Unionists lack ‘sophistication’, Charlie Haughey told John Major

The comments by the former taoiseach were made in Downing Street on June 21st, 1991.
Unionists lack ‘sophistication’, Charlie Haughey told John Major

By Dominic McGrath, PA

Charlie Haughey told British prime minister John Major at a meeting in 1991 that he should not “attribute too much sophistication to the unionists” amid ongoing efforts to bring the Troubles to a close.

The comments by the then-taoiseach, recorded in an Irish Government note of the meeting, were made in Downing Street on June 21st, 1991.

It came amid ongoing talks between the four main Stormont parties discussing the future of Northern Ireland.

Those talks, which became known as the Brooke/Mayhew talks after the incumbent Northern Ireland secretaries of state, were destined to end with little progress for a peace settlement.

Mr Haughey, who would leave office several months later, indicated to Mr Major he did not believe that the talks would produce anything of substance.

Instead, he told his British counterpart: “If we want to achieve something, we, the two governments, must take the whole situation by the scruff of the neck.

“The situation in Northern Ireland is a constant irritant in relations between the two governments.

“Nearly everywhere I go on the international scene, I am asked: ‘When are you going to solve the problem of Northern Ireland?’

“There are questions of international prestige at stake.

“There are great benefits for both of us in the world from a clearing of the decks. Both countries could then settle down to some sort of normal relations. I hope in all this I am not teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.”

Mr Major tells the taoiseach: “The more I learn of the problem, the more anxious I am to make progress. I would favour a step-by-step approach – a slow approach. We have to carry a unionist and nationalist consensus along.”

Mr Haughey speaks of the need to get officials and experts to look at the possibility of Sinn Féin joining “the process”.

Unionist feelings

Later, Mr Major expresses some concern about the feelings of unionists, telling Mr Haughey: “The whole subject is very difficult and very complex in view of the position of the unionists – and of Northern Ireland generally.”

According to the confidential note, Mr Haughey responded: “You don’t know your own strength in this. I must ask where do the unionists have to go? If you say ‘The British Government have decided on a certain course of action’ where do they go?”

“If they push, things go back and the Anglo-Irish Agreement is fully in place and will be so for another 20 years.

“Don’t attribute too much sophistication and understanding to the unionists. If the British Government says ‘This is the way we must go’, they have no alternative.”

FRANCE-CSCE-SUMMIT-OSCE-EUROPE-IRELAND Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher had an often difficult and antagonistic relationship. Photo: Jean-Loup Gautreau/AFP via Getty

Mr Major responds: “Whatever is proposed must be broadly accepted by the unionists and also by Parliament.”

At one stage, Mr Major tells the taoiseach that more cross-Border co-operation is needed. Mr Haughey replies that it is already “superb” and teases: “I think you are beginning to speak like Mrs Thatcher. Maybe you have one of her briefs.”

Mr Haughey and Margaret Thatcher had an often difficult and antagonistic relationship throughout her time as British prime minister.

“We have bitten the bullet of extradition and the system is operating, despite some political trauma in the South. People concentrate on feelings and animosities in Northern Ireland but I have my own party to consider on this subject,” warns Mr Haughey.

The taoiseach says he was careful to “sell this as an EC [European Council] meeting”.

Mr Major used the meeting to complain about recent media comments by Mrs Thatcher and former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath on European integration.

“Luxembourg and the community are causing a real fuss over here now,” the British prime minister says.

“There are certain key words which inflame passions here. One of them is ‘federal union’.”

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