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The secret note that revealed how much Margaret Thatcher trusted Garret Fitzgerald

A steering note before Garret Fitzgerald’s meeting with Margaret Thatcher shows us how she was “by political preference” a Unionist.

Ireland Obit FitzGerald Source: AP/Press Association Images

IN 1983, TAOISEACH Garret Fitzgerald was preparing to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

As the day approached, a secret steering note was drafted to advise Fitzgerald on what to expect, and what to bring up at the November meeting in England.

Now made public, thanks to the release of the 1984 State Papers, the secret note reveals the state of Anglo-Irish relations 30 years ago.

It looks at whether there is any “room for manoeuvre” for the Irish Government, and “how best the Taoiseach might use that in his approach to Mrs Thatcher”.

Northern Ireland

The steering note states:

The principal approach is the widespread and, we suspect, growing alienation on the nationalist side.

It believes that the rising support for Sinn Féin will continue, and could overtake support for the SDLP within two years.

“The present level of support for Sinn Féin has created difficulties for the credible presentation of a moderate Dublin policy” both in Ireland and abroad, says the note:

The emergence of SF “as the predominant nationalist political voice within two years would increase those difficulties qualitatively and create new and more daunting problems for our Government: for example, would we be forced to ‘deal’ with Sinn Féin? And what would be the effects of such a development on the stability of our own State?”

A key short term objective in the interest of stability: “to address and reverse the tide of nationalist alienation.”

Unionist Party

It is feared that the leadership of the revived Official Unionist Party “could easily be brought to declare integration within the United Kingdom to be its objective”.

The note says this could attract support from some Tories, and that such a scenario is dangerous: “it would create a tense stand-off between nationalists and unionists in Ireland and probably, if it seemed likely to gain Governmental support in Britain, between Dublin and London”.

Another key objective must be: “to create circumstances which would inhibit a momentum towards integration on the part of Unionist and Tory politicians”.

Margaret Thatcher

The document describes Thatcher as “remain[ing] the decisive figure”.

Our information is that the Northern Ireland issue does not figure among her priorities which are now being fixed for this Parliament. We are told that she has a conviction, reinforced in recent years, that every effort of Government to resolve the crisis, only made it worse.

Another difficulty is that she is “by political preference” a Unionist and unlikely to go back on her word to Unionists. But that doesn’t mean that she can’t be persuaded, it indicates.

“Mrs Thatcher must be firstly to secure her interest quickly in action on the Northern Ireland crisis,” suggests the note. Efforts should be made “to find a device whereby she would not be required to do violence to her word”.

Listing the positive elements, the note says that “we are told that Mrs Thatcher trusts the Taoiseach”.

US pressure being “the only decisive leaverage on this issue” and the fact both leaders probably had four years ahead of them was also seen as positive.

But on the negative side, there was the assumption Thatcher would be in Government for much of the next five years, and “that she will not yield on the formal constitutional issue in that time”.

The dilemma:

Do we or do we not insist on maintaining all our nationalist cards face up on the table during that time?

Approach to Mrs Thatcher

Politics - Anglo-Irish Agreement - Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Dr Garret Fitzgerald prepare to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

If they didn’t take an approach of confrontation, what else could they do?

They could persuade her of the dangers to both countries of alienation; or to persuade her of the possible benefits to her position of a relatively positive outcome of the forum.

But the latter, it said, might involve a lowering of Ireland’s expectations.

We have been told that in dealing with Mrs Thatcher it is advisable to be concrete rather than theoretical.

“We have also been told that Mrs Thatcher may have difficulty in observing an agreement to refuse any information or comment on the content of the tete-a-tete meeting.”

In 1985, after much negotiation, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. It was the first big step to bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

National Archives – 2014/32/2033

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