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  • “The Totality of Relationships”: The Haughey-Thatcher Relationship and the Anglo-Irish Summit Meeting, 8 December 1980
  • Stephen Kelly (bio)

There is a broad consensus in the relevant literature that the summit meeting between taoiseach Charles J. Haughey and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, held on 8 December 1980, marked a new chapter in Anglo-Irish relations. Stephen Collins, for instance, wrote that Haughey “astounded” his critics by “making a good stab at fulfilling his dream of launching a major political initiative.”1 This summit meeting, Collins argued, “heralded a genuinely important breakthrough” as it helped to pave the way for future intergovernmental dialogue between the British and Irish governments.2 Martin Mansergh has supported this claim, noting that the Anglo-Irish summit meeting of December 1980 contained a “radically different approach to the Northern problem, with the British attempts at an internal solution temporarily abandoned.” He noted that it was “an ambitious attempt to create an institutional framework between Britain and Ireland which could form a key part of an overall settlement involving [End Page 244] the reunification of Ireland at some future stage.”3 Eamonn O’Kane has offered a similar analysis. In his words this Anglo-Irish summit meeting helped “to put intergovernmental cooperation back on the agenda” in both Dublin and London. The summit meeting, O’Kane wrote, marked “the movement of the two governments towards greater and institutionalized cooperation on the issue.”4

The above observations are accurate. Haughey’s meeting with Thatcher in Dublin on 8 December 1980 was indeed one of the most significant Anglo-Irish summit meetings convened since the foundation of the Irish state. Yet there has been a persistent failure on behalf of political commentators and historians alike to explain precisely why this summit meeting held such importance. Therefore, major gaps in our knowledge remain in relation to this meeting. In truth, many writers believe that the meeting was significant merely for the fact that it actually took place.5 Such observations are far too simplistic and one-dimensional. This essay readdresses this imbalance, explaining the reasons why this meeting was integral for the evolution of Anglo-Irish relations during the 1980s.

It is only now, owing to the release in recent years of previously classified government-department files from archival institutions in Britain and Ireland, that one can offer a reassessment of this summit meeting. The research materials on which this essay is based consist of hitherto unused and neglected documentation from the National Archives of Ireland,6 the National Archives of the United Kingdom,7 [End Page 245] the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland,8 Margaret Thatcher’s personal papers,9 and Fianna Fáil party papers.10 This documentary evidence is complemented by the use of recorded interviews and newspapers. This article reveals how both Haughey and Thatcher viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland during the initial years of their respective premierships. The genesis and complicated nature of their relationship are examined. On the subject of Northern Ireland Haughey is revealed as a political opportunist, ruthless, even sly, in his actions. Thatcher, on the other hand, remained cautious when it came to Northern Ireland and in her dealings with Haughey. Significantly, this work focuses on two controversial aspects of the joint communiqué issued on behalf of the British and Irish governments in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish summit meeting of December 1980: first, the decision to use the phrase “the totality of relationships” to describe the relations between the two sovereign countries; and second, the proposed commissioning, on behalf of both administrations, of British-Irish joint study-groups. Famously, the joint communiqué issued in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish summit meeting referred to the “the totality of relationships” to describe the relations between the British and Irish governments. This was an acknowledgment on behalf of the Dublin and London governments of the inextricable “link” between the two countries in relation to economic, social, and political affairs.11 On first inspection the phrase “totality of relationships” seems innocuous. At the time, however, it caused a political tremor, particularly among Ulster unionists and backbench Conservative MPs.

Moreover, the reference in the joint communiqué to the...


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