Declassified Files: Rapid change in Dublin will impact UK as well as NI, ambassador warned

Ireland was a state which was rapidly being transformed and with which Britain would have to rethink its relationship, the British ambassador to Dublin privately told the Foreign Office in newly declassified files.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 10:09 am
British Ambassador David Blatherwick said that the signing of the Joint Declaration by John Major and Albert Reynolds, above, had been transformative
British Ambassador David Blatherwick said that the signing of the Joint Declaration by John Major and Albert Reynolds, above, had been transformative

The comments were made in a confidential valedictory memo from David Blatherwick at the end of his three and a half-year term as British Ambassador to Dublin, prior to which he had spent more than four years at the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast.

The March 1995 despatch, addressed to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd but copied to senior cabinet colleagues, began by setting out some of the problems and idiosyncrasies of Irish society at a time when what would become the Celtic Tiger was beginning to grow.

The experienced diplomat said that in Ireland politics was “dominated by the porkbarrel, and transacted through personal contact and favours.

“There is a fair amount of low-level corruption. The universal expectation is that one looks after one’s own.

“Isolationism still masquerades as neutrality... there is more than a hint of anglophobia in the chattering classes’ professed view of Britain as a boring country in terminal economic and social decline, turning its back on modern Europe out of post-imperialist nostalgia – and of course dragging the Republic down too.”

However, he said that Irish society was rapidly changing: “Yet the picture I have painted is already dated. Change set in well over a decade ago, and the pace is accelerating. Society is increasingly urbanised and mobile.

“A series of recent scandals have reduced the conservative influence of the Catholic hierarchy. The old political dynasties are giving way to outsiders.

“More generally, the old chips on the shoulder are healing...the under-35s seem to mark a particular break...most express a positive and outgoing sense of Irishness which is in no way anti-British nor post-colonialist, but looks especially to Europe and the United States. I doubt the next generation will know or care much about its roots.”

He drew particular attention to changing southern attitudes towards Britain, northern unionism and the British aspects of life in the Republic such as the Irish government’s restoration of the large Lutyens War Memorial at Islandbridge.
“When I arrived, Haughey’s government was pressing HMG to join the persuaders for Irish unity: it was our job to deliver the unionists, the problem was between the British and the Irish...the Downing Street Declaration has changed all that.

“All the parties in the Dail now accept the need for unionists consent — and real consent, not just acquiescence gained by British arm-twisting.

“They acknowledge the validity of the unionist position, however grudgingly, and the need to deal directly with unionists.

“Even Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fail leader, has made his pilgrimage to Glengall Street [then the UUP headquarters].”

Mr Blathwick, later to be Sir David, said that “all the parties are now ready to withdraw the constitutional claim to territory and jurisdiction in the context of a settlement, and accept that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for the foreseeable future — provided the nationalists there can be accommodated.

“The great majority of people acknowledge that Irish unity is for the distant future, if not for the birds.”

He went on: “Of course, we have shifted too. We now accept that the Irish question is to be solved in an Irish context, not a British one. We edge ever closer to neutrality over the future of Northern Ireland.” He said that Britain should find ways to “if not apologise for British faults in the past, at least to acknowledge that we are conscious of them, that we care, and that we are determined to set right past wrongs where we can do so.

“Similarly over ‘parity of esteem’ in Northern Ireland: generous gestures (eg over the Irish language Meanscoil Feirste [funding for an Irish language school], security issues or relations with Sinn Féin) are worth twice their cost. There are often obvious constraints. But giving way grudgingly halves the effect.”
Mr Blathwick said that “our relationship with the Irish is different, and closer, than with any other country. We should guard against letting them become just another EU state” and that ”above all, we should treat the Irish as grown-up partners and continue to consult them about our problems, not our solutions”.