Margaret Thatcher considered pulling out of Northern Ireland in 1981 as hunger strikes by republican prisoners brought international condemnation, in contrast to her public position that she would “not flinch” from keeping the province in the U.K., previously secret papers show.
While members of Thatcher’s Cabinet warned that such a move risked bloodshed, civil war and unrest among the Irish diaspora in British cities, the prime minister said all options should be considered, the documents released today after the statutory 30- year delay show. She also took part in drafting proposals to the prisoners aimed at bringing the protests over their conditions to an end even as her government said publicly it was not involved in negotiations.
“Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives,” the confidential report of a Cabinet meeting on July 2 says. In her summing-up, Thatcher “said that further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable.”
Ten prisoners from the paramilitary Irish Republican Army starved themselves to death in a protest that lasted from March until October. They included Bobby Sands, who was elected as a member of the House of Commons while in jail. The detainees said they shouldn’t be treated as criminals and demanded the rights of prisoners of war, including wearing their own clothes and avoiding prison work. The Cabinet records show ministers were given regular updates on their health.
At the July 2 session, at which they discussed the possibility of forced intravenous feeding of the prisoners, ministers considered a British withdrawal from the province, which they said was the hunger strikers’ “real aim” and was supported by “widespread feeling” in British public opinion. Also weighing on their minds were “increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy.”
Ministers acknowledged such a move could result in civil war and “massive bloodshed” in Northern Ireland as well as unrest among Irish communities in the rest of the U.K., according to the report, which was considered so sensitive that only one copy was made. “Even the suggestion of a withdrawal could lead to serious unrest in western Scotland,” it said.
Ireland was partitioned in 1921, with the mainly Protestant northeast staying within the U.K. More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict known as the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s and saw republican and loyalist paramilitaries waging campaigns of terror. British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969 and ended operations in 2007 after the province’s political parties agreed to share power.
While it was emphasized in public in 1981 that there were no negotiations between the government and the hunger strikers, the files released today include detailed secret reports on discussions through an intermediary codenamed “Soon,” who was speaking to nationalist leaders including Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
Thatcher was kept informed of the talks, including being briefed after midnight on July 8, and her handwriting appears to be on a draft of an offer of concessions to be made to the prisoners, which she approved.
‘We Shall Deny’
“If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place,” it says at the bottom of the text of the proposal, which involved changes to prison conditions and was rejected by the republicans.
President Ronald Reagan’s new U.S. administration was praised for its “reticence” over Northern Ireland in the face of growing pressure from the Irish diaspora, according to a briefing note preparing the ground for a visit to the U.K. by Vice President George Bush.
U.K. diplomats in Washington were watching the new administration with interest and Thatcher, the first leader invited to see Reagan, was already a fan.
“I’m really quite optimistic,” she told West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt by phone in November 1980.
Stephen Wall, a British diplomat, wrote that while Reagan didn’t give the impression that he “grasps the complexity of foreign-policy issues, and the fact that they are linked together” and that he “clearly does not do his homework,” he nevertheless “comes across as a man at ease in his job.”
Reagan, he wrote in August 1981, “is probably the first president since Kennedy to be regarded as both competent and decent. While his intellectual capacity may not equal that of his predecessor, he is a much more formidable politician than many imagined.”
There was a culture clash during preparations for the Bush visit when the U.K. security services held out against Secret Service agents accompanying the vice president being allowed to carry guns. The concern was that if Bush’s security detail could bring weapons, agents accompanying the first lady, Nancy Reagan, would want to do the same for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in London on July 29 and all visiting dignitaries would claim the same right.
The British also objected to the U.S. Secret Service checking security arrangements they had made for Bush’s visit. Martin Berthoud from the Foreign Office’s North America Department related a “bizarre incident” involving the wife of Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington in which U.S. officials met with and were defeated by the force of the British aristocracy.
‘Sent Them Packing’
“A group of Secret Service men attempted to check out Lady Carrington’s residence prior to her tea for Mrs. Bush without previous arrangement. She sent them packing,” Berthoud wrote. They “also contrived to infuriate the secretary of state himself by attempting to post their man as a guard outside his office door. Lord Carrington has said he will not allow this to happen again.”
The files released today also show how arguments with France, as Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced in dealings with President Nicolas Sarkozy over the European Union in recent weeks, are a British tradition.
Officials preparing in 1979 for a visit by French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing showed their counterparts into the Cabinet Room in the prime minister’s 10 Downing Street residence, where Thatcher was proposing to hold talks with him. The French expressed concern when they saw that Thatcher’s would be the only chair in the room with arms.
“The Elysee party pointed out that they would consider it essential for the president to have a chair equal in status -- i.e. with arms -- to the prime minister,” a British aide wrote in a memo. “Alternatively, would the prime minister swap her chair for a ‘regular’ (i.e. armless) model? Sorry about this -- the French made the point quite seriously.”
Carrington asked the British ambassador in Paris to “get this little matter sorted.” In response, the French suggested Thatcher could sit in a different chair, before agreeing to check whether previous French presidents had objected to the seating arrangement. The outcome isn’t recorded.
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