German reunification, IRA semtex caches and the Birmingham Six were just some of the topics of discussion for Charlie Haughey and Margaret Thatcher when the two met in Strasbourg in 1989.
Secret State documents released after 30 years show, once again, how opposed Thatcher was to German reunification and that she told Haughey how she worried about the hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops which had been stationed in East Germany.
Thatcher and Haughey always had what was described by political historians as a troubled relationship. However, the minutes from their meeting appear to show a complex discussion about the German political landscape just months out from the eventual reunification on 3 October 1990. It has long been known that Thatcher feared Germany would become the dominant force in Europe if reunification occurred.
On the topic, Thatcher said at their meeting: “It is vital that Germany be anchored in the community [EC]. With unity, it could be bigger than France, Italy, Spain together. I am sorry for Gorbachev. He doesn’t want German unity. Neither do I. Even as things are, Germany has a balance of trade surplus with every country in the community.”
The two then spoke about the potential for violent incidents in the region and that tensions were heightening, especially on the German border. Thatcher said: “There are incursions into the Russian camps. There are records that within the last 48 hours, Soviet military bases have been invaded. There was hell in Dresden recently.”
Previous papers released in the UK have highlighted how British diplomats were exasperated by their PM’s stance because it was causing ‘growing resentment’ among Germans.
Away from European issues, the two leaders also spoke about IRA campaigns against the UK and Thatcher said she had been disappointed with “a lack of successes” for the security forces. The two leaders had the previous year exchanged terse words in relation to IRA activity.
At a meeting in 1988, Haughey suggested to Thatcher that a priest suspected of IRA crimes could be put behind bars in Ireland rather than extraditing him to the UK, much to the annoyance of the British Prime Minister. At a 55-minute European Council meeting in Rhodes, Greece on 3 December 1988, Thatcher got “straight to the point” with Haughey, criticising the Belgian court’s decision to extradite Fr Patrick Ryan to Dublin and not to London.
“Ryan is a really bad egg,” Thatcher told Haughey before reading from an official memo. She said he was “largely responsible for the Libyan money” and that “very large sums” had been traced to Ryan’s account. (Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi supported IRA activity throughout the 1980s.)
“He has also been caught with bombing devices of the sort that were nearly used on 11 of our seaside towns,” says Thatcher. “We stopped that. That was one of our successes.” Thatcher herself was nearly killed in the Brighton Bombing in October 1984 when the IRA targeted the Conservative Party conference.
At the meeting in 1989, the minutes state that Thatcher said she was not satisfied with the current situation in the North. She said that they had to “continue the battle on security – there have not been many successes recently”. She added that “we can’t ever be satisfied while terrorism continues. The terrorists seem to have access to colossal amounts of explosives.”
The Taoiseach responded and said “they had got a big consignment of Semtex from somewhere a while ago”. He then asked if Thatcher knew of talks between paramilitary groups. This may be nothing more than “talks to delineate their respective territories”, he added. Thatcher agreed. She added: “They want to carve up their areas of violence. We must do everything we can to improve the situation before another 10 or 15 persons are murdered.
“The Anglo-Irish Agreement seems to be alright. We are to have a go at devolution once again. The politicians are alright around the table. They will talk forever. But when you come to a point of action they disappear and the whole thing breaks down.”
A year prior to their 1989 meeting, State papers showed how Haughey was urged to “keep the pressure on the British” as part of numerous letters he received about the Birmingham Six .
The documents showed that the government of the day was keen to inform campaigners that it was “very active” due to the possibility that the cases constituted a miscarriage of justice. Six men were wrongly imprisoned for carrying out IRA bombings. The Birmingham Six were released in 1991.
Three years beforehand, in 1988, the British Court of Appeal had ruled that the convictions in the case of the Birmingham Six were safe and that a full appeal was not needed. Following this decision, the Irish government released a statement emphasising its “great regret and disappointment”.
Thatcher was not for moving, according to the papers.
“The Prime Minister said that it had been before the Court of Appeal and had been the subject of a very extensive judgement, every word of which she had read. They could not interfere with the courts. The Taoiseach said that he knew the British position but felt at the same time there must be some way in which the case could be dealt with to everybody’s satisfaction.”