Belfast Telegraph

New book reveals Margaret Thatcher's plan for 'no man's land' on Irish border

Proposal: Margaret Thatcher
Proposal: Margaret Thatcher
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to create a five-mile 'no man's land' between Northern Ireland and the Republic, 35 years before Boris Johnson's two-border Brexit plan.

The secret British proposal in 1984 has been revealed by Michael Lillis, diplomatic adviser to former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who helped negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The offer, which involved the Garda and the Irish Army being able to cross the border to police Northern Ireland, was made by former UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong and leading diplomat Sir David Goodall. It was rejected by Dublin.

The proposal is outlined in a new book, Inside Accounts, by University of Portsmouth academic Dr Graham Spencer.

In an interview with the author, Mr Lillis describes the border plan as "a sort of crazy British proposal, although not a random one" as it was Cabinet-approved.

The proposal was rejected by Dublin because while the Garda and Irish Army were universally popular with their public, the same was not true of the security forces in Northern Ireland.

"For virtually one half of the population, the army is regarded as an occupying force, while for the other half it's regarded as 'our army' and, while the RUC was seen as 'our police force' for unionists, for nationalists it was an oppressive, foreign police force," Mr Lillis said.

"Because of that, the idea of having those people on our side of the border, when they were regarded as oppressors of nationalists in the north, was unthinkable.

"Even so, Armstrong and Goodall came over to the taoiseach's department and they made this proposal in writing.

"It wasn't just Mrs Thatcher and it wasn't just the foreign secretary; it was a Cabinet-approved proposal, as well."

Mr Lillis said he thought the proposal was "remarkable" because the Republic would "have our folks on the other side of the border, working in nationalist areas inside the north ... although we had no interest in having the RUC in Co Monaghan, we had nevertheless broken a mould".

He added: "If you consider the Cabinet saying to these foreigners, 'Come in to our territory and help us to solve this chaotic situation', well that was a big deal. I'm sorry our side didn't see it in those terms and negotiate on from there."

Inside Accounts: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, from Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement, by Dr Graham Spencer. Manchester University Press, £25.

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