‘Keep trying. You are most able’: Haughey’s soothing words to Thatcher

Transcript of 1987 meeting provides insight into how taoiseach dealt with prime minister

When Charles Haughey met Margaret Thatcher in Copenhagen on December 4th, 1987, during a European Union summit, the atmosphere was fraught.

Haughey’s reluctance to implement extradition legislation and the continuing IRA campaign of violence had infuriated Thatcher, who had signed up to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 in the belief it would bring violence to an end.

While the Irish government did get extradition passed through the Dáil the days before the Copenhagen meeting, a number of “safeguards” in the bill annoyed the British, who believed they would make it unworkable.

Officials on both sides had tried to iron out these difficulties before the meeting in Copenhagen but Thatcher remained unhappy, as the transcript of the meeting shows.


The two leaders each brought one official to the meeting. Cabinet secretary Dermot Nally was with Haughey and Charles Powell, Thatcher’s principal adviser, was with her.

The transcript of the meeting in the Irish files was written by Nally, who cautioned that while the notes are in direct speech they did not reproduce the conversation verbatim.

Nonetheless, the account can be taken as extremely accurate. One of the most outstanding civil servants in the history of the State, Nally worked on the Sunningdale Agreement as an assistant secretary. As cabinet secretary, he was the closest official to Garret FitzGerald during the negotiations that led to the Anglo Irish Agreement.

He was Haughey’s key official in Anglo Irish relations between 1987 and 1992, and came back from retirement to help Albert Reynolds draft the Downing Street Declaration of 1994 which led to the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Nally’s account of the meeting ran as follows:

Thatcher: I am extremely upset by your moves on extradition. They are a step backwards. We have been working a system for 20 years or more and here now I find that it is changed without consultation. My Attorney, Paddy Mayhew, tells me that there is no way his documentation can be kept out of the Irish courts. He says that previous cases have been thrown out by the Irish courts for all sorts of frivolous reasons. One case was thrown out because documents were not stapled together. I can see a time when our Attorney General would be called before an Irish court to answer to it.

I am very angry about all this. My feelings go deeper than anger. He tells me there may never be another extradition case again. I know now from what you told me that you have extreme difficulties with your people, but where are they living? They are going back to the black and tans – or is it 400 years ago? The way they act shows the way an Irish court would behave with our Attorney General.

I did not have to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I could have got by without it. The only thing it has brought me is criticism and bad blood with the Unionists. I had thought that if we operated it for a time, we could calm their fears: that has not come about. The Nationalists are quite glad about it. I thought we could build on all that.

Then we get this! I appreciate your problems. I know the level of crime you have in Dublin. I know your Gardaí have difficulties. There is a level of Provo support which can provide safe houses in many areas. What is going to happen now is that we will not get extradition and your courts can look through Paddy’s warrants.

Haughey: I am sorry you feel so strongly. I can see you feel anger . . .

Thatcher: It is not anger. It is far deeper than that. The whole thing has suddenly collapsed . . .

Haughey: I will take your last point first. On security, which was one of the reasons for the Agreement, you are getting more than I would ever have thought possible. One of the things I did recently was to send the new Garda Commissioner to see Jack Hermon [chief constable of the RUC].

Thatcher: Yes, there is an enormously better relationship.

Haughey: I sent him up to straighten things out.

Secondly, we mounted recently the most massive security operation in the history of the State. We have uncovered lots of things. We found two big dug-outs, one on the east coast and one near Gort in Galway. These were very large affairs which seemed to have been intended for the Eksund shipment [a reference to the 150-ton cargo load of weaponry intercepted en route from Libya to Northern Ireland in October 1987]. We also found some arms and a number of escapees from the Maze.

Thatcher: Yes, and the man who kept the dentist: that was a dreadful thing [a reference to Dessie O'Hare who kidnapped and tortured Dublin dentist John O'Grady].

Haughey: All that is far more important than the legalities involved in the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism. You are getting full co-operation in that area; and in the legal area, the political plea can no longer be used to prevent extradition. I was left with that problem. If Garret FitzGerald had put through his legislation 12 months ago things would have been easier. There was 12 months' delay when I came in.

I sent our Attorney General to Mayhew to keep him informed. I want to get over this procedural thing and get all administrative difficulties out of the way.

Thatcher: Administrative!

Haughey: We had always understood that the Attorney's Certificate would be sent.

Thatcher: Yes – informally.

Haughey: Your fear was that your Attorney General would be brought before an Irish court.

Thatcher: We have a very full objection to that.

Haughey: We agree with you. We have not done this thing unilaterally. We have kept you informed all along and we have consulted fully. This is not a unilateral operation. We have said that we will leave your Attorney out of the picture altogether and we have framed our legislation very deliberately with that in mind. The only person involved, if he is to be involved at all, is the Irish Attorney General, not the British Attorney General. We are very conscious of the dignity, status and susceptibilities of the British Attorney General.

Thatcher: I have said this! (implying that the Attorney did not accept what she was saying?)

Haughey: What we want is minimal. Our requirements are that the very least should be done that will enable the system to work.

Thatcher: Once you have put it in statute, the courts will look at it.

Haughey: Nobody could claim that the existing system works satisfactorily. We have had continual fracas outside court houses. People have been arrested and then released and then re-arrested. That is not very satisfactory. We must straighten all this out. I am not saying that what we are doing is fool-proof but that is what we are trying.

Thatcher: There is no way you can court-proof what you are doing.

Haughey: You know the Kane case [a reference to Maze escaper Paul Kane who was arrested on an extradition warrant in December 1987]. A warrant was sent by fax and this caused problems in the courts. We want to stop that sort of thing and get the documentation in order as far in advance as possible. I guarantee that our people will deal with this issue satisfactorily and expeditiously.

Thatcher: One other thing. We are a least favoured nation . . .

Haughey: You are the most favoured nation.

Thatcher: You are not backing our warrants.

Haughey: But we do continue the backing of warrants system. Our Act is framed negatively. The Garda Commissioner will back a warrant unless he is told by the Attorney not to. In the vast majority of cases that is the way it will happen. Maybe some cases will have to be looked at in more detail but they will be few. We will look at the Certificate with your people – but bear in mind that our legislation is negatively framed.

Thatcher: Why do I even try!

Haughey: Keep trying. You are one of the most able politicians. In the Council you want binding and effective budgetary discipline. Apply the same thing here.

Thatcher: I worked very hard at the Anglo-Irish Agreement. We thought we were getting better security.

Haughey: You are getting better security – far better than you have ever got.

We are not sure if the recent operation uncovered everything. We understood that there were previous shipments but there were previous finds in 1986 in Leitrim, for example, and on the Welsh border.

Thatcher: I know how the newspapers are selling all this. They are treating our relationship with Chirac very badly. Our papers are simply terrible . . .

Haughey: I am certain that we can make the new extradition arrangements work. We will do anything to remove anomalies. Our Attorney's offices can arrange things before anything goes to court. Anyway, if the thing does not work satisfactorily we will review it in 12 months and come to new arrangements.

Thatcher: I was asked in the House of Commons why I did not reciprocate. Our whole object is to make extradition easier. We will be revising our arrangements with Spain to get rid of difficulties. They say that you are making it too tough to extradite. We have got to stand together against terrorism.

Haughey: Look at this fellow we have (O'Hare). We want to make it work. We are keeping the existing system of backing warrants. I am prepared to admit that there will be a new safeguard procedure. But you have the Convention on Terrorism.

Thatcher: Against the background of Enniskillen and the Eksund.

Haughey: I would ask you to exercise your authority with your law officers. Don't say we did this unilaterally or broke faith. Give the new system an opportunity and we will see that is does work properly.

Thatcher: We will try it: we have no option.

Haughey: There are two ways. You can do it in good faith and with full co-operation from the Attorney's office, and then it will work – backed up with massive security co-operation. It is no good if we can get them but the process then breaks down. What is more important than all this is the actual security co-operation on the ground.

Nally’s account of the meeting ends: “There then followed some general discussion which was notably more friendly and relaxed than earlier in the meeting.”

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times