OBITUARY: Geoffrey Howe, broker of Anglo-Irish deal, earned ire of republicans and loyalists

Howe and Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish deal
Howe and Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish deal

Geoffrey Howe narrowly escaped being murdered by republicans.

Then, just over a year later, the Anglo-Irish Agreement which he helped to broker led to a massive outpouring of anger from loyalists.

Sir Geoffrey Howe and his wife Lady Elspeth in 1983

Sir Geoffrey Howe and his wife Lady Elspeth in 1983

A long-standing Tory statesman who held a raft of top posts in the government, he died on mere weeks before the 30th anniversary of the ill-fated Anglo-Irish deal.

Geoffrey Richard Edward Howe was born on December 20, 1926, in Port Talbot in south Wales, and was educated at Winchester College, then Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied law.

He first became an MP in Bebington in 1964, was made a QC in 1965, and was knighted in 1970.

He contested the Conservative Party leadership in 1975, which was ultimately won by Margaret Thatcher, and became chancellor and later foreign secretary.

Margaret Thatcher, with foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and Conservative party chairman Mr Peter Brook

Margaret Thatcher, with foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and Conservative party chairman Mr Peter Brook

He held this last post from 1983 to 1989, during some of the most turbulent and extreme years of the Troubles.

ANGLO-IRISH:

In his 1994 autobiography, ‘A Conflict of Loyalty’, he said neither he nor Thatcher “entered politics with any special concern for Northern Ireland. During our early years at Westminster there was no need for us to cast our eyes across the Irish Sea.”

One of his earliest memories of the subject was when Labour politician George Thomas accidentally referred to the Province as a “colony” in the House of Commons – prompting “contrived uproar” from unionist MPs.

Former Cabinet Minister Geoffrey Howe  leaves the funeral service of Baroness Thatcher, at St Paul's Cathedral, central London, April 17, 2013

Former Cabinet Minister Geoffrey Howe leaves the funeral service of Baroness Thatcher, at St Paul's Cathedral, central London, April 17, 2013

He said he had visited the Province as chancellor to meet with tax officials and others (noting that he had been struck by the “extravagant and wasteful” nature of the floundering De Lorean car production scheme at the time).

But despite the relatively low priority which he said the Province was given by the government (noting that NI secretary Jim Prior had been selected for the job in 1981 merely to “get him out of the Prime Minister’s hair”), by 1983 serious efforts were being made to strike a deal on Northern Ireland’s future.

Talks began on November 7, 1983, between the British and Irish governments, and Mr Howe was present at all meetings for the next two years.

He wrote that this first meeting produced a “breakthrough” for the Irish side by managing to convince Thatcher that “the status quo was unacceptable”, and that if there were no progress for nationalists, Sinn Fein may gain ascendency.

Initially the Republic had wanted “joint authority” over Northern Ireland, and much of 1984 was spent scaling down Irish expectations.

Then, on October 12, 1984, the IRA struck.

BOMBING:

Mr Howe and other members of the UK cabinet had been staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when a bomb detonated.

He wrote that, while he would usually have been given a number of boxes full of documents to read before bed, on this occasion he happened to get just one.

He made it to bed at 2am, with wife Elspeth and dog Budget in the room.

“Moments later it seemed I was awakened by a loud combination of vibration, thump and clatter,” he wrote.

“Budget began barking. Elspeth, hard of hearing but woken by the vibration, sat up in bed. ‘I think it’s a bomb,’ she said. Suddenly the curtains fluttered as the wind blew from the sea through the shattered windows. An alarm began ringing somewhere.

“And automatically, but in a daze, we began to dress.”

As they emerged they saw smoke, broken furniture, and a police marksman covering the scene.

His document box was later recovered from the rubble, badly dented.

“Had I been at my desk and hour later – as I had as I had been the night before – I should almost certainly have died,” he reflected.

The bombing reinforced the need to guarantee cross-border security co-operation between the UK and the Republic.

By January, the final document was being drawn up, giving the Republic “a regular and institutionalised role for the Irish government in Northern Ireland”.

He added, in parenthesis, that “in deference to Irish sensitivities the term ‘consultation’ was avoided”.

The document was signed on November 15, 1985.

A wave of unionist opposition burst out onto the streets in the form of mass rallies, and prompted Paisley’s ‘Never, Never, Never’ speech.

Although the Anglo-Irish failed, he said Thatcher “deserves real credit” for “being ready to rise to the historic challenge involved”.

He added: “She never for a moment forgot her overriding concern to achieve a more secure, less violent future for the unionist community”.

The agreement had not been the “answer” to the Province’s problems, he wrote; rather, it had represented “an opportunity for a new and more hopeful phase”.

GIBRALTAR:

It was not Geoffrey Howe’s last dealing with Troubles-related matters.

In 1988, while still foreign secretary, after “carefully considering expert advice”, he deployed the SAS to Gibraltar in response to intelligence about a terror threat.

Ultimately, the soldiers went on to kill three unarmed IRA members, producing a storm of criticism and accusations against the military.

“Are not those who risk their lives for our safety entitled to expect, from media and public alike, the kind of support without which there can be no certainty of success against terrorism?” he later asked in response to the controversy.

In terms of his personal traits, he had a methodical manner (described as “plodding” by the Press Association), which comes across strongly in his autobiography.

Labour rival Denis Healey once described being attacked by him as like “being savaged by a dead sheep”.

This reputation for being considered and measured arguably made his resignation speech in November 1990, when he attacked Thatcher for her stance on Europe, all the more potent.

He was made a Lord in 1992 and retired from the House of Lords in May this year.

He died on October 9, aged 88, after what was suspected to be a heart attack.

He is survived by children Caroline Amanda and Alec, and widow Elspeth.