenn explained Thatcher had been speaking with a “certain sense of exasperation”.

Reflecting on that claim, the secretary to the Government added: “In tiredness there was often truth.”

He said the ambassador had then outlined a “shopping list” of UK requirements of Ireland.

These included more pre-emptive intelligence; better surveillance; improved communication channels between police forces; an agreement covering night flying; and an agreement on allowing British technicians to install surveillance equipment in Irish planes.

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Nally added: “I said again that there was nothing in any of this which would lead to the attachment of blame here for a crime committed in Britain, possibly by British subjects.

How could the Garda be expected to deal with that? The list he had given was a list of items which were being dealt with in another place.
The ambassador said that he was not in any way suggesting Irish responsibility for the attack and gave a personal expression of regret at what had happened. He will convey the Taosieach’s concerns to the proper place.

The newly published papers are contained in National Archives file reference number 2020/17/5.

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