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State papers: Dublin's fear of civil war and Provos bankrolled by Libya's Colonel Gaddafi

By Shane Hickey

Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald believed the whole island of Ireland was at risk of descending into a civil war in the mid-1980s - with the possibility that republicans could be bankrolled by Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.

A memo detailing a meeting between FitzGerald and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from June 1985 in the run-up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement illustrated the former Taoiseach's concerns about Northern Ireland falling into deeper conflict and it spilling across the border.

The National Archives revealed that the two premiers had a meeting at the European Council in Milan in the summer of 1985 during which FitzGerald told Thatcher that he was regarded as an eccentric because of the amount of time he was committing to the agreement. He said he was afraid that if there was no agreement, Sinn Fein could provoke a civil war with funding from Gaddafi.

Thatcher had previously said that she feared Northern Ireland could descend into civil war.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave Ireland an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and was seen as a significant development in the progress of relations between Ireland and the UK.

A note from Charles Powell, Thatcher's private secretary, detailed how FitzGerald spoke with "considerable emotion" to try and convince the Prime Minister that the Irish Government and people did not want a role in Northern Ireland.

"He was the only person willing to take risks and force the Irish people to face up to the need for an agreement," the memo said.

"He did so because he believed that otherwise Sinn Fein would gain the upper hand amongst the majority in the North and provoke a civil war which would drag the Republic down as well.

"There were people on the sidelines like Colonel Gaddafi ready to put up millions of pounds to achieve this aim.

"For 800 years Britain has occupied Ireland to protect its flank. There was now a serious risk of ending up with what we had always tried to avoid, an Ireland under hostile and sinister influence."

The agreement was eventually signed on November 15 at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down at a time when the FitzGerald-led government was trailing badly in the polls and was in need of a political success.

The British ambassador to Dublin at the time, Alan Goodison, said in a separate document that if the agreement was seen as a success, it would be a vindication of the Taoiseach's efforts. But if not, it would be seen as "the beginning of the end for the Taoiseach" personally at a time when the political climate was "distinctly edgy".

State Papers in brief

PM considered germ warfare

Margaret Thatcher secretly considered acquiring chemical weapons amid fears that Britain had no answer to the Soviet Union's vast arsenal. Publicly ministers said they had no plans to restore the UK's chemical weapons, relinquished voluntarily in the 1950s. But behind the scenes, Mrs Thatcher suggested the UK could be "negligent" if it did not build its own chemical arsenal.

Old Bailey bomber's letter tells of despair

A letter written by the Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price from prison in 1980 has detailed the despair she felt after almost eight years behind bars.

The west Belfast republican, who died in 2013, spent most of her 20s in prison after she and and her sister Marian were jailed for their part in the 1973 IRA attack.

"Everyday is such a long time to me now and each day I fill with nothing except my tears and heartache and weariness. I move as a clockwork doll, on and on and on 'til exhaustion and perhaps, sleep overtake me," she wrote in 1980.

She describes herself as a wandering soul who knows she will fall into "the abyss". The letter was written to Lord Fenner Brockway, an anti-war activist, who passed it to Margaret Thatcher. However, the PM said at the time there were not sufficient grounds for release.

Gorby's wife a good spud

Mikhail Gorbachev's wife once boasted at a Chequers dinner how Russia had 300 potato recipes. Raisa Gorbachev was so keen to prove it she sent the agriculture minister a recipe book months after her 1984 visit. British officials were left unimpressed. One wrote to the Foreign Office: "If you have anyone who reads Russian and has a fondness for potatoes, we would be happy to lend it."

Haughey 'likes to be negative'

Charlie Haughey was unconstructive, unhelpful and wallowed in the negativity that comes with not being in charge.

That was the assessment of British ambassador Alan Goodison in a profile of the then opposition leader he drew up after a meeting in May 1985.

He said that "although he would clearly prefer power, he obviously enjoys the negative role of a leader of the opposition".

"There was no suggestion that he intended to be constructive or helpful in any way in his approach to an Anglo-Irish Agreement," he added.

Whitehouse's ally in Thatcher

Mary Whitehouse sent letters from teachers worried about the impact 'video nasties' were having on their pupils to the highest echelons of the Government as part of her long fight against obscenity.

She appeared to find an ally in the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who replied to the oft-mocked conservative values campaigner.

"Like you, I deplore those who seek to make profit out of exploiting the weaknesses of others and in so doing undermine our traditional standards of decency and respect for family life," Mrs Thatcher wrote in 1983.

Hurd's poll tax jibe at Belfast

Former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd suggested to Margaret Thatcher that the poll tax could prove as hard to collect as the television licence in west Belfast, still then in the grip of the Troubles.

"Experience in other contexts - for instance, of trying to operate the TV licensing system in west Belfast - illustrate the problems which revenue-collecting operations can encounter in difficult areas," he warned in the mid-80s.

"Without a really effective machinery, one can expect to find evasion and fiddling among all classes of people."

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