Secret Thatcher-IRA memos as early as 1986

Margaret Thatcher greets Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald at Downing Street for talks in 1984.
Margaret Thatcher greets Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald at Downing Street for talks in 1984.

Secret messages between the British Government and the IRA were being passed back and forth for years earlier than previously known, an ex-diplomat and a former Secretary of State have said.

A BBC programme to be broadcast tonight makes public claims that Margaret Thatcher authorised back channel communications with the IRA as early as 1986.

Although it had been known that the British Government had passed messages to the IRA in the 1970s and has recently been revealed that Mrs Thatcher passed messages to the IRA during the 1981 hunger strike, it had been thought that Mrs Thatcher did not sanction further communications with the IRA until just before she left office in late 1990.

However, tonight’s programme claims that under the apparently hardline Prime Minister messages were exchanged with the IRA leadership in the years immediately after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Tom King, who was Secretary of State from 1985 to 1990, said of the messages: “I remember one particular phrase that lived on and got embroidered. It was whether there was any strategic or economic interest that could override the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Asked who he sent the message through, Mr King said: “I forget. It came through, you know, somebody speaking quietly to me and him speaking quietly to somebody else. But it was very much sort of back-channel discussion but [there was] nothing disreputable about that.”

Former senior Dublin diplomat Michael Lillis told the programme that Nicholas Scott, then security minister at Stormont, had told him on two occasions that there were communications with the IRA in the period. He said that the impact on the IRA was simply to “encourage them to be even more intensive in their campaign of violence”.

But when Gerry Adams, who denies even having been a member of the IRA, was asked whether he had any memory of that, he said: “No, none at all. And I would say authoritatively that there was no clarification sought by republicans...we certainly weren’t seeking clarification.”

The Sinn Fein president was also unrepentant about the fatal Brighton bombing.

He said: “It’s very regrettable that other people there were killed or seriously injured.

“But I felt then and I said then that I thought that was an entirely legitimate action. That’s still my position.”

The documentary also contains fresh insights on the secret British-Irish talks which led up to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Mr Lillis said that Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom (now Lord) King had “thought it was totally unfair to the unionists” but added of the former military man: “But he did it, like the soldier that he also was.

“There are some advantages to having people who accept the discipline of command.”

Lord Armstrong, Mrs Thatcher’s former Cabinet Secretary, said that although Lord King, who replaced Jim Prior as Secretary of State weeks before the Agreement was signed, had opposed the accord “it had gone so far by then that there was no going back on it”.

Mr Lillis said bluntly: “It was an appalling betrayal of the assumptions, which were well-founded, of unionists that they could always trust a) the Tory Party, but even more than that, the talisman of the Tory Party in terms of unionism, which was Margaret Thatcher.

“They were left in the dark, so this was a deliberate policy. I mean, let me speak as an Irish nationalist; I’m not speaking as a British former official, they would have more polite terms, but I will tell you what the reality was: It was a deliberate, massive betrayal of the unionists by Margaret Thatcher.”

But Lord Armstrong said that it was thought impossible to consult unionists beforehand or “there would be no chance of any agreement”.

Sean Donlon, a former senior civil servant in Dublin, said that Mrs Thatcher seemed to believe the agreement would be “like a magic wand” and the security situation would instantly improve.

* Thatcher & The IRA: Dealing With Terror will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Thursday night at 9pm