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Ryanair and wild geese: What the French President said to Haughey during his 'historic' 1988 Irish visit

“There is a sort of poetry about it the way you people express themselves – like the great writers,” Mitterrand told Haughey.

File photo: French President Francois Mitterrand (left) during a visit to Germany on 7 November 1985.
File photo: French President Francois Mitterrand (left) during a visit to Germany on 7 November 1985.
Image: DPA/PA Images

IN FEBRUARY 1988, French President François Mitterrand visited Ireland and made history by becoming the first French President to address the Dáil.

In this year’s State Papers release, the details of what was served during the President’s visit on 25 February and what was discussed ahead of his arrival, has been disclosed.

Among the issues that were discussed at a 55-minute-long meeting between Mitterrand, his team, Taoiseach Charles Haughey and the Tánaiste, Brian Lenihan Senior were Ryanair; milk quotas; tourism figures; and the UK’s role in the European Economic Community (or the precursor to the European Union).

Haughey had also urged Mitterrand to make “an early and favourable decision” in relation to Ryanair’s application to operate flights between Dublin and Paris, as part of a strategy to increase tourism figures and, in turn, boost the Irish economy.

A previous application by the airline had been rejected – the Taoiseach asked that Ryanair be granted permission to allow them to operate flights by the summer, and that Aer Lingus wouldn’t be affected by the addition.

Mitterand also spoke to Haughey about the relationship between the two countries, saying that “the French and the Irish are always together”, and referenced their shared interest in protecting small farmers and their united approach on milk quotas in the EEC.

In a remark that has aged incredibly well, he added: “The head of the British Government must note that others are united.”

In a latter part of the discussion, Haughey weighed in on his view of the UK government, saying quite pointedly:

… we have always encountered great friendship and support from France. I can say this here: France’s attitude has always been favourable, in contrast to that of the British. The British have never said or done a single thing in the Community to help Ireland.

Mitterrand also said:

As the EEC train leaves the platform, the UK jumps onto the last carriage.

This is possibly a reference to the UK’s reluctant application to join the EEC, and the fractured reaction to that application (a referendum on what the British electorate thought of joining the EEC was only held after the UK had become a member).

20181207_101557 Source: State Papers

Mitterrand also observed what he saw as Ireland’s more reserved approach to trade compared with Germany. Since joining the EEC, trade between Ireland and France was 25 times higher than before.

On trade, Ireland is more astute than others. You keep your mouths shut. You have a very favourable trade balance with France. So have the Germans, but they keep talking about it.

On tourism, Haughey made an interesting comment on using the French language and culture to offset the massive influence from the UK and US.

“…Ireland has the deepest interest in French culture and history. We want to improve cultural relations in every aspect. We feel overwhelmed by the UK/US cultures. The access to French language and culture, paintings, etc is most important to us to help us counter balance these influences.”

The French President said that they would do every effort to help Irish cultural institutions in France, “but we cannot go as far as speaking Irish!”

 When asked by Mitterrand why the number of French tourists to Ireland was dropping, Haughey answered that air fares are too high, and that Ireland “can’t compete with the mass tourism of Spain and the sun countries”.

“But there are so many books,” was the Frenchman’s reply. “I have come here myself. I have spent many peaceful days among the reeds. There are wild geese…” 

Mitterrand also spoke of the links between France and Ireland, telling Haughey: “So far as I am concerned our opportunities arise from something that go back into history.

There is a strong collective will as between our two countries, this springs from our closeness as individuals. There is a sort of poetry about it the way you people express themselves – like the great writers – it is like nothing else. “

Dining in style

Among the suggested gifts that would be given to Mitterrand during his visit were: a 14in Waterford Crystal fruit/salad bowl worth £567.29; a Waterford Crystal lamp worth £482 and measuring 18in high; and a Waterford Crystal centre bowl, 11in high and worth £360.47.

Attending a music event at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Mitterrand saw performances by De Dannan and Bernadette Greevy. 

Among the food served to the French president was a three-course dinner featuring a seafood starter, a salmon steak with asparagus as the main, and macedonia fruit with raspberry sauce was the dessert.

WhatsApp Image 2018-12-11 at 13.55.48 Source: State Papers

At a separate event, they dined on salmon, a beef filet, that season’s vegetables, a selection of Irish cheeses and strawberries.

Mitterrand’s dining habits are fairly well-known, an unusual dining affair between him and Charles Haughey featured in the 2015 TV show ‘Haughey’. In it, Mitterrand watches Haughey engage in an eating ritual of a small songbird called an ‘ortolan’.

The delicacy was a favourite of the late President, and it is said that he consumed the bird as his “last supper” whilst dying from prostate cancer in 1995. 

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