Margaret Thatcher’s ignorance of Ireland at the height of the Troubles was ‘uncommon’ according to nationalist leaders on both sides of the border according to state papers.
The newly released documents from Irish government files show that both Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey and SDLP leader John Hume feared for Thatcher’s lack of Irish knowledge.
The papers, from 1982 and released under the 30 year rule, contain quotes from Hume who expressed ‘distinct reservations’ to Fianna Fail’s Haughey about the Conservative Party leader and the prospects for a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland crisis.
The Irish Independent reports that Haughey was hopeful the British government might eventually agree to a declaration of encouragement for Irish unity.
But a confidential briefing memo prepared for Haughey states that Thatcher was determined not to alienate the unionists and trigger any escalation in IRA violence.
Britain’s fears were starkly outlined in the memo according to the report.
The memo stated: “The British say they could not, on this analysis, make such a (unity) declaration. They consider that at the practical level its effects would be to provoke a strong, probably violent unionist backlash without any compensating reduction in IRA violence.
“On the contrary, IRA violence, the British feel, might well increase since the IRA would interpret the British declaration as a sign of weakness and a signal of incipient withdrawal.”
Haughey was also warned that: “Mrs Thatcher might well first demand an Irish government guarantee safeguarding unionist interests and traditions and to working for a united Ireland on the basis of consent.”
SDLP leader Hume outlined his fears to Haughey in a private telephone call noted by the Irish PM’s staff.
The notes regarding Hume’s call read: “She had as the Taoiseach (Irish PM) had earlier indicated shown uncommon ignorance of certain matters in Northern Ireland, eg, the number of government departments in Belfast, the operation of local government.”
The Irish Independent reports that Hume expressed particular fears about majority rule.
The memo added: “She showed a regrettable tendency to think and talk about the setting up of what would, in fact, be a majority rule administration. She needed to be convinced of the evil of majority rule . . . the history of Northern Ireland seemed to be a closed book to her.”
The report also says that, in contrast, the British officials felt that Haughey was ‘silkily trying to get a declaration of support for Irish unity’.