Belfast Telegraph

Britain blundered at start of Troubles by failing to enlist help of the Republic, says former Irish president McAleese

By Rebecca Black

The devastating effect of the Troubles might have been mitigated if the UK Government had listened to the Republic, former Irish president Mary McAleese has claimed.

The north Belfast-born academic was speaking about the relationship between the two islands at Westminster last night.

Mrs McAleese, who served as president for 14 years before stepping down in 2011, said the UK misjudged the situation at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969.

"The British Government took a hands-off approach to Northern Ireland and a view that what happened there was an internal matter for the United Kingdom, thus excluding the Irish Government from offering any useful input or insight in affairs north of the border," she said.

"We, whose lives were so deeply affected by events there, are probably entitled to ask what might have happened if the British Government had listened more attentively to my predecessor, Patrick Hillery, when on August 1, 1969, as Ireland's Foreign Minister he came to this city to plead with his UK counterpart, Michael Stewart, that Derry city was a powder keg that needed very sensitive handling."

However, the former president also welcomed the fact that British-Irish relations were today immeasurably better than at any time in the recent past.

Mrs McAleese was speaking during an address on diplomatic relations between Ireland and Britain over the past century to an audience of MPs and peers at an event at Westminster organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain.

Her speech covered the Easter Rising, the Troubles and the long path to peace and improving Anglo-Irish relations, which culminated in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's historic State visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011.

Mrs McAleese said the Easter Rising was a sign that the "day of empires was coming to a close".

But she also acknowledged the important contribution of Queen Elizabeth II in creating better relations between the islands.

The academic was Irish President in 2011 when the Queen visited the Republic.

They stole headlines by together paying tribute to fallen Irish rebels at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.

Mrs McAleese said she believed the remembrance of Irish people who fought in the First World War had been an important means of fostering better relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"Six months on from the Good Friday Agreement, Her Majesty the Queen and I opened the Island of Ireland Peace Tower at Messines, Belgium, in honour of all those Irishmen - Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist - who had died in the Great War," she added.

"A story which had been used to foster division rapidly became a platform of shared memory, uniting Catholic and Protestant and North and South in respectful acknowledgment of Ireland's solid contribution to that war and the men who created it with their lives."

In her wide-ranging speech, Mrs McAleese also cited the importance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 as a key milestone on the path to peace, aligning the British and Irish governments and treating them as equal players.

"It was Margaret Thatcher's commitment to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, constructed by both the British and Irish Governments, which provided evidence to unionism that there would be no escape from the Irish dimension and no permanent unionist veto," she said.

"That agreement, often characterised as a clumsy failure, was nonetheless an important stepping stone for it signalled a significant change in British attitudes, which in turn led to a change of heart by republican paramilitaries, one harvested radically by the great peacemaker and political thinker John Hume in his persuasive discourse with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams."

Some 3,500 people were killed during the course of the Troubles, and more than 50,000 maimed or injured. Most died at the hands of the IRA.

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