A Small State at the Top Table: Memories of Ireland on the UN security council, 1981-82, Institute of Public Administration, 294 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1904541968
The morning of September 21st, 1976 was unusually dull. Rain had been forecast. I was in my office on the second floor of the Irish embassy, occasionally looking out on the tranquillity of Sheridan Circle on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington. I was still in the process of taking up my new job as counsellor (political). Under the direction of our then foreign minister, Dr Garret FitzGerald, Sean Donlon, then assistant secretary in Iveagh House, and my ambassador, the late Jack Molloy, the wisest and most charming of diplomats, we were beginning to work with John Hume, Speaker Thomas P (“Tip”) O’Neill, Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to build a political engine which would help rebalance Anglo-Irish relations. The plan was to break through the historically exclusive and impermeable (to Dublin) leverage of London on the White House and the state department on all matters without exception concerning Northern Ireland. It was a busy and exhilarating time for a fortunate thirty-year-old official.
As I recall, it was late morning when I heard the report of an explosion immediately outside the embassy. In the early 1970s I had heard that sound more than once in Belfast while collecting directly from the victims and their families the abundant evidence of human rights abuses by the security forces against the minority population for the case of Ireland vs the United Kingdom in the European Commission for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Unmistakeably it was a car bomb. From my window I could see the shattered chassis of a car and some human remains and car parts on the street. My first thoughts were that this had been aimed at the Greek embassy directly across Massachusetts Avenue from us, possibly an echo of the “Colonels’’’ regime in that country, or possibly an atrocity connected with the Turkish embassy, which also fronted onto Sheridan Circle, or the Romanian mission round the corner. Within hours we learned that the victims had been Orlando Letelier, a former minister in the Allende government in Chile, and an associate Ronni Moffitt. A few weeks later it was confirmed that the attack had been carried out by US and Cuban-American agents of Operation Condor, a highly organised conspiracy of security agents of the then brutal military dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay (today all ruled by democratic governments) which had been formed during the previous year.
In 1992, José Fernández, a judge in Asunción, Paraguay, visited a police station in Lambare, a suburb, and found an archive of Operation Condor which recorded in extraordinary detail its past activities in killing, kidnapping and torturing the citizens of its former constituent member countries: fifty thousand murders, thirty thousand “disappeared” and four hundred thousand incarcerations. The driving force behind Condor was the military junta in Buenos Aires and the largest single group of its victims were Argentinians or non-Argentinian victims of Argentina’s security agents, uniquely barbarous in their methods of torture. They had gained particular notoriety by throwing many dead, but sometimes live, tortured detainees from helicopters into the River Plate or the shark-infested Atlantic.
This was the junta, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, that on April 2nd, 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands. His motive was classical: the regime had become deeply unpopular both because of its economic failures and the grinding poverty and inflation which afflicted the mass of the people, as well as through its own atrocious record of human rights abuses. The junta then successfully appealed to the patriotic instinct of the masses in reclaiming ‑ and “repossessing” by force ‑ national territory, as they saw it, “occupied” by the British since 1833. Patriotic euphoria ensued and obliterated for the moment the masses’ detestation of the military dictatorship. General Franco, among others, had used this ploy by raising the issue of Gibraltar when times were difficult in Spain; we Irish had experienced its occasional stirrings during the thirty-year efforts of the Provisional IRA to “take power in Ireland” by violence.
An example I have discussed with several officials who were directly involved was Mr Haughey’s decision to use Ireland’s membership of the UN security council to try to frustrate Britain during the Falklands War. He was resentful of Mrs. Thatcher because she had berated him at length some time after their “Teapot Summit” of December 1980. He also wanted some kind of revenge because her unyielding handling of the hunger strikes (recently published British state papers show a somewhat different picture) was creating a political opportunity for Provisional Sinn Féin at the expense of Fianna Fáil in elections in some border constituencies. The economy was not prospering and an exercise in “Brit-bashing” at a time of widespread and often justified resentment of British mishandling of many issues in Northern Ireland could provide both general distraction and useful political credit.
The Falklands area of the South Atlantic, separated from Argentina by three hundred miles and from Britain by eight thousand miles at the closest points, comprises two hundred mostly uninhabitable islands scattered over one thousand miles of inhospitable sea. A prize of little or no actual economic value in 1982 – though more recent indications of possible but yet unproven oil deposits deep in the seabed of the archipelago had begun to change that calculation. The story before 1833, when the Falklands, or las Islas Malvinas, were claimed for Britain is complex: the region had been successively claimed by France, Spain, Argentina and Britain. As recently as 1981 and early 1982 routine discussions between the British and the Argentinians seemed to be leaving open the door to a negotiated settlement, possibly even involving the issue of sovereignty. Indeed it is difficult to see how diplomatic ingenuity could have failed at that time to find a sensible solution, given good will on both sides, through economic compensation by Argentina for Britain (with perhaps a formula for sharing future oil or gas revenues) for what was otherwise seen as a relatively valueless yet expensive to maintain asset and the “repatriation” to Britain of some two thousand denizens of the Falklands (mainly sheep farmers). That was of course not what the junta wanted: Galtieri and his colleagues craved military glory and cheering patriotic parades to counter their unpopularity and they had been planning their invasion in detail for some months.
Noel Dorr’s latest book, A Small State at the Top Table: Memories of Ireland on the UN security council, 1981-82, provides a characteristically lucid primer on the workings of the security council for the interested reader, a description of the main personalities on the council that he dealt with as Ireland’s permanent representative at the time and an account of his own and his delegation’s unsuccessful engagement with three difficult crises that confronted them in 1981-82. Not surprisingly more than half of his text (pp 121-260) is devoted to the Falklands conflict (the other two main topics are Namibia and Lebanon). The Falklands is of course the topic what will most immediately interest non-specialist Irish – or indeed British ‑ readers.
The author describes the initiative taken by Mr Haughey as Taoiseach on May 4th, 1982 and announced in the form of a statement prepared and published entirely without consultation with himself. The statement was issued following a meeting that day between the Taoiseach and officials at his residence in Kinsealy two days after the sinking with the loss of 368 lives of the Argentinian warship the General Belgrano by a British torpedo. Noel Dorr describes the statement and its consequences as “what proved to be the greatest single controversy in Anglo-Irish relations for a generation”. It reads:
The Irish Government will seek an immediate meeting of the security council in order to prepare a new resolution calling for:
1. An immediate cessation of hostilities by both British and Argentinian forces, and
2. The negotiation of a diplomatic settlement under the auspices of the United Nations.
The Irish Government regard the application of economic sanctions as no longer appropriate and will therefore be seeking the withdrawal of these sanctions by the Community.
Noel Dorr goes on to say that the statement “evoked (in Britain) a very hostile reaction from Government, news media and the public and it reverberated like an earthquake shock through all aspects of Anglo-Irish relations. The aftershocks were felt for many years.”
These assessments by Noel Dorr are arguably overstated when set against the attacks by the security forces on the minority community in the North of August 1969 which prompted the Government to raise the issue in the security council meeting which he described vividly in the final chapter, appropriately entitled “A Well-managed Scenario”, of his earlier valuable book Ireland at the United Nations: Memories of the Early Years. The introduction of internment without trial on August 9th, 1971, accompanied by the widespread abuse of hundreds of innocent people, while highlighting the inept ignorance of the RUC about who was or who was not “involved”, fuelled the resentment of the Catholic community and of public opinion in the South to a level that destabilised the very foundations of law and order and of course recruited hundreds of young people to the Provisional IRA. And the wretched and cowardly failure of Mr Wilson’s government to protect the power-sharing agreement of 1973 against the loyalist strike in 1974; the trauma of the Bloody Sunday massacre of thirteen unarmed people by the Parachute Regiment in Derry on January 30th, 1972; the serial slaughter during thirty years of nearly two thousand of the innocent (including hundreds in uniform) by the Provisional IRA; the atrocious torture and killing by loyalist groups of hundreds of innocent Catholics out of raw sectarian hatred and the hunger strike crises of 1980 and 1981 ‑ were all in many ways more dramatic and even more “controversial”.
Nevertheless, there is substance to Noel Dorr’s characterisation. Mr Haughey’s decision on the Falklands crisis was destructive of any remaining hope of restoring a dialogue with Mrs Thatcher. In the political circumstances of the moment it inescapably implied a reversal of the position taken on April 3rd, the day following the Argentinian invasion, by the Irish delegation in the security council in supporting Resolution 502, which had called for the immediate withdrawal of Argentinian forces. On April 2nd, Ireland had already supported a statement by the EC10 condemning the Argentinian invasion and calling for withdrawal. Our new stance of May 4th implied a degree of acceptance of Argentina’s illegal occupation of the territory of another country by force: no one expected that Galtieri would voluntarily quit the Falklands ‑ for the simple reason that once he either withdrew or was driven out and the euphoria evaporated, his regime would collapse ‑ as events indeed confirmed. Mr Haughey and Mr Lenihan, his minister, had already in 1981 destroyed the beginnings of a promising dialogue with Mrs Thatcher for short-term populist gratification when they had ludicrously oversold the implications of a relatively banal expression, “the totality of relations”, in an Anglo-Irish communiqué of December 1980 as a supposed indication of a British willingness to support change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. At their next meeting, according to the late Dermot Nally, secretary to the government, who was present, Mrs Thatcher had shouted at Mr Haughey for the full half-hour. Neither he nor his ministers had subsequently done anything to repair the damage. Mr Haughey knew that Mrs Thatcher, having committed the British task force to travel to the Falklands to recover the islands from the occupation force in an uncertain and deadly war, would if necessary not hesitate to use her country’s veto as a permanent member of the security council of Mr Haughey’s proposed resolution calling on both countries to cease hostilities. It was equally obvious that she would veto any attempt to oblige her government to “negotiate” a solution before a British re- occupation of the Falklands and the removal of the Argentinian occupation forces had been accomplished. In other words, Mr Haughey knew full well that his initiative was not, and would not be seen to be, a serious attempt to help find a solution. And that it would be seen in London to be gratuitously malevolent.
Few ambassadors to the United Nations representing states who were non-permanent members of the security council have faced situations as uncomfortable as Noel Dorr did on May 4th. His instructions, delivered in public and without consultation with him, were clearly contrary to the national interest of Ireland where our most pressing challenge was concerned, the Northern crisis. They included requirements which would be difficult to explain, much less to implement, at the security council without a serious strain on credibility, personally and nationally, and without undermining the roles of the council and of the secretary-general. Such situations create an almost impossible dilemma for professional diplomats.
Both Noel Dorr and Sean Donlon, the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, were and are seasoned and admired experts on Anglo-Irish relations. Both had contributed valuably to the Sunningdale agreement and had otherwise done the state much important service. Sean Donlon was the exclusive point of communication between the Taoiseach and Dorr throughout the Falklands episode: they were in contact almost continuously. It is inconceivable that they did not appreciate that Mr Haughey’s “Exocet” of May 4th had done, and if implemented would continue to do, irreparable damage to Anglo-Irish relations and to the most critical area of national security and political priority at that time, that is Northern Ireland. By virtue of their respective roles, though clearly not by personal preference, they were the two key direct front-line agents of Mr Haughey’s policy. It is my own considered view that both should, at a minimum, have requested the Taoiseach and their minister for transfers to other responsibilities. Both apparently decided to do their his best to carry out their instructions, presumably on the grounds that our democratically elected government was entitled to take whatever position it wished on matters such as this and that it was their duty to implement those wishes.
The ambassador set about consulting with other members of the security council and with the secretary general. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar told him that a call for an immediate meeting of the council could be damaging to his own efforts. Dorr proposed to Sean Donlon in Dublin a formula whereby Ireland would “immediately call” for a meeting of the council but on the understanding that this would not necessarily be an “immediate meeting”. This shift, the first of several Irish retreats from the May 4th position, was accepted by Mr Haughey in the midst of a global storm of media reaction to the “Irish initiative”. Some of the reaction, notably in the Argentinian media and elsewhere in several of the many military dictatorships of the region was triumphalist. The Chinese press also applauded. Popular British media reaction was sulphuric. US coverage was extensive, including on television where Noel Dorr appeared frequently (although, by this account, with reluctance), and mainly registered initial astonishment, though the New York Post led with the headline: “Ireland Lashes Out at Britain as Aggressor”, referring to an intemperate comment of by minister for defence Paddy Power. Continental European reaction was relatively low key, though in some cases attributing Mr Haughey’s motives to bitterness in Anglo-Irish relations. The Irish Press chorused support, the Irish Independent grumbled and Mr Gageby’s editorials in The Irish Times were unsurprisingly laudatory. All of this was I suppose, at least in retrospect, predictable.
Equally predictable, if in substance incredible, was the Taoiseach’s statement in the Dáil of May 11th: the government had “not acted in any spirit of animosity towards our closest neighbour but rather in a desire to help … we have taken up a position on this grave international crisis independent of other issues and on its own merits”. I am reminded of a tag from Horace’s Odes quoted to me by the late Senator Alexis FitzGerald as we listened to Mr Haughey’s ferocious attack in the Dáil on the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, for agreeing the terms of an Anglo-Irish Summit communiqué on November 6th, 1981 as a treasonable sell-out (the precise terms complained of, though ungrammatical, were borrowed word for word from the communiqué issued following the previous Haughey-Thatcher summit): splendide mendax! Mr Haughey placed a possibly more believable nuance on his position when speaking on RTÉ about farm price negotiations next day: “All these things are, in theory, unrelated, but I think that any sensible person must accept that they are all now on the table at the same time and therefore they must, one way or the other, be impinging on each other.” If the Taoiseach thought he could beguile his British opposite number on agricultural price negotiations by comments of this sort when British personnel were being killed eight thousand miles from home, he had surely not learned much about Mrs Thatcher. Or perhaps this was another bit of posturing, aimed more at the votes of our farmers than at 10 Downing Street.
The US secretary of state, General Alexander Haig now launched an ambitious, elaborate and in the end somewhat ham-fisted endeavour to bring the sides together based on earlier soundings of officials in London and Buenos Aires, but which apparently were not checked directly with either Mrs Thatcher or the three-man junta. This would have involved a withdrawal of forces by both sides and an interim administration of the Falklands, which might involve Argentinian as well as London and Falkland Islander representation and possibly some third country presence acceptable to the two central parties. Curiously, and because Mrs Thatcher might have wanted to avoid the appearance of opposing publicly an initiative by her closest and most important ally President Reagan, there might have been an opportunity here for the junta to upstage the British by accepting the Haig terms, at least in principle, on the grounds that they would have kept the British off the Falkland Islands and bobbing about miserably in the South Atlantic winter storms, as Pérez de Cuéllar told Ambassador Dorr. London feared that its task force would have been despatched huge distances to no effect. But the British were lucky in the intellectual qualities of, and in the deep divisions between, their paranoid enemies in the junta. The Argentinians turned down the US initiative first, letting the British off the hook, and Mrs Thatcher complained bitterly to President Reagan about the difficulties Haig might have caused her. The US then backed the British formally and introduced limited sanctions against Argentina. Meanwhile the Irish side agreed again to “hold its hand” on pushing for a meeting of the security council. Dorr avers, however, that the Irish initiative, precisely because it remained in suspense on the agenda of the council, had served to mobilise the UN system and keep it active. It is difficult to see that the secretary general would have needed a pretext of this sort to assert his role in the middle of such an international crisis.
The president of Peru, Belaunde Terry, tried next. His project was a version of the Haig proposal and it was directly inspired and secretly run by the US secretary of state. It got nowhere but Ireland again stood back. Then came the formal initiative of the secretary general himself and Ireland again temporarily withheld its demand for a meeting of the council in order to facilitate his convenience.
The strategy run in New York by Noel Dorr’s British counterpart, Sir Anthony Parsons, having started out somewhat shakily and feeling its way at first even to a possible compromise, was galvanised by the decisive intervention of Mrs Thatcher, who insisted that no endgame short of the military recovery of the islands would meet her objective. Parsons’s task then became to play for time in New York until the task force had completed its military mission in the South Atlantic. He achieved this skilfully. He was regularly in touch directly with his prime minister and flew to London for a weekend-long think-in with her and her “war cabinet” of ministers and officials. It seems odd that there had not been such direct contact between the Taoiseach and Ambassador Dorr and that all of Mr Haughey’s instructions to his ambassador on such an explosive issue were relayed through Sean Donlon, head of Foreign Affairs. The unfortunate Argentinian ambassador, an inexperienced New York lawyer, was so fearful of his own principals in Buenos Aires that on occasion he did not even dare to forward suggestions for compromise from the secretary general himself.
As Noel Dorr recounts in interesting detail, the informal consultations that continuously take place in the room behind the security council’s meeting room embody the really key negotiations of the council. At this time Dorr stepped up his own already assiduous bilateral consultations with other members, with Pérez de Cuéllar and in separate meetings with the two warring countries, sometimes inside that room and sometimes outside the UN building. He was persuaded that there was sufficient common ground for a possible solution based on the “findings” of the three efforts to find a compromise and in particular on those of Pérez de Cuéllar. He was mistaken, in particular in his slightly optimistic assessment of Britain’s willingness to compromise at this stage. By now the British, while not wishing to be seen to oppose the secretary general’s diplomacy, were coldly determined to “go all the way” militarily come what may, even to the extent of using their veto in isolation. It is possible for an Irishman with our unhappy historical experience to greatly dislike Britain’s almost Pavlovian instinct for military reaction, but the desire in this instance to defend national territory after occupation by force by another country, especially an extreme dictatorship like the junta, is understandable, even laudable. This growing British reaction is described in detail in The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (two volumes, London 2005-2007) by Sir Lawrence Freedman, a very lengthy and surprisingly independent (at times even critical of the government and Mrs Thatcher) account of the Falklands War based on unrestricted access to relevant British papers, which are quoted extensively.
While Pérez de Cuéllar may not have needed the spur of the official Irish demand for a formal meeting of the security council to carry out his attempts at mediation, it is clear that this suspended part of the Irish initiative was something of a ticking bomb in so far as the British were concerned. They had no idea when it might be detonated, thus possibly putting them on the spot at an extremely inconvenient moment in their military campaign. Having said this they were prepared to veto any related resolution if necessary, although they would as always prefer not to have to do so. Again the Argentinians failed to see their opportunity at least to embarrass the British and they too, incredibly, opposed suggestions to have the council convene even when they had effectively lost the war.
On May 20th, Mrs Thatcher torpedoed the secretary general’s efforts by announcing in the House of Commons that the Argentinians had rejected the last and final ‑ and very hard-line ‑ offer for a solution from her government as relayed through the United Nations. This was jumping the gun. The next day British troops went ashore in San Carlos Bay and the final battles for the Falklands began.
The security council finally met in response to the Irish demand and that of several other members of the council. The secretary general listed an impressive range of issues on which he had believed there was agreement but added that there remained several unresolved problems. Parsons said that the secretary general’s list of “agreed” issues differed substantially from Britain’s “final position” and that there had not been a detailed response to that document from the Argentinians. The Argentinians made their usual case about the islands being their sovereign territory.
Dorr met with Parsons twice over the following weekend and sought to persuade him of the merits of a ceasefire. “I cannot help wondering if he thought my ideas impossibly naive. But if he did he concealed it well.” Several times in his narrative Dorr makes identical or similar statements about the probable British perception of himself and of his activities. During the second meeting Parsons indirectly made it clear that the British were prepared, as Dorr says, “to go for broke”. “I was surprised … that he was prepared to go so far.” Looking back as an outsider to all these events, it is astonishing to me that Dorr would have found such a statement surprising, considering the dramatic and dangerous events in the South Atlantic, from the Argentinian invasion down to Britain’s counter-invasion and all the clear hard-line messages from Mrs Thatcher, once she became centrally engaged, to her people and to the world. In Parsons’s version, as reported by Freedman he said to our ambassador: “Did Dorr really imagine that after all the human and material losses suffered, Britain would pull back to be replaced by a UN administrator and a handful of observers? Still Dorr made it clear that while he wished to avoid a veto he was after a ceasefire.”
Perhaps Noel Dorr was unaware of this at the time but his many efforts in New York to fulfil Mr Haughey’s instructions had been reported in detail and with unfriendly comment by his British opposite number. He must have learned this when he came to write this book, which regularly quotes from Sir Lawrence Freedman’s book (publication completed by 2007) though several of his own remarks in his own book published four years later, including admiring and friendly references to Parsons, seem to belie this ungainsayable fact. Two examples from Parsons’s reports to London as cited by Freedman will suffice to illustrate this odd circumstance. First when the secretary general was authorised to use his best efforts Parsons reported to London: “Dorr’s incorrigible love of his own voice nearly undid this satisfactory result. He raised a quibble about whether the President’s summing-up conveyed enough encouragement to the Secretary-General to continue his efforts. A second example from among many relates to another meeting: “Dorr was his usual sententious self but this time his claptrap was harmless.”
On Monday Dorr presented his long awaited resolution to the security council. Considerably watered down from Mr Haughey’s proposal of May 4th for possible acceptability to several members, it merely proposed a truce for seventy-two hours between the belligerents to allow the secretary general to pursue efforts at mediation. Then came the final humiliation for the Haughey gambit: to Dorr’s surprise all six members of the non-aligned group on the council on May 25th ‑ of all people ‑ proposed to remove the call for a truce, thus defanging the Irish resolution of all substance to a point where all members of the security council, even the UK, voted for it. Until that moment Ireland had been prepared to court a British veto.
Perhaps the most surprising “surprise” of Noel Dorr’s account of Ireland’s effort on the Falklands at the UN is that he considers that the effort was worth seeing through. For the life of me I cannot see this. It achieved none of the Taoiseach’s objectives, neither the hidden agenda of thwarting Mrs Thatcher nor the overt agenda of stopping the conflict. Overall it consisted of a series of retreats from the “Exocet” statement of May 4th to the final humiliation of a vacuous and entirely “harmless” resolution for which even Britain voted. Ireland has had its moments of diplomatic achievement since and before the foundation of the state – and Noel Dorr has contributed valuably to several among them, such as the Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Agreements ‑ but this was not one of them. Having said that, one has to admire the indefatigable devotion and energy of Noel Dorr and his tiny team in New York as they pursued their Sisyphean task day and night during those tumultuous weeks. Mr Haughey did succeed in deepening Mrs Thatcher’s distrust and loathing, but we must from an Irish point of view be grateful and relieved that Ireland was not the cause of a British defeat in the Falklands War. In other words we were lucky that Mr Haughey’s foolish project flopped.
More importantly, several grave issues of fundamental interest to the Irish state had been put at risk in Mr Haughey’s initiative of May 4th. These are scarcely or not at all cited in Noel Dorr’s account, which is a curiously detached narrative almost exclusively centred on and in the corridors of the United Nations, almost as though the related events in the real world in Ireland North and South and in Britain and the European Community were taking place in a remote dimension. His account moreover concentrates to a remarkable extent on his own activities within this rarefied sphere. (In his introduction he remarks: “I will have to speak a good deal about myself – what I did and who it was I met.”) The reader who wishes to understand the real motivation of the Haughey initiative, its origins and its other cheerleaders in the Irish administration and its exact implications for Anglo-Irish relations, in other words the “whole story”, will not find answers in this book.
It is nevertheless important to recall those issues of national importance which were put at direct risk by Mr Haughey. The Taoiseach’s ability to influence British policy and the behaviour of the British system of direct rule on the ground in the then convulsed condition of Northern Ireland ‑ military and paramilitary forces, police and Special Branch, prisons, hunger strikes, human rights, parade management, the judicial system including Diplock Courts, protection of the minority community from abuse and from loyalist attack, British political proposals for “progress” – all of these depended crucially on the availability of a reliable channel between himself and the British prime minister. Dialogue on any or all these issues was already almost nil (largely because of his over-selling of the “Teapot Summit”); now it would grind to a complete halt. In taking his initiative he knew this would be the case. Later, under Dr FitzGerald’s administration from 1983 till late 1985, I had some responsibility for dealing with these matters for the Department of Foreign Affairs and I can confirm that this was absolutely the case. It was a measure of Dr FitzGerald’s patient, imaginative and determined diplomacy that this disastrous situation was reversed and his efforts eventually crowned by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 with Mrs. Thatcher, an agreement which, unlike her predecessor Mr Wilson, she stoutly defended in the face of loyalist fury and despite several IRA attempts on her life. That agreement permanently changed for the better relations between Dublin and London. What the future might have held had Mr Haughey continued as Taoiseach in 1983 can only be imagined.
The potential ability of the Irish government to try to contain the toxic damage to our economy which was continuing to drain into the South from the Northern crisis was paralysed. The crisis in Northern Ireland posed a threat to direct inward investment and thus to job creation in the South. It had been vital to demonstrate to the US and other markets that it was possible to achieve progress in Anglo-Irish relations even at times of crisis in the North so as to be seen to be reversing the risk of cross-border instability which was then widely perceived externally. This ability was consummately sacrificed to Mr Haughey’s caprice.
The day-to-day interests of the millions of Irish people living in Britain would be likely to suffer at a time of heightened jingoism in the British tabloids if Ireland could be caricatured as supporting the “Argies” in the middle of a war thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic in which British sailors and soldiers were being shot at. Mr Haughey, intellectually gifted, knew full well that this would ensue as indeed it did and on a serious scale as the late Dr Eamonn Kennedy, the ambassador in London ‑ and in private life a friend of Mr Haughey’s ‑ forcefully pointed out, as was his duty, only to be told on instructions by Mr Haughey’s adviser Pádraig Ó hAnnrachain that the Taoiseach disliked this reporting to the degree that he had decided to withdraw his earlier promise to appoint Dr Kennedy to Washington, the latter’s lifetime ambition.
The perception of Ireland as a “serious” partner in European Political Co-operation, and thus in the European Community, was undermined. Italy had far closer bonds of blood and culture with Argentina than Ireland has even with the USA; Italy had retreated from sanctions by May 16th but, unlike Ireland, had done so discreetly. This was “understood” by the other eight member states, even by a reluctant Britain. Ireland’s position was different and caused astonishment. Even the President of France, François Mitterrand, despite his intense irritation at Mrs Thatcher’s noisy demands for “my money back” from Britain’s contribution to the European Community of that time, had telephoned her to assure her of his understanding and support. His foreign minister, Claude Cheysson, lobbied Dublin to change its stance but to no avail.
It is true that we Irish have an interesting and valuable heritage in an emigrant community in Argentina which had begun farming on a huge scale in the nineteenth century with high success under the leadership of enlightened Catholic clergy, but it was of course very much a minority in the whole European diaspora in that country, dominated by Italy and Spain – its descendants after several generations numbered perhaps as many as 400,000. But, as Noel Dorr does not adequately explicate for foreign readers, quite apart from the overwhelming priority of the Northern Ireland crisis for the Irish state, there was no conceivable parity between that Argentinian-Irish relationship and our relations with Britain. There were about two million Irish-born emigrants in Britain and a further three million who declared themselves to be of direct Irish descent and there were millions more of more distant connection. Ireland’s exports to Argentina were under £10,000,000 while exports to Britain (including popular consumption items like dairy products which quickly came under tabloid “boycott” threat) came to one hundred and seventy times that amount. British investment in the Irish economy was absolutely fundamental for job creation and maintenance.
Frank Aiken, former Irish foreign minister and Fianna Fáil icon going back to his revolutionary status in the War of Independence and the Civil War, was described by Noel Dorr in his previous book on the UN as a man of “almost Roman character and qualities”, who made the most important contribution in the history of the state to the UN’s efforts to promote world peace. Aiken had offered some sage advice to the Cuban government at the height of the missiles crisis, explaining the fundamentals of de Valera’s wartime neutrality policy in relation to Britain: “That principle was that under no circumstances (my italics) would we allow our country to be used as a base for attack against our neighbour Britain … it has special validity in the case of small countries placed beside powerful neighbours with whom we have disputes or disagreements.” This wisdom was ignored of course by Fidel Castro (who was in turn overruled by his mentor in Moscow). Ireland’s offer of diplomatic comfort to Britain’s enemy at a time when she was engaged in a war was also arguably an offence against the spirit of the Aiken principle.
Ireland’s political director in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the late Paddy McKernan, courageously confronted Mr Haughey at the latter’s residence in Dublin at the meeting on May 4th and passionately argued that the proposed change of stance on sanctions would damage our standing in the European Community. So also did the late secretary to the government Dermot Nally, both on EC and Anglo-Irish relations grounds. Both told me this before they died and I have recently verified their accounts with two other closely involved witnesses, one of whom was also present at the Kinsealy meeting. According to the witness who was present, Mr Haughey made it clear that he had made his decision and he only wanted to discuss the implementation of the statement, not its substance.
Ireland had traditionally been a prominent leader at the UN Commission for Human Rights in promoting human rights causes globally and often specifically in Latin America. Now, precisely because we had no overwhelming geographical, cultural or historical ties with Argentina, which might otherwise at least partly have excused our stance, we were in effect identifying ourselves with one of the most barbarous regimes in the world, the Argentinian junta, and through them with their leadership of the shameful Operation Condor cult of undemocratic and tyrannical military dictatorships then dominant in most countries across South America, including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile (exceptionally, because of a continuing border dispute, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet did not support the invasion), Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay. At no stage for example did we express concern for the fate of the innocent island sheep farmers potentially subjected by the invasion to the attentions of several of the junta’s more infamous abusers. We were aligning ourselves against the forces of democracy and human rights in the region and, though perhaps unintentionally, effectively supporting the “dirty war” campaigns of the military dictatorships epitomised by that Operation Condor murder in Sheridan Circle in September 1976. At no stage, so far as I know, did our delegation “explain” our position in this respect at that time or distance us from these deplorable associations, either at the security council or in other UN bodies, or utter a single word of criticism in the context of our Falklands initiative of the junta’s appalling abuses of human rights. It was a lamentable episode. One is reminded painfully of Mr Aiken’s courageous words in the general assembly in September 1959 at a time when Britain, France and Belgium and the apartheid regime in South Africa were still energetically resisting such an approach: “Whenever government action is directed towards the systematic violation of human rights, it is, we believe, the proper function of this Assembly to pronounce the judgement of world opinion on such a breach of the principles which all of us here are pledged to maintain and on which our hopes of a just world order are based.”
The Rattenbach Report, prepared by retired general Benjamin Rattenbach and five other retired senior officers in December 1982, while Argentina was still in transition towards democracy, has just in the past weeks been declassified by the Argentinian government. Like the British “Official History” it seems to be a remarkable document. It comprises seventeen volumes mainly of testimony but its principal contents have now been published in summary in the Argentinian press. Its upfront conclusion: “The leaders of the Nation failed to understand the limitations of the country’s resources or to foresee the consequences of their actions. As a result the national enthusiasm, the sacrifices of the men who lie dead in the Islands or at the bottom of the sea and the courage of those who honourably took up arms were rendered at nought.” The report does immense credit to the honest purposes and courage of its military authors in unsparingly attributing blame for military blunders and cowardice on the part of the junta and senior commanders and in holding the junta directly responsible for absolutely refusing to consider and plan for any possibility that Britain would respond militarily to their invasion and for lying grossly and systematically to the Argentinian people throughout the conflict. It castigates senior Argentinian diplomats for incompetence. It calls for the death sentence for Galtieri and his junta and for long (twenty-five-year) prison sentences for its henchmen and principal military supporters (they were later amnestied by the disastrous administration of Carlos Menem).
For understandable and solid reasons of history we Irish viscerally dislike the displays of British jingoistic triumphalism epitomised by the lurid reporting of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite tabloid, the Sun, during and after the Falklands War. It is depressing to note the revival of xenophobia and jingoistic buaileam sciath (the Táin version of “sabre-rattling”) by political leaders and journalists in the popular British and Argentinian media this year as the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War is commemorated. But there was another side, which is worth pondering, to the British military and diplomatic successes in that conflict. The removal of the Argentinian invaders, with all the loss of life and suffering which it entailed, led to the immediate overthrow of the Argentinian junta and this in turn gradually led to the end of military dictatorships throughout the region. Within ten years three hundred million people had regained democratic freedoms. The British were not the liberators of South America and they did not set out to be, but there is no doubt that had they lost the Falklands War, the nightmare of military dictatorship would have been entrenched for years throughout the region. For this undoubted, if not intended, benefit we should ‑ to quote Mrs Thatcher – “rejoice!”
Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), Ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, was published in 2009.