Their respective positions on Northern Ireland

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On coming to power Thatcher knew very little about Ireland, North or South. Prior to becoming prime minister she had visited Ireland only a handful of times and had failed to strike up a relationship with the leaders in either Belfast or Dublin. In private, she had once conceded that ‘If the Irish want to kill each other that does seem to me to be their business’. She felt that Irish politicians in the Republic had an obsession with cultural politics rather than the more clear-cut economic debates. Her opinion of mainstream unionism in Northern Ireland was no less dismissive. While a committed ‘unionist’, she always found it ‘uphill work’ discussing Northern Ireland matters with the majority of the Ulster unionist community. She was, to quote Charlie Moore, ‘an outsider looking in . . . she wished [Northern Ireland] would go away’.

Haughey, for his part, did have a good understanding of the Northern Ireland question on becoming taoiseach. Both his parents, Seán and Sarah, came from Swatragh, Co. Derry. As a child in the strongly republican area of south Derry, Haughey had personally witnessed the sectarian riots of 1935 in Maghera and the heavy-handed approach of the B Specials. During the 1930s, at his family home in Belton Park Road in Dublin, Northern Ireland was the focus of much debate and his parents regularly ‘kept open house for friends and visitors from the North’.

Indeed, on the day he was elected Fianna Fáil leader, 7 December 1979, he boastfully declared that ‘I am of Northern extraction myself, my people have been around the province of Ulster for about 5,000 years now’. As taoiseach he had set out on a bold Northern Ireland strategy, tearing up his predecessor Jack Lynch’s conciliatory policy. Haughey refuted Lynch’s calls for an internal solution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a prerequisite to a united Ireland. For Haughey, Northern Ireland was a ‘failed political entity’. Therefore a new departure, focused on a Dublin– London axis, was immediately required.


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