Irish premier Garret FitzGerald made an impassioned appeal to Margaret Thatcher to save their talks on the future of Northern Ireland, warning that failure could trigger a civil war that would “drag down” the entire island, according to newly-released official papers.
Files released by the National Archives in London, show the taoiseach told her that the collapse of their negotiations could even be exploited by Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi with deadly consequences for both their countries.
As the lengthy negotiations on the Anglo-Irish Agreement – which was to give the Republic a significant consultative role in the running of the North – approached their climax, the two leaders met on June 29 1985 in the margins of a European summit in Milan to assess progress.
Over a late-night whisky in the Castello Sforzesco, Dr FitzGerald sought to persuade Mrs Thatcher that he needed more “confidence-building measures” – particularly in relation to the reform of the police and security forces – if he was to sell the agreement to the minority nationalist population in the North.
According to a note of the meeting by Mrs Thatcher’s foreign affairs adviser Charles Powell, Dr FitzGerald – “speaking with considerable emotion” – explained to her that he was regarded as “eccentric” in Ireland because of the amount of time and effort he had devoted to finding an agreement.
“He was the only person willing to take the risks and force the Irish people to face up to the need for an agreement. He did so because he believed that otherwise Sinn Fein would gain the upper hand amongst the minority in the North, and provoke a civil war which would drag the Republic down,” the minute noted.
“There were people on the sidelines like Colonel Gaddafi ready to put up millions of pounds to achieve this aim. For 800 years Britain had occupied Ireland to protect its flank. All he wanted were minimal steps to protect the minority.”
Mrs Thatcher sought to reassure him that she shared his determination to prevent Ireland coming under “hostile and tyrannical forces” and she understood the need for “visible measures” to demonstrate to nationalists that the agreement was being implemented “from the very first day”.
Their agreement paved the way for the final signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle on November 15 1985.
But while Mrs Thatcher might have succeeded in squaring the nationalists, the files show that British ministers seriously underestimated the opposition they would face from unionists.
After taking soundings from Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux and the hardline Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland secretary Douglas Hurd suggested that while there might be “some disorder”, it would be manageable.
“The unionist reactions were no more than to be expected. Dr Paisley was vehement in his denunciation of the negotiations; but the apocalyptic vision and rhetoric of betrayal and backlash are his regular stock in trade,” he advised Mrs Thatcher. “He did not walk out of my meeting and summon a press conference to denounce the Anglo-Irish talks, still less call his followers out on the streets in protest.”