Thatcher told FitzGerald to take all Northern nationalists south

State papers 1986: Documents outline talks between taoiseach and British leader

Margaret Thatcher told Dr Garret FitzGerald he was welcome to take all Northern nationalists south of the Border during a frank exchange between the two leaders 30 years ago.

Three conversations between the taoiseach and British prime minister in 1986 have been released under the 30-year rule.

One of them was a phone conversation and the other two were face-to-face meetings. The main focus in all of them was the progress, or lack of it, being made under the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in November 1985.

The first conversation by phone on March 7th featured a disagreement about the status to be given to the taoiseach’s visit to the White House on March 17th, with FitzGerald claiming the British were trying to limit his input to the US president.


“I don’t know anything about that. No one has the authority to make that sort of request without coming to me,” said Thatcher. “You and I have the same views. We have signed the agreement and will implement it.”

The two leaders met again during a European summit in The Hague on June 27th. Much of the meeting centred on a discussion of Libyan aid to the IRA.

“The important thing is to stop the flow of money from Libya as has effectively happened with the US,” said FitzGerald.

“You have done a fantastic job there,” replied Thatcher.

The rest of the meeting focused on the agreement and the problems of implementing it.

FitzGerald said he was willing to push an Extradition Act in the autumn but said it could not be done unless there were changes in the three-judge courts in Northern Ireland.

“We will go firmly,” replied Thatcher. “We need the Extradition Act without derogation. I appreciate that police co-operation is excellent.”

The most frank and detailed of the meetings took place at the Conference Centre in London on December 6th, 1986.

In the course of it, Thatcher said that in some places in the South, like Dundalk, there was a great deal of sympathy with terrorists.

“They get safe houses there and can live in the community,” she said.

“So many people from the North come down to the South and live there. We have 200 people from the North in our jails. You can have them back any time you want!” replied FitzGerald.

“I don’t want them. You can have all the nationalists in the North if you like!” said Thatcher.

The exchange followed a detailed discussion of the security problem, with Thatcher saying there could not be real progress “while the blasts, deaths and the bombings continue”.

“When I started out we had in mind, in our own internal discussions, helicopters on the Border with the right to fly five miles in either direction.

“There would have been a broad corridor about the Border. That disappeared! We have not got anything like it now. We haven’t got that kind of corridor. You haven’t the resources to maintain protection on the other side of the Border.


“I do feel very depressed at times about the whole situation. The violence has not been defeated. The SDLP have not done what we are expecting them to do. However, it is Christmas – and I had better stop feeling depressed.”

During a discussion on cross-Border security, FitzGerald said unionists thought the Republic was interfering in Northern security. In fact, the opposite was happening.

“The RUC have a lot of professional experience in dealing with terrorism. They are passing on the benefits of this experience and, in fact, this is probably improving the way the gardaí work. Both forces have a next-to-impossible Border to watch.”

“Yes. We got it wrong in 1921,” said Thatcher.

The first item on the agenda was extradition and there was a discussion of a controversial Bill then before the Dáil which would give effect to the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism.

FitzGerald told Thatcher the Bill had no reservations and no prima-facie requirement as was being sought by Fianna Fáil and others.

“We have taken your point on this but it will cause us problems,” he said, pointing out that his government was then in a minority position and facing rebellion on a number of fronts.

“We must therefore get the support of the Progressive Democrats if we are to avoid a prima-facie requirement. This is crucial.

“Some months ago, I briefed their leader [Des O’Malley] personally on the subject . . . I also briefed him before the text of the Bill appeared as did the minister for justice. The trouble is there are a lot of barrack-room lawyers around him to whom he listens.”

FitzGerald said O’Malley had suggested a way out through some sort of certificate for each case and the attorney general John Rogers was looking at ways of making such a certificate non-justifiable.

“If we do not get this it will be disastrous. Prima facie would be worse than it is now,” said the taoiseach.

He went on to describe the problems facing his government on both extradition and the budget which was going to involve about £8 billion in cuts.

“Yes. You mentioned this to me at dinner. You fair rocked me back,” said Thatcher.

FitzGerald then speculated what would happen if his government lost power in the coming months, which he thought likely.

“Mr Haughey will not, I think, disturb the agreement. If we have got the extradition legislation on the statute book I believe he won’t disturb that either, though he himself could not, politically, introduce it.

“The legislation will come into force in June without his being required to take any positive action, that is, if he is in my position then! We want to be sure now to be able to get a budget in place, having got the extradition legislation through parliament.”

American money

FitzGerald then raised with Thatcher the prospect of EU funding to support the International Fund for Ireland, which depended on American money, but he ran into a brick wall.

“I wouldn’t dream of asking them. We would be paying 75 per cent of whatever was obtained. I wouldn’t dream of asking the commission for this.

“Europe has other problems, like the Basque problem. We shouldn’t get into this,” she said.

The mood was lightened by an exchange on Sellafield when FitzGerald said: “One more thing – and hear me out without exploding!”

“You mean I have to fasten my seat belt,” said Thatcher.

“Yes. Last week the Dáil passed a motion asking that Sellafield be closed.

“ If I am asked whether I raised this with you at this meeting I will have to say that I did. This, I know, is contrary to our understanding about these meetings that whatever we discuss is not made public afterwards,” said FitzGerald.

“Noted,” she replied.

The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Anglo-Irish Agreement before the meeting ended.

The note of the meeting by cabinet secretary Dermot Nally ended with the prime minister speculating about the pressure on her for an election and other issues “including, rather a wistful reference to whether she could continue, in all seriousness, to send young men to their deaths in Northern Ireland”.

Almost two weeks later, Thatcher sent a message to FitzGerald congratulating him on getting the Extradition Bill passed by the Dáil.

“I know that this has not been easy for your government and I must appreciate the efforts which you have made to get it through . . . it will provide a strong weapon in the continuing fight against terrorism in these islands. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year. Yours ever, Margaret.”

It was a close-run thing in the Dáil with the government managing to get the Bill through only on the casting vote of the ceann comhairle.

In his memoirs FitzGerald recalled how the dying Oliver Flanagan – father of current Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan – came into the Dáil to ensure the passage of the Bill.

He received a spontaneous round of applause from the entire House.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

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