‘Love/hate’— the Haughey/Thatcher relationship and the Anglo-Irish summit, 8 December 1980

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

RTÉ’s new primetime drama Charlie, which charts the life and times of arguably Ireland’s most notorious—not to mention corrupt—politician, Charles J. Haughey, has rekindled the public’s fascination with the Irish political landscape of the 1980s

Charles J. Haughey (Aidan Gillan) and his press secretary, P.J. Mara (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), in the forthcoming TV drama Charlie. (RTÉ)

Charles J. Haughey (Aidan Gillan) and his press secretary, P.J. Mara (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), in the forthcoming TV drama Charlie. (RTÉ)

The 1980s will forever be remembered for their prolonged economic recession, mass unemployment, institutionalised emigration and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. Charles J. Haughey, Fianna Fáil leader from 1979 to 1992 and taoiseach on three separate occasions, was at the centre of Irish life during this time. Charlie eloquently depicts the very essence of Haughey’s character: he was dynamic, ruthless and brash. He never suffered fools gladly. The drama offers historians and the general public alike an opportunity to reassess Haughey’s political career, in particular his relationship with the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Writing in July 1980, H.A.J. Staples of the British Embassy in Dublin aptly described the connection between the two prime ministers and their respective countries as a ‘love/hate relationship’.

Initially, at least, Haughey and Thatcher had got on with one an-other. Lord Powell, a senior Whitehall civil servant, even recounted that during the first Haughey–Thatcher summit meeting, held in May 1980, ‘there was a glint’ in Haughey’s eye that Thatcher had ‘found attractive’. This initial attraction, however, soon soured.

Margaret Thatcher and Charles J. Haughey shake hands at the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish summit in Dublin Castle on 8 December 1980. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Margaret Thatcher and Charles J. Haughey shake hands at the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish summit in Dublin Castle on 8 December 1980. (RTÉ Stills Library)

‘The totality of relationships’
The Charlie series also reawakens interest in how historians have interpreted the second Haughey– Thatcher summit meeting, held in Dublin on 8 December 1980. Famously, the joint communiqué issued afterwards referred to the possibility of commissioning British– Irish joint studies groups and, most significantly, used the phrase ‘the totality of relationships’ to describe relations between the British and Irish governments. At first glance the phrase seems innocuous. At the time, however, this subtle use of nomenclature caused a political tremor.

Writers almost universally agree that the summit marked a new chapter in Anglo-Irish relations. Stephen Collins, for example, wrote that this meeting ‘heralded a genuinely important breakthrough’. Such observations are, indeed, correct. But why was this summit so important? Many believe that the meeting was significant merely for the fact that it took place. Only now with the opening up of government archival files from the period from both Ireland and the UK can one reassess the significance of this meeting, which in fact was one of the most important since the foundation of the Irish state.

 ‘Make the Eighties the Decade of Endeavour’—in fact it was a decade of prolonged economic recession, mass unemployment, institutionalised emigration and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Robert Ballagh/private collection)

‘Make the Eighties the Decade of Endeavour’—in fact it was a decade of prolonged economic recession, mass unemployment, institutionalised emigration and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Robert Ballagh/private collection)

The research findings from my forthcoming monograph, Charles. J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945– 1992, reveal for the first time that behind closed doors senior members of the British civil service, against the wishes of Thatcher, were willing to concede that the Irish government was entitled to play a legitimate role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. It also reveals the devastating impact that this meeting had on the Haughey–Thatcher relationship, causing a rift that failed to heal thereafter.

The major dilemma facing the British and Irish governments in the aftermath of the summit meeting was the media’s obsession with the wording of the joint communiqué. A memorandum prepared by British officials in advance of the gathering had wisely advised that both Thatcher and Haughey ‘must stand by the language of the communiqué in the period following and not let it be interpreted in a way that, by arousing Unionist anxiety, would jeopardize future discussions’. To the frustration of Thatcher and the irritation of Unionists, Haughey did precisely what the mentioned memorandum advised against.

‘Permanent solution to the Irish question’?

In spite of Haughey’s miscalculations, the 1980 summit paved the way for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985. (RTÉ Stills Library)

In spite of Haughey’s miscalculations, the 1980 summit paved the way for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Almost immediately the two prime ministers were at loggerheads regarding how they perceived the true significance of the phrase ‘totality of relationships’. The taoiseach depicted the meeting as a ‘historic’ breakthrough in Anglo-Irish relations. In relation to the proposed British–Irish joint studies, Haughey said that they would provide a blueprint to ‘find out what sort of institutions might be brought forward to contribute to a permanent solution to the Irish question’. He suggested that the fostering of intergovernmental-level relations between Dublin and London was a real possibility in the context of the ‘joint studies’.

To Thatcher’s annoyance, Haughey also hinted that the reference to the commencement of joint studies was a subtle indication that London might consider making constitutional changes to Northern Ireland’s political status. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, he made the bold declaration that the British–Irish joint studies would, in fact, ‘go beyond the planes of interdepartmental and intergovernmental studies to a higher plane’.

Asked what type of policies the British–Irish joint studies would actually consider, he spoke of possible new institutional structures: citizenship rights, security matters, economic cooperation, and measures to encourage ‘mutual understanding’. These studies would, Haughey said, be brought to a special meeting in London, which would consider the next step forward. ‘I regard that’, he rejoiced, ‘as very considerable progress, historic progress.’ The joint communiqué, he declared, was evidence that Thatcher realised that Northern Ireland was not an internal British problem.

Haughey’s bold comments, which had effectively (if not expli-citly) announced that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was up for debate between Dublin and London, was a far cry from what had actually been discussed at Dublin Castle. The available British and Irish archival files indicate clearly that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was never mentioned. In fact, the records of the summit meeting show that Thatcher had rejected out of hand Haughey’s calls for the holding of an Anglo-Irish conference to discuss the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. To say that Haughey had overstepped the mark is therefore an understatement.

Haughey’s remarks ‘drove Mrs Thatcher around the bend’
Following her return to London on the evening of 8 December, Thatcher delivered her post-summit press conference. By this stage the prime minister had been informed of Haughey’s post-summit comments. She was clearly embarrassed and frustrated. The taoiseach’s remarks, as noted by Dermot Nally, Haughey’s trusted civil servant in the Department of An Taoiseach, ‘drove Mrs Thatcher around the bend’ and ‘destroyed the feeling of trust’ between the two leaders.

Some years later Thatcher recalled that this summit meeting had done ‘more harm than good’. She admitted that, because she had failed to play a part in drafting the communiqué, many journalists, encouraged by Haughey, interpreted the text as heralding a ‘breakthrough’ on the constitutional question. Her main focus, therefore, during the press conference was to play down the significance of the summit meeting.

Thatcher stipulated that she would not consult Dublin prior to proposing new plans for the future of Northern Ireland. She referred to the British–Irish joint studies in terms of improving practical cooperation between Britain and Ireland, particularly economic cooperation. She said that Britain already had strong connections with other ‘European partners’, like the Franco-British Council, and a similar arrangement with Ireland seemed like a practical move. ‘There is a unique relationship between the Republic and the United Kingdom’, she said, ‘in that it is the only country with which we have a land border and it is worthwhile thinking whether one can give expression to that unique relationship in any way.’

Haughey, she said, did not bring up Northern Ireland’s constitutional position at their meeting. The joint studies, Thatcher affirmed, would in no way jeopardise Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom. ‘United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland’, she declared, ‘. . . united, united, united, have you got it?’

Haughey had failed to get it. By this stage it was painfully obvious that the two prime ministers were on a collision course regarding their interpretations of the British–Irish joint studies and the phrase ‘totality of relationships’. Consequently, the summit meeting was to leave a lasting legacy for the state of Anglo-Irish affairs. Two particular consequences stand out.

Negative and positive consequences
First, Haughey’s handling of the affair shattered the bond of trust developed between the two prime ministers over the previous twelve months. Haughey had overplayed his hand in the aftermath of the meeting. Rather than playing the long game of nurturing relations between Dublin and London through a process of dialogue and diplomacy, he instead decided to play the ‘green card’ in the pursuit of short-term success. This was a miscalculation on Haughey’s part. His interpretation of his talks with Thatcher, and particularly his reference to possible changes to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, in-furiated the British prime minister. From this moment onwards she harboured a deep suspicion of Haughey, believing him to be a political opportunist. For his part, Haughey came to the firm—if misguided—conclusion that if pressure could be kept on Thatcher for some movement on Northern Ireland he might be able to deliver substantial progress towards his political goal of Irish unity.

Second, in a more positive light, the summit meeting undoubtedly altered the playing field of Anglo-Irish relations. Although Thatcher refused Haughey’s request for the holding of an Anglo-Irish conference to consider Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, the goalposts in British–Irish relations undoubtedly shifted. Privately, by this period, senior Whitehall officials (including Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher’s cabinet secretary in 10 Downing Street) recognised the Irish government’s legitimate right to be consulted on the affairs of Northern Ireland, irrespective of Thatcher’s personal protests.

Owing to Haughey’s continued cooperation on cross-border security and intelligence and Thatcher’s commitment to fostering the ‘unique relationship’ between the two countries, British officials argued that it was now time to realise that the solution to the ongoing Troubles ‘. . . is not to be found exclusively within a narrow Northern Ireland framework’. Rather, it was envisaged that the Irish government be permitted a consultative role in finding a solution to the North’s problems, to quote the above secret memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, dated 10 November 1980.

This consultation process between Dublin and London was initially facilitated through the establishment of a series of joint studies groups and subsequently by the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council in November 1981. In fact, the summit meeting played an important role in paving the way for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985 and for the peace process of the 1990s, which was brought to fruition by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

Stephen Kelly lectures in history at Liverpool Hope University.

Read More: Their respective positions on Northern Ireland

Further reading

S. Kelly, Charles J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945–1992 (Dublin, 2015).

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