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How Charles Haughey launched an Exocet at Anglo-Irish relations during 1982 war


British troops arriving in the Falklands during the conflict with Argentina

British troops arriving in the Falklands during the conflict with Argentina

British troops arriving in the Falklands during the conflict with Argentina

Charles J Haughey's actions during the Falklands War of 1982 can be summed up in two words: opportunistic and reckless. His decision, in May 1982, to withdraw support for the British Government's sponsored sanctions against Argentina infuriated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and resulted in a deep-freeze in Anglo-Irish relations.

Haughey, however, cared little about British sensibilities during the Falklands crisis.

In fact, he saw this incident as a "key moment to get his own back" on Thatcher, to quote David Neligan of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Dublin.

Thatcher's categorical refusal to permit Haughey a mediatory role in helping to bring the republican hunger strikers' campaign in 1981 to an amicable conclusion had deeply offended the Taoiseach.

Thus, the Falklands crisis was the ideal opportunity to undermine Thatcher's political credibility on the international stage and, at the same time, rekindle his image as a firebrand nationalist in the eyes of his supporters in the Republic.

Argentinian-British relations reached crisis point on April 2, 1982 following the invasion of the islands by Argentinian forces led by the repressive military junta dictatorship under General Leopoldo Galtieri.

In response on the same day, at a specially convened Cabinet meeting, Thatcher sanctioned the sending of a British task force to recapture the Falklands.

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It was on the morning of April 3 that the Irish Government became directly involved with the crisis.

Initially, the Republic's representative at the UN Noel Dorr was instructed to support the British-sponsored Resolution 502.

This resolution called for: (1) an immediate cessation of hostilities; (2) an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands; and (3) the commencement of negotiations.

Thatcher was thrilled by Dublin's agreement to support Resolution 502.

On April 6 she contacted Haughey to express her thanks for the Irish Government's support and to request "his personal help" and additional support for Britain's calls for the imposition of economic and financial sanctions by the European Community against Argentina.

However, the cordial relations between Haughey and Thatcher did not last very long.

It was events on the ground on the Falkland Islands that brought relations between Britain and Ireland to their lowest ebb since the Second World War.

On May 2, at approximately 8pm British time, the single most controversial military action of the war occurred when the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano was sunk by a British nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror.

In retaliation, two days later, the British destroyer HMS Sheffield was attacked and hit by an Exocet missile launched by an Argentinian aircraft.

In reply to these escalating events the Irish Cabinet again hurriedly convened on the afternoon of May 4.

Ministers agreed that the Republic would immediately take up a "neutral" stance on the Falklands issue and seek the withdrawal of EEC sanctions against Argentina.

Haughey's decision to no longer support sanctions against Argentina stunned civil servants within the DFA. Dorr admitted subsequently that Haughey's new stance on the Falklands crisis took him by "complete surprise".

This was typical of Haughey. Since becoming Fianna Fail leader in 1979 he had always mistrusted his chief policy advisers within the DFA. Privately, Haughey had once even referred to DFA mandarins as "dog handlers".

Over the proceeding days and weeks, under Haughey's direct orders, the Irish delegation at the UN continued to refuse to agree to a renewal of sanctions against Argentina.

On May 17 Thatcher even telephoned Haughey in a desperate attempt to win his support for sanctions against Argentina. Haughey, however, rejected her advances.

Haughey's refusal to support the British Government, to quote Walter Kirwan of the Department of the Taoiseach, "drove Maggie mad!". Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher's Cabinet Secretary, recounted that Haughey's decision to no longer support sanctions against Argentina was the last straw for the Haughey-Thatcher relationship. Thereafter, Armstrong noted, Thatcher realised that Haughey "was not to be trusted".

Eventually, the Falklands War ended following 74 days of conflict, with the Argentinian forces surrendering on June 14.

On offering a final assessment of Haughey's contribution to the Falklands crisis, the uncomfortable truth is that the Taoiseach " ... made a mess of the situation", to quote Haughey's political nemesis, Desmond O'Malley.

Haughey's decision to withdraw support for sanctions against Argentina smacked of political opportunism. Although he regularly propagated the message that the Irish Government's volte-face on the issue of sanctions against Argentina was based on long-held principles associated with Irish neutrality, such claims are a falsity.

Rather, Haughey believed the Falklands War to be an ideal opportunity to demonstrate Ireland's independence on the world stage and, at the same time, a useful tool in domestic political terms, as he sought to manage the government's precarious majority in the Dail.

More importantly, this crisis offered Haughey the opportunity to "get his own back" on Thatcher for forcing him to take refuge on the political sidelines during the second republican hunger strike.

In the pursuit of short-term political point-scoring, Haughey did not seem to care what impact his decisions taken during the Falklands crisis would have on Anglo-Irish relations thereafter.

Stephen Kelly is the author of A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey And The Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992, published by Merrion Press

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