Brighton bomb almost derailed peace talks

Newly released government papers show the impact that the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference had on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Newly released government papers, out today under the 30 year rule, show the impact that the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference had on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of discussions held in November 1984 between Margaret Thatcher and the then Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald at Chequers which pathed the way in 1985 for the Anglo Irish Agreement, a handwritten note by Thatcher within a stack of papers released on Northern Ireland said of the situation following the Brighton bombing:

“The events of Thursday night at Brighton mean that we must go very slow on these talks if not stop them. It could look as if we were bombed into making concessions to the Republic.”

Following a meeting between British officials and Fitzgerald, Charles Powell, Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, wrote a note to the Prime Minister warning that the Taoiseach was being “wildly over-optimistic” about the results of the talks. Powell continued:

“I am beginning to think that we may need a message from you to bring home to him that we are in a different world following the Brighton bomb and must proceed slowly.”

In a further handwritten note, Thatcher said of the Brighton attack:

“The bomb’ has slowed things down and may in the end kill any new initiative because I suspect it will be the first in a series.”

The caution at the end of 1984 came despite developments throughout the year indicating that the British government was looking seriously at measures designed to out manoeuvre Sinn Fein and shore up the position of the more moderate nationalist party, the SDLP.

Papers released show that at the cabinet meeting of the 16 February 1984, ministers considered “the possibility of a new approach to the Irish question”.

Among the measures discussed to go “some way to meeting the concerns of the minority community in the North” were the possibility of joint North/South policing along a defined area along both sides of the border and potential “harmonisation of law enforcement procedures as between Northern Ireland and the Republic”.

The cabinet was clear, however, that such co-operation could only take place on the basis of the Irish being prepared “formally to recognise the continuing existence of the union (at least f0r the foreseeable future) and to waive the territorial claim on the North embodied in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution”.

Whilst recognising that “any new approach to the problem by the British government would arouse fierce unionist hostility”, the cabinet, it was noted, concluded that it would “be wrong to be deterred from undertaking a preliminary low-key exploration of the possibilities with the Irish”.

The cabinet secretary at the time Robert Armstrong was therefore asked to conduct secret meetings to sound out his Irish counterpart on the matter, Dermot Nally.

Following the discussions, the cabinet received a report back on 8 March in which they heard that whilst the Irish government had “welcomed a number of elements” of the ideas proposed by the UK government, it still “had serious difficulty with the idea of a border strip which would incorporate territory on the Republic’s side of the border”.

The cabinet papers continued:

“It appeared that although the Taoiseach stood by the “basic equation” which the Irish side had adumbrated earlier – namely, that he was looking for arrangements which would associate the Republic with law enforcement in Northern Ireland in return for recognition by the Republic that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future – he still had not clear ideas of his own on how to give it practical effect.”

By the cabinet meeting of the 28 June, meanwhile, Thatcher seemed prepared to go even further, contemplating a possible draw down of some troops from Northern Ireland. The paper sum her comment up as follows:

“It was necessary at this  juncture to look further ahead in Ireland than the British government had done before. Ten thousand British soldiers could not be left in Northern Ireland forever, nor could the very considerable cost of subsidising the Province be sustained, without continuing the search for possible forward movement.”

However following the meeting between the Toiseach and Prime Minister on the 18 and 19 November 1984, a more despondent mood seemed to have arisen. Thatcher told the cabinet on the 22 November that year that the Toiseach had felt that the idea of a “joint security commission” as proposed by the UK government would not work as it “would be seen in the South as simply a device by which the United Kingdom was enlisting Irish help in maintaining security in the North”.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.