Bunker Days is an important account of the Irish experience of the Anglo-Irish secretariat set up in Maryfield in Belfast in accordance with the terms of The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The initial section describes settling into the rudimentary accommodation supplied while Ulster Says No protesters raged at the gates. As the memoir progresses the substantial political work of the delegation is described in detail. This account constitutes an important source document for those interested in the state’s progress in ameliorating the effects of the Unionist hegemony that obtained over many decades in Northern Ireland and in promoting the principles of shared power and responsibility.
Maryfield Secretariat Witness Seminar
December 8th, 2015
Participants: Frances Killilea (FK), Mary Quealy (MQ), Caroline Bosshard-Bolger (CBB), Mary Shanahan (MS), Pat Scullion (PS), Daire Ó Criodáin (DOCN), Michael Lillis (ML), Daithi Ó Ceallaigh (DOCH), Jennifer Todd (JT), Joseph Ruane (JR)
On November 15th, 1985, the taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Margaret Thatcher, giving the Irish government for the first time a significant role in the process of government of Northern Ireland. The two governments agreed that a secretariat would be established in Belfast comprising teams from both administrations to service the implementation of the agreement. On December 8th the Irish team arrived. The following witness session by the Irish side recalled their experiences under two headings: the initial period when they were confronting the practical problems of establishing the secretariat in Maryfield and the modalities and content of their engagement on policy issues with their British opposite numbers.
The initial months in Maryfield were characterised by sustained violent protests against the agreement and the secretariat at the gates of the secretariat at the perimeter of Palace Barracks in Belfast. These scenes were relayed prominently on TV news broadcasts, to the distress of the families of the Irish team south of the border.
On December 8th, 2015, the thirtieth anniversary of their arrival in Belfast, most of the surviving original members of the Dublin-based group were kindly received at Áras an Uachtaráin by His Excellency President Michael D Higgins. Later in the day they participated in this witness session organised by the Institute for British Irish Studies, University College Dublin, as part of the wider Breaking Patterns of Conflict project. Academics present included Jennifer Todd, Professor, Politics and International Relations, UCD, MRIA, Institute for British Irish Studies; Joseph Ruane, Visiting Professor, Sociology, UCD; and Roland Gjoni, PhD Student, Politics, UCD.
ML: We went from Baldonnel by Air Corps aeroplane to Belfast. We went into the downtown airport in Belfast. The police and the army had pretty well locked the town down and we raced to our destination, which was in Maryfield. It was a very simple, rather primitive building near Palace Barracks, outside its perimeter. And I should say that the Northern Ireland Office, who were in charge of finding somewhere for us to have our base, were not alone unhappy with the Anglo-Irish Agreement but very reluctant to help our side to get the secretariat going. And there were signs very clearly given to us that that was the case. They refused to entertain any more normal type of premises for people to live and work in and this was, when we went into it, an astonishingly primitive office building which had never been planned to provide residential facilities for anybody and, even on an office basis it was rather basic.
But as we thought about this encounter earlier today, it seemed hard to come up with a very efficient structure for how to make it work, especially the first half. But by now we’ve all known each other and we’ve lived together and somehow or other got on together, despite the fact that in some cases, we didn’t know anything about each other and in some cases, the terms of living together with conditions of intimacy in which you heard every snore coming from the neighbouring bedroom, not to speak of nuggets of conversations you would prefer not to be aware of. It was extraordinarily difficult, but somehow or other we survived and we became, I’d say, under the circumstances and the pressure of difficulty, very good friends. And we worked around the clock every day with our British opposite numbers who are also deserving of great credit, because we were, in effect, under attack for several months in terms of pressure, such as screaming mob fury and of course we had to provision ourselves and travel in and out of the premises and they had to come in every day and they would have been seen, if they’d been identified, as traitors to the cause of the protesters outside.
And then we had to work together on policy issues which were very serious. And I think those issues we can deal with in the second part of the session. But it was just the experience of finding a way to survive this and, let me be honest, to enjoy this, because I think it’s fair to say that to a large extent we thought it was a great experience despite some horrors.
Now, how to begin? We’d like you, Jennifer and Joseph, to be in charge of the second half and we’re not going to be too spontaneous in relation to the first, but I’d like to suggest a question: how much, before we went up there on this extraordinary adventure, were we told about and how much did we know as to what it would be like? Maybe we could ask Caroline Bolger just to say one word and others join in as you feel inspired.
CBB: Well I had been working with Michael in the Anglo-Irish Division as his secretary. I typed the Anglo-Irish Agreement but it wasn’t until the morning of November 15th that I became aware of where it was actually going to be signed and so on. I hadn’t really thought further than that to be honest. I was more worried about getting to Hillsborough than anything else! I didn’t think too much about what’s going to happen next and, yeah, thanks to Michael, I went up that day to Hillsborough and on December 8th flew up to Maryfield with Michael, Daithi, Mary and Daire, and is that it? Nobody else? Yes, and Noel Ryan, God rest him.
ML: And Barry Noonan.
CBB: And Barry the cook. And it was surreal really, because I was only twenty-one at the time, didn’t really quite realise what was ahead of me but it sounded very exciting and very adventurous and, I was just saying in the car coming here, it had a lot to do with the fact that I just trusted Michael completely, knew we’d be looked after. Beforehand what I would say is that my family wasn’t terribly enamoured really about it. But I told them everything would be OK and they didn’t have to worry.
ML: You never told us that.
CBB: Did I not?
ML: You got the insurance premium?
CBB: The insurance, yes. When they spoke to us about insurance in the Department of Justice I remember we were blubbery, well I was anyway. I don’t remember much more than that other than that Noel Ryan was with us. That was the first time we met Noel in the Department of Justice and they’re talking about this insurance and the eventuality of …
ML: Of death?
CBB: Of death or injury or whatever, so even though we knew it wasn’t directed at us personally ‑ more at the higher officials ‑ we were all in the same boat. So we knew that there was a risk involved. And then getting there that day, initially it was surreal going in those gates and all the protesters outside and everything and just this feeling of “what have we gotten ourselves into?” and the building was so bare. It was basically an ugly office building really, wasn’t it? It was just not very inviting ‑ no curtains in the dining room. We had our first dinner at a table like this, office tiles on the ground and RUC men walking up and down with machine guns outside the window. So that was a bit sort of daunting, definitely. And for our families, I guess? Were we allowed to watch television in the early days? I don’t know. We didn’t have television in the bedrooms, I think.
PS: That luxury came later.
CBB: So we were shielded from a lot of the negative stuff taking place outside the gates etc., weren’t we, in a way and we – the girls ‑ were looked after. “Best not tell the girls too much” I think was the policy and I think it was probably the best thing really.
ML: What about some other recollections?
MQ: I suppose very exciting and we just wanted to do it, we wanted to be part of it and we weren’t very worried or fearful, were we? Just a little but we wanted to be part of it no matter what, we wanted to be part of it and it was very exciting.
FK: I had no experience of Anglo-Irish because previous to that I worked in the legal division so when I applied to come to Belfast and I mean I was so delighted that I was accepted and I really knew nobody … I think I knew you, Pat. And I hadn’t got that fear of travelling, you know, I didn’t really think about what lay ahead of me. But I mean we arrived, I came with Mary [Shanahan] and another person. Tom Bolster [see first footnote] and Michael met us at the airport. It was so welcoming that I had no fear whatsoever. But I mean I was there for two and a half years and every moment of it was pressurised work from morning to night. But the people we worked with, Michael, the whole lot of us, we were like one big family. We might have had our arguments but at the end of the evening we had all sat down to dinner and, you know, I was so happy to be a part of that, I really felt I was a part of history.
DOCH: We all had our meals together. We had dinner and lunch together firstly, and secondly there were two teams, there was a second group who used to come in at the weekends.
ML: It was a seven-day tour, three and four, four and three.
FK: Not for us.
ML: Not for you too?
MS: I came up with Frances and Tom Bolster and I didn’t work in the Anglo-Irish Division but I helped out. I was called upon from time to time. I came from Political Division and, with the encouragement of Caroline, I decided to apply. I was only a few months in the Department and I thought: “Well, I may not get up there this time, but it will happen the next time.” I don’t remember being nervous. I remember hearing about it and being told I couldn’t tell my friends where I was going to work. I could tell my family but I think I understood not to give them any phone numbers and I didn’t give them any phone numbers. I can still remember going up on the first trip I was actually more nervous on the flight than anything because it was a little small plane and it was bumpy and at one point Tom said to me “Mary, we’re just going over the Hill of Tara” ‑ bump on the plane. I just have great memories of us getting on so well together. I think we were kept away from the danger. We didn’t have the TV. Michael was protecting us – I was twenty-one so I didn’t see danger. I felt we were doing something that was part of history and I wanted to be part of it. As Daithi said, we had dinner together in the evening, we enjoyed that and we had to get along and I think we worked hard to get along together.
MQ: We were lucky we did get along. We did genuinely. We didn’t have to try that hard, really. Certainly between the four of us we had to … and that was really a very, it was very kind of bonding experience really, it was something exceptional.
FK: We felt well protected with the RUC on one side and the Palace Barracks and that’s the one thing that really frightened me the first morning with the …
PS: Helicopters and the firing range – 6.30 every morning.
FK: The firing range. I mean you just automatically think of bombs. They were just behind the building and after that you just forgot about it, you didn’t even notice anymore.
MS: Was it going in the gates we were told because of the protesters outside the gates, we had to turn our heads? We couldn’t be seen in case our photographs were going to be taken. I remember that morning.
PS: I wasn’t actually working in the Anglo-Irish Division in the department but I had helped out on November 15th on the press side so I was aware of the agreement and its ramifications and I had seen the press coverage afterwards. A couple of days later I was asked if I would join the secretariat. At first I said no – I was just six months married with a new wife and new house– and I thought I’m not going to do this because it was scary. The TV was showing demonstrations and the response of the DUP to the agreement. Then I thought about it for a while and decided that this was a chance to be a part of history. I’m not going to tell you now that I knew at the time that it was going to be a wonderful experience and that my three years in the secretariat would turn out to be fantastic but I did feel something inside saying “Go for this, this is going to be a challenge.” So I joined and I remember going into the building the first day and thinking “My God, it’s just so bleak.” Your bedroom and your office were the same. Your bedroom had a sink and a bed and your office had a desk and a chair. Otherwise they were exactly the same. It was very, very difficult and it was a dark place. You went in the morning to go and have a shower and you met your colleagues coming back and this was a first for the Irish Civil Service, you know, to have colleagues living together; civil servants, male and female and we met in a very thin corridor. It was a very human experience and the point I’m trying to make is that it was a very human interaction and that that interaction was carried right through from the work ethic to having dinner in the evening together, to getting back up to work again, to playing table tennis, to playing cards. Don’t forget, we were locked in for four days. You couldn’t just leave when you wished and one thing that struck me as a newly married man was that if there was a problem at home I couldn’t just walk down the street, get the bus and go home. It simply wasn’t possible. So I think that stark contrast made me realise that this was going to be a big challenge but it was an incredible time personally speaking. It was an incredible time and we were looking at history in the making although we probably didn’t realise it at the time.
DOCN: Two points. And because we did a lot of talking about this before we came here about the perception of risk and I think again, listening to what colleagues were saying. Some of us were younger than Michael and Daithi and Noel who were there, the three senior officials. Excitement, adventure, a sense of participation in history overcame, almost wiped out, any sense of fear or risk for me. And here’s an important kind of quasi-political point: it felt unlike “terrorists” today. Anyone up there who was going to do something terroristic wanted to get away with it and I always had confidence, whether that was sort of quantified or rational, that the guys who were walking around with the machine guns, their duty would prevail if somebody tried to storm the place. Would they give away their lives? Well they wouldn’t just say “after you”. Once we were in, we were safe and being tackled between there and the airport or whatever was probably too high-risk and unlikely to succeed so I never, or very, very rarely, felt any fear.
MQ: When we were there we were very, very busy too. We were working hard so we hadn’t time to think about being afraid. You just did what you had to do with the machines, the computers, telex machine, everything was new to us and it was all in a day’s work.
MS: It wasn’t even an issue. We didn’t discuss fear. It was there but we just kept working and it wasn’t hanging over us.
MQ: No it wasn’t.
DOCN: This was a two-storey building the backbone of which was a corridor on each floor …
PS: Like a T.
DOCN: Yes, but the backbone was the corridor and we had the upper corridor, bedrooms at one end, the males on one side and the females on the other. I think the females had the two biggest bedrooms. And then that was one half of the corridor. The second half of the corridor were our offices, Daithi and Michael on one side, Noel Ryan, my office and then a kind of comms room on the other and then the T on the top there was a kind of recreation room. We didn’t have table tennis initially. We’d nothing initially and we had one toilet and shower upstairs. Downstairs was we’d say the British corridor but, though they were in during the day, they weren’t all in, it was less used – there was a kitchen, the living room, another toilet and shower on the ground floor.
PS: And a library.
DOCN: Yeah, so that’s the physicality of it. It was a 70s jerry-built office block.
PS: It think it was actually a DOE driving test centre.
FK: Never took photographs of it funny enough ...
PS:Oh we’ve one photograph of the whole team on the front steps before the Secretariat broke up at the very end.
PS: We all got copies. I have mine at home.
DOCH: One of my abiding memories is going in on that flight on December 8th; it was more than historic. It was the presence of an Irish government within the United Kingdom dealing with Northern Ireland: it was astonishing. On the other hand, I was actually quite scared. I had been working on Northern Ireland for the previous three years, and Michael and I had visited Maryfield in the period between the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and going in and the police brought us from the railway station to Maryfield by closing off every road off the Newtownards Road if you remember, Michael, and we went up the Newtownards Road in RUC cars at a hundred miles an hour. So I was quite uneasy going in but it was a great sense of history. The building itself was placed between an RUC vehicle repair shop on which there was a big flag saying “Ulster Says No” and behind us was Palace Barracks. But Palace Barracks wasn’t only a British army barracks, it was the headquarters of the UDR. And that Saturday in January, when the march from Derry arrived at the building, and Michael and I were in, I think we’d sent all of you home, we were actually frightened, because we were afraid that, if the demonstrators pushed the RUC aside and pushed at the back of the building, we’d actually be going into the hands of the UDR, and whilst we had a certain trust in the RUC, we had very little trust in the UDR. But there was a policeman in charge. It was pouring rain, you know that heavy rain, and the building looked down to Belfast Lough and in the field between the building and the road, which was quite a distance, two to three hundred metres maybe, there was barbed wired all across and the rain was coming in sheets, literally sheets of rain going almost horizontally. And the RUC man in charge would come in every twenty minutes, every half-hour and we’d ask him how it was going. And he’d say: “See that rain? It’s worth a battalion of soldiers.” The RUC were exceedingly good at looking after us. What you, Caroline, said is absolutely true and the protection which was provided for us and in which the British army was involved at the beginning, they were certainly determined that nobody in that secretariat would be injured. They took great care of us.
ML: I’ll just say initially as to what we thought beforehand. I had very serious concerns about the security of our group and concerns also about how to communicate that and in what way. We had got an appreciation before we went there about the possibility that people in particular in Shorts armaments centre, who had fairly advanced technical knowledge of rocketry, could have taken us out at any time. Now the people who had to take responsibility for dealing with that, which was a very substantial and real threat, were the British who, had something like that happened, would have found it not just embarrassing but probably disastrous, so you had to make an act of faith that it wouldn’t get to that point. But of course it could have. A couple of days before we went up, I was instructed to go up to McCann Fitzgerald, a solicitors’ firm, which at the time was on Pembroke Street about a hundred metres up Leeson Street and to make a new will. I certainly remember doing that. It was the only will I’ve ever made at taxpayers’ expense. And then when I came back, I was met by a sergeant in the Special Branch who instructed me to come up to the men’s room at the back of Iveagh House where Daithi was and they had spread some kind of blotting paper on the floor in the men’s room and he locked the door and told us to take our shoes and socks off and they put a dye on the blotting paper. We were told to squelch around in the blotting paper for a bit and I said well what’s this about and he explained that in the event that they couldn’t identify us by our teeth, they would identify us by the soles of our feet. This was in the days before DNA – I mean I wasn’t totally taken aback, but I was rather surprised that our authorities were displaying that level of concern for us. But it was realistic actually because in the accounts that everybody has given so far, what has not really come out is that, from the very beginning we had huge, vociferous, extreme demonstrations taking place outside the gates of our nasty little premises and with thousands of demonstrators, sometimes led by Ian Paisley, sometimes by others. There was a permanent demonstration that went on there day and night for a month and getting in and out of the place was hazardous to put it mildly. Whether we could be confident when we left in a motor vehicle that we weren’t being identified was somewhat dubious. And then we had the business of provisioning ourselves – I mean getting food and drink into the place in sufficient quantities and frequently enough to keep us a) alive and b) happy. Some of us weren’t allowed out at all for obvious security reasons but others had to go out on regular forays into the heartland of East Belfast to buy food and drink to keep this bunch of invaders going. We had a cook who was a wonderful character, not able to be with us today, called Barry Noonan, and he was part of most of those forays, and, you know, he and I think most of us did not, with sufficient verisimilitude, manage an East Belfast accent and it was fairly obvious where these people were coming from. Now as time went on we developed a better shopping kind of knowledge and were therefore somewhat less exposed. But every single time it was life-threatening and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the motivation of the people who did this was pretty admirable. We’ll come to discuss later whether it was all worthwhile and whether the work that was done was effective and transformational in any way. But I just wanted to put that additional context around what we were doing.
Now, could I suggest we say something about how we got on with our British opposite numbers. This was a completely unique experience and experiment between two governments who had a disagreement about let’s call it a “shared” territory, and which as far as I’m concerned has never been attempted in any other similar dispute anywhere on the planet, even though there are lots of candidates for trying something like this. So we had, on the other side of our little premises, at various levels, representatives of let’s call it the other tribe, the other country and it was interesting as to how we got on with them. Who would like to say something about that?
FK: Well as regards, you know, the Northern part more than the British side, we developed a great relationship with – there was a woman who helped in the kitchen and kept the place clean and a man who did driving and other duties in the evenings. They were from East Belfast.
DOCH: We had a kitchen help and we had a couple, all of them Protestants, a man, his wife and his sister, all living in East Belfast who did an awful lot of the work in the house. They were under greater risk than even any of us. [ML: I would agree. FK: Absolutely.] One of the women told the story of her husband who had been murdered, mistakenly by loyalists, I think, in the ’70s and Paisley had come along to convey his condolences and she wouldn’t let him into the house. They were an extraordinary family. They were an extraordinary couple. The father was from East Belfast and the mother was from the Falls, and they got married in 1929, and the mother turned Protestant and they would spend Sunday with their Catholic grandmother in the Falls, and get beaten up because they were Protestants, and come back home to East Belfast, to get beaten up because they’d spent Sunday with their Catholic grandmother. And when the mother was dying – the father by the way had worked in the shipyards and he was the last one to be employed and the first to be let go because he had been married to a former Catholic ‑ but when the mother was dying, he asked the mother did she want to see a priest and she said no but he gave her her rosary beads. They were an astonishing family, they were extraordinary people those three people.
DOCN: We divided our interface, routine interface, into three categories: category one would be the opposite numbers, we’ll say the civil servants on the British side, the head of the secretariat, Mark Elliott, was Foreign Office seconded to the NIO and then two NIO officials, I can’t remember if Hewitt was on secondment …
DOCH: No, I think Hewitt was NIO. Originally Home Office.
DOCN: So not a deliberate secondment. So that is category one. Category two were the two local females who provided domestic help, two daytime drivers (both East Belfast Protestants) and the man who did some quasi-reception as our evening driver so that’s category two, and then category three, probably least important, or the least impinging on our lives, the two secretaries to support the British team were two women – who were married to British soldiers, one an officer and one a squaddie in Palace Barracks next door. So it was a very handy arrangement for them.
CBB: We had coffee together with the “British” secretaries as you remember – at 11 o’clock or whatever time – and they had lunch with us as well and that lasted for several months. I think when they were replaced, the other girls weren’t as friendly or they did their own thing, but for the first six months or a year we had coffee together and we had lunch together and we got on very well.
MQ: We did.
MS: As for the local staff from Northern Ireland, they were extremely warm and friendly and welcoming towards us. One of the housekeepers was very motherly, wasn’t she? And they were just very caring of us actually. I thought they were a bit foreign to us, I suppose, strange thing to say but they kind of were. But they were extremely nice and it was very risky for them.
MQ: And we weren’t allowed out at all at all, but after a few months when we got help from the driver we were most friendly with we used to go through the Argos catalogue and, every once in a while, that driver would go to Argos for us. He would go into the Argos queue and bring back the stuff to us. They went out of their way to make life comfortable …
MS: We didn’t have an Argos here, did we?
PS: There was no Argos in Dublin. This was 1985.
MS: I remember going to the supermarket one day with one of the housekeepers and she told me that if anybody came up to speak to her I was to walk away. She wouldn’t be seen to be with somebody from the South. I think I was aware of the risks they were taking.
PS: The risks were huge.
ML: Well nobody was allowed out for at least six months.
FK: We got dispensation for Mass so we hopped at that because we were in from Monday to Sunday, so that was our outing on a Sunday morning. The RUC had to take us to Mass and then take us home and we took them in and we gave them the coffees and their friendship, you know … I think they didn’t realise the bonds that grew between both sides. They were really so protective of us and, you know, we had such fun with them, they really opened up to us and we had a very happy morning with them and you felt protected as well.
PS: Just to add, one was a Catholic and one was a Protestant and they came into the church with us and they sat at the back. I think they were armed, which would have been a strange situation in a church.
ML: All these people were. Our drivers, I’m just remembering something now involving one to whom I didn’t warm too much. This was after several months. I had taken the train to Dublin and then he picked me up when I came back and was driving me in through the protesters and a couple of the protesters became very menacing and they were threatening to kill him. Now I didn’t see any weapons, but he did, and he had a revolver in his sock and he leant down to take it out and I saw this happening and I said: “No, don’t do that.” Because I was thinking this is all we need, have a couple of these guys killed by the secretariat, the hated secretariat, and we would have been set back a hell of a distance. But he just made a remark to me which I’ve never forgotten and he said, and it was a moment of some tension, and he said: “Life is very sweet.” Which of course it is, compared to the alternative. But my impression certainly confirms what everybody has said about the way, in human terms, certainly at the middle and lower levels of the secretariat, our opposite numbers who must have found it in many cases very uncomfortable and indeed unpleasant working this hated agreement, that they were, they showed tremendous loyalty to their institutions. The more you know about those institutions and their history this is rather extraordinary because they were extremely anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic in their essence and continued to be so until some time after we were there. So, a huge amount of credit for those people.
DOCH: Most of them in one way or another had worked for government. One of the drivers had been a reserve policeman for twenty years or so, and the two people who helped in the kitchen, they worked for the NIO before they moved in with us. So they were already all employed by government. But they couldn’t tell anybody at all where they worked.
ML: We also thought – I hope you’re finding this interesting – we also thought that maybe we should say something about how we survived, how we got on, how we entertained ourselves, how we occasionally had the odd disagreement and how we overcame that. It was a very weird situation. How did we get on?
MQ: Looking back, I thought we got on very well.
CBB: I think when the work finished we knew that was the end of the working day and it was time to forget whether we wanted to kill you or not!
DOCH: Until we got you out of the bed to do some more work.
ML: Most nights, as far as I remember we went back and worked after dinner. [MS: Absolutely.] It was pretty intense stuff.
CBB: And I do remember Daithi, and I thought he was very good at it, if he sensed tension at all and he had a glass in his hand, he’d say, “it’s a very drinkable drop” and someone would laugh and we’d just relax and OK, it’s time to behave.
DOCH: I don’t recall; I mean there were differences of course from time to time but I don’t recall one serious argument.
CBB: Because it was stopped. We just didn’t go there.
MQ: Yes, we just didn’t go there.
MS: We had to eat together after the working day, and then we’d play table tennis at night-time or we’d have the extra time.
DOCN: In some ways I’m disappointed that it has only occurred to me now rather than thirty years ago. I mean, I’m flipping the coin of what I said earlier about being younger and single and believing you’d never die. For those of us who were young, in some ways, it was easier because we didn’t have our own immediate families in the sense – a point I really only genuinely appreciate now – that the older officers ‑ Daithi, Michael and Noel would have had. First the collegiality around the dining in the evening, that got us there in terms of, and, you know, certainly lubricated by substantial amounts of wine.
PS: It was only wine.
DOCN: It was only wine. But we bought bottles of liquor which rarely diminished.
ML: When the RUC visited us they did.
DOCN: I can imagine there would be different thoughts going through some heads, you know: “I’m up here four nights a week, God knows what’s going on with child X or child Y and so on.” Certainly Daithi was the oil cast on any amount of troubled waters. You know, I was there for twenty months and only once did I ever get a dressing down, and when I did get it, I did deserve it and I knew that at the time, and in twenty months of what was a hothouse atmosphere, you know, I can’t remember any of my other, shall we say, in the soldier class as opposed to the senior officer class, requiring any kind of dressing down of any kind. We just got on with it. It was a highly professional operation for the good of the cause.
DOCH: Well I think to be honest with you, an awful lot of that is over to Michael Lillis, who insisted that we all live together. I mean there was a possibility of a house. We had a house, a really decent house quite close by into which the senior officers could have moved and Michael insisted “no move, we’re all staying together”, and it was the right decision [second footnote].
ML: Well I thought it was going to be more fun. And it was. I mean it was nerve-wracking, particularly – I mean I found it nerve-wracking because I was concerned about everybody else, but it was great fun. And it was very exciting and the issues we were dealing with were of extreme importance in the local community and we dealt with all of them and we’ll come to that I think later on, so that I think people had a sense of participating in something potentially very important and with great ambition and we all benefited from that, and there were, of course, moments of hilarity inevitably because this wasn’t a normal living arrangement. The only really interesting result from that end of it of course is that Daire and Mary got married.
FK: And they’re still married. That’s even more amazing.
DOCH:You certainly hid it from me because I had no idea.
ML: Yes, I had this notion ‑ out of my normal personality ‑ that I would play the role of an old country parish priest and I would at night walk the corridors and make sure that the genders were keeping separate, holding a kind of invisible great stick in my hand. I think I was not entirely successful and I’m not going to go any further with that, but the interaction between our own group was remarkable. It would have made a sort of Pinteresque play ‑ these people hanging round with all the tension in the background. There was a lot of tension also on the business side of things because we were expected to deliver on issues which were virtually impossible because the Northern Ireland Office was extremely, extremely hostile and was determined to ensure that we would be unsuccessful, so that added to the tension and we also had to travel back and forth. In the beginning we did this by aircraft into Aldergrove and then by helicopter across the town or by RUC cars moving at ludicrous speeds.
DOCH: They were incredible drivers. I’m a motorcar man.
PS: Armoured cars, Granadas.
DOCH: No, they didn’t use armoured cars.
PS: They were Granadas.
DOCH: They were souped-up Granadas and Rovers, and they always had two cars. They had a driver and a man in the front seat with a submachine gun and they drove like that at enormous speed, but they were superb drivers. They were very professional. I’ve never seen police as good as them anywhere except the Met in London in all my time; they were extraordinary. I think there’s one thing that we should say: there’s a slight difference between Michael and myself and everybody else in that both our families were under heavy twenty-four-hour police protection in Dublin, which caused strains in both our families from time to time.
ML: Yes. What happened was before this had even happened, before this exercise started, was that our own police had discovered a car in Whitehall, at the time on the Belfast-Dublin route, which was carrying explosives and was also coming from Belfast and they found that the only evidence beyond that they got was that they had my family home address in the car. So the result of that was that I was moved out of my home and Daithi’s family residence was placed under twenty-four-hour guard, possibly on that account, or on other grounds, I don’t know, and I always felt that that drew attention to us far more than it did provide protection, but there you go.
PS: Well, I think our working day has to be put into the context of the communication machines that we had, I mean there was no internet, there were no mobile phones, there were no modern-day computers. We had a telex system – now it wasn’t antiquated at the time – but it was cumbersome, because many of the telexes were coded, which was a laborious task. There was a ticker tape where you had to run the tape, type it up and then run it through another machine which produced these dirty flimsy telex pages and that was how we communicated and there was a huge amount of work involved in that. I remember one night when half-way through a major missive to Dublin, somebody broke the tape and it all had to be done again. That’s how difficult it was. We take so much for granted nowadays because we now have e-mail and the internet which didn’t exist then – and everybody worked extremely hard.
Michael was joking about parading corridors at night, but in reality we were all too tired at the end of the night to be getting up to anything. They were long days and as Michael said we often went back up after dinner and did another three or four hours. I mean the flipside of that was that we had nothing else to do; we weren’t going anywhere.
DOCN: And the work was interesting.
PS: It was and I think that was the thing; it was meaty work. And for me it was my first foray into what I would call foreign policy and I certainly enjoyed it. It was challenging.
JT: Were you worried about spying? If you were sending telexes, were you worried about it being picked up?
DOCH: Well, we took it for granted that everything could be read and if we wanted something to be taken really seriously, we would write it in Irish. Then …
ML: To make sure that they read it.
DOCH: I lived in Moscow in the ’70s. Ever since then I’ve always taken it for granted that anything electronic is capable of being broken. I’ve always worked on the basis that it can be listened to and if I really want to send something – and this happened in Maryfield – if we really wanted to send something that we didn’t want them to see, it went with a courier or it went by hand.
ML: We used couriers a lot.
DOCH: We used to say “Good night, Cheltenham”, up to the lights. You know, GCHQ in Cheltenham.
ML: It happened that one of the people who were responsible for Cheltenham was a friend of mine and so I would send him messages in the same way. And also we had lots of fun with the Irish language. At one stage, before the agreement, one of them very kindly said to me he wanted the agreement to be a success. So he went out of his way to say: “Listen, just hate to tell you this but every single word you’re sending – and we thought we had fairly fancy cyphers at various stages – he said we’ll read it within two seconds.” Which of course was true. So after that we had to use couriers and we used couriers a lot except for the times when we wanted them to read it. And we would make that a little bit more difficult to make sure that they were challenged and usually start in Irish and then usually two or three layers of cryptography would be added.
DOCH: Just make it that bit more difficult for them so they’d think it was more important.
PS: A bit longer, yes; it took them ten seconds.
ML: They never had an opportunity to do anything like that with us, so they were at a slight disadvantage if you like.
DOCH: Three times when I was in London as ambassador, three British cabinet ministers said to me: “Daithi, whatever way you report this, and I know you have to report it, I don’t want to see it on my desk in the morning.”
PS: Going back to the then and now, you could not at that time get Radio Ulster in Dublin and you could not get, at a reasonably early hour of the day, the Newsletter or the Irish News in Dublin. So the first task in the morning was to catch the first news on Radio Ulster and produce a one-page report of the main issues to be faxed down to Dublin safely before 8 am. The second task was to identify relevant cuttings from newspaper to be sellotaped onto pages and faxed down to Dublin. The stamina of youth was an issue as the Radio Ulster news started before seven and God knows what time you might have gone to bed the previous night!
JR: Can I ask just a question about how you felt politically about where you were, I mean, you were from the South, you were obviously representing your government and you were civil servants, but at another level there must have been a reflection, a personal reflection about what you were finding?
ML: A reflection on the Unionist people that we were dealing with, or the British people?
JT: Was this an extension of home or somewhere different?
DOCN: It was totally different, alien. All kinds of dark psychotic. And people, I don’t know whether people round this table would say it, but every time the aircraft crossed the border on the way back…a release of breath.
DOCH: I actually still feel that way, and I travel North a lot.
PS: Well with Michael’s replacement – I always remember him walking up the stairs and sighing, “back here again”. He always seemed to feel the darkness of the place when he came back after the weekend.
ML: The British called him the Prince of Darkness. That was a compliment.
DOCH: To answer your question in a slightly different way – I thought you were asking a question about politics in the South because there was a split in Dublin on the agreement. The opposition under Charlie Haughey/Fianna Fáil opposed the agreement and there was a split in Fianna Fáil. That was of considerable concern to Michael and myself. I had been personally and publicly criticised by PJ Mara, who was Haughey’s adviser, not by name but everybody knew who it was and there was a concern, certainly, I think, on the part of Michael and myself – I don’t think it mattered to others – about what might happen with a change of government. And the other side of the question, we were in – bluntly – a foreign country. We were dealing with a foreign government, we were dealing with the British government in the NIO and we were dealing with the Northern Ireland civil service, what would be devolved and what eventually become devolved, so we were actually dealing with a foreign government and we had an awful lot of learning to do.
ML: And we dealt in great depth and frequently with the leadership of the RUC and the British army and they came and visited us frequently in our strange little premises and there were ‑ some of these discussions were led by Noel Ryan, who was our colleague from the Department of Justice, an exceptionally brilliant man who had a very sensitive set of antennae when it came to these people. He helped a great deal because the agreement required that the British would have some sense of satisfaction about security co-operation across the border. Daithi’s and my agenda was more concerned with the relationship between the nationalist community and the RUC, which was a fundamental issue. And we actually had many encouraging discussions on that with Hermon [third footnote], who was a more imaginative man than his opposite number in Dublin. But I think the essence of political reporting, whether you’re reporting from Moscow, for example ‑ you’ve been in Moscow, I’ve been in various places ‑ about some events or some crisis: you may disagree with the fellow who’s sitting in the next room to you in the embassy or in this case the secretariat about, you know, the significance of this, that and the other and this individual. But that difference usually becomes minuscule compared to the perspective, the distance of perspective between the two of you and the government that you’re reporting to. I would say that’s probably very general. And in this case, if there was a perspective that we had, and I’m speaking here politically and probably anticipating our next discussion, I would say that that perspective was neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, I would say it was closer to the SDLP, because they were the people on the ground who were doing their best to keep politics going. Now that view was shared from slightly different angles by the two main political groups in Dublin, the coalition and Fianna Fáil. But there’s no doubt that the SDLP perspective, which we fully endorsed and which in a sense we really almost exemplified, was our protection against one side or the other in Dublin. Even though the SDLP weren’t that involved directly in either negotiating or implementing the Anglo-Irish Agreement but it was certainly Hume’s idea. So, I suppose I would add those words to Daithi’s observation. Daithi was seen by PJ Mara as being some kind of a blueshirt, I was seen as being azure or whatever the deeper shade is, because I was known to be friendly with Garret FitzGerald, even though I had told Garret many a time that I’d never vote for Fine Gael.
DOCH: My problem with PJ Mara was the contact with Seamus Mallon, and when Mallon decided he would support the agreement, which was just before the agreement was signed, when he told Haughey …
ML: Thanks to Daithi actually.
DOCH: Haughey never spoke to him again. He cut him out completely.
JR: How did the week go? I got one account that you were there for four nights, and another account you were there for seven nights, that there were two teams, so just explain that.
CBB: The clerical staff, we were in for a week, seven days.
DOCN: And we were four and three. They would be week on, week off, normally they’d come in before the weekend – Friday to Friday
DOCH: We worked Monday to Friday and then we had another team that covered largely, effectively the weekend.
DOCN: Some were Monday to Thursday because there was always stuff to do in Dublin one day a week, just tidying up stuff. Monday to Thursday afternoon or Monday to Friday morning.
ML: Very occasionally, for example, if the ministerial conference, which we served on both sides of the secretariat, was meeting on a Tuesday then we’d probably work through the weekend preparing it or if there were some other similar kind of high-level events. So it wasn’t absolutely strict, but that was the general idea.
JR: The other question is how was it possible to get out at all? You said you went sourcing in East Belfast at some point.
DOCH: For the first at least three or four months we were effectively locked in. We never got out of the building. We weren’t even allowed around the building. And then it eased a little bit, I’d say from March, April in ’86 and some of the people were allowed out maybe to do a little bit of shopping or on a Saturday.
DOCH: Oh, always accompanied, never on their own. But they were much more careful about allowing Michael and myself.
DOCN: Yes, sorry again for categorising things in threes, but Michael and Daithi never went anywhere for a very long time. Category two was discretionary – personal shopping took a while in the sense of going to Argos or any of that, took a while. Now we did have to feed ourselves and we did have to get wine … we ran out of the first lot and I can’t remember where the first lot of wine came from …
DOCH: At least you got that in the right order for once. Food came before …
DOCN: You know, that went through a sequence of first of all Barry and myself and a driver going to a different supermarket, different off-licences and then gradually transitioning to the local staff doing the provisioning shopping. Wine went a different route, because we weren’t getting it at a fast enough pace through the off-licences to satisfy our habit.
ML: Protestants hadn’t started drinking wine.
DOCN: Daithi came up with the smart idea of getting in touch with a contact from the local business community who organised a consignment of wine and after that we went to the supplier of that and Pat and myself went and bought in bulk.
FK: But that’s exactly what kept us sane, you know. You looked forward to that after your long day’s work to go down and have a meal.
DOCH: Can I just paint one picture very quickly? There was a car maintenance place beside us, so there was a constant flow of cars in and out, so the guys would go and take a car from there and we would get in. If they were trying to watch us, well there was maybe twenty cars going out. They didn’t know which car we would be in and that was the only reason why in the end when we did start to go out was because we felt we had that cover.
DOCH: We were actually, at the very beginning because of the danger, we were specifically told that we could not interact with people in Northern Ireland and that’s something that I felt very strongly about. Michael knows.
ML: I’d like to suggest that we give you an opportunity to throw a few questions at us about policy matters and how they were handled.
DOCH: Can I introduce something because I went to the archives yesterday? I hadn’t seen any of these papers for thirty years but I spent an hour and a half yesterday in the archives just to try and remind myself of what we were trying to do. This was a very risky business. I mean what we – leave aside the risks we were talking about earlier on – what the Irish government was trying to do was to deal with what was seen as nationalist grievances in Northern Ireland and to resolve them through interaction with the British government and with the Northern Ireland civil service. Now it was risky in many ways. Would people give us, tell us what the grievances were, firstly? Secondly, would we be able to persuade the people with whom we were negotiating in Northern Ireland that what we wanted should be delivered and then thirdly would they deliver it? It was quite a risky business politically for the Irish government. And the whole thing was serviced by a conference which at the beginning met once a month or thereabouts, and it was Tom King who was the Northern Ireland secretary and Peter Barry was the foreign minister, and that conference was serviced by the secretariat. So it was a very formal structure but it was a very risky business.
We had a joint log to record where the British and Irish would agree that a topic or an incident had been raised and under what heading of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and then we would track the response. I just want to give you some idea of what we did in the first two/three months because this is not on the record anywhere as far as I know, and it’s very bitty because I only had an hour and a half yesterday. But by the end of January, that’s within the period of say six/seven weeks we actually had around about forty different issues which had been formally raised by the Irish side with the British side and they’re really of two kinds, some of them are specific incidents. For a flavour: alleged harassment by the UDR; prison sentence review; a request from a person who’d been arrested and he wanted his belongings returned to him from the RUC; a very interesting one – an RUC chief inspector who was not of our persuasion and who decided that he hadn’t been given the promotion he deserved and wanted us to raise it and we did; a shooting by the UDR where two UDR soldiers had used shots. We raised it.
Immediately we were told that they would not be employed on operational duties until an inquiry had been carried out. So what we were doing all the time was we were trying to sensitise the police and sensitise the British side to the needs of nationalists. So you had both – on the one instance we tried to deal with the specific complaint but we hoped that by throwing these complaints in their way that it would actually change their behaviour. Jack Hermon was extremely helpful in this whole area, and I can’t speak too highly of the support that we got from the RUC. More than eight hundred RUC officers had to leave their homes because of the loyalist protests and the unionist protests during that period.
Then on a more general theme – this is all by the way in the first couple of weeks – we raised the question of the replacement regiments. I think there was a Scottish regiment coming in and we wanted them to be very careful. Immediately we got a very good response from the British side, including the things like incursions – the border goes like this, if you travel from Cavan to Monaghan you’ll see it and frequently the British army would be in the wrong place, on the wrong side of the border and there were changes made in the instructions issued to British soldiers to make them more aware of it. But also to say that if there was an incursion that they should report it. There was a threat assessment of cross-border terrorism which I think was a British initiative but I think Noel was very happy about that. There was the question of the closure of cross-border roads, the renewal of the Emergency Provisions Act, the Flags and Emblems Act which we raised on January 6th – that’s within a month of going in and which brought big changes in the use of flags and emblems in Northern Ireland. We were doing that in preparation for the meeting of the conference, which I think was January 10th.
We did the same for the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and regulations were brought in to change its use. On January 6th again we put in a paper on public appointments so that we would have an influence on the appointments to public bodies. Number 22 on the log was the Newry-Dundalk road. Number 23 was the life sentence review board. On January 8th we put in a paper on police complaints and it was eventually agreed to introduce a new way of dealing with complaints against the police. It was approved by the conference on July 24th. On January 15th we put in a paper on Northern Ireland electoral matters. On January 16th we asked them what they had done with the armed forces so that they would be in compliance with Article, I think, 7C of the agreement, which was a very important one – 7C on security-related matters in the agreement. And then we put in one on the code of conduct for police.
On January 16th, we raised a very important issue in response to a request from Cardinal Ó Fiaich. It was about the Navan Fort/Emain Macha site, where a Catholic was carrying out quarrying on that site. In O Fiaich’s view, the quarrying was causing severe damage. It had been reviewed by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which had allowed the quarrying to continue. We got that changed and we got it stopped. It took four or five months of very difficult negotiations including Michael waxing eloquently about the Táin Bó Cúailnge – and the importance of the Navan Fort in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the national epic, dating to the Iron Age – and it was a British minister who personally overrode the Northern Ireland Civil Service to deliver on that issue. It was Richard Needham. It’s an indication of what was achieved.
Another issue we raised, on March 6th, was Divis flats. We succeeded in having the Divis flats and two other blocks of flats demolished.
ML?: There was that bunch of flats in Derry.
DOCH: Yes, so there was an enormous amount of work that was undertaken in those first three/four months that we went in because we had to deliver. We had to show very quickly that if somebody, for example, had a problem with the UDR at a roadblock that that issue could be dealt with quickly and could be dealt with through the Irish government and through the secretariat because that’s what the agreement was about. And in my view it worked.
JT: Who did you raise the issue with? With the NIO?
DOCH: No, an issue would be raised at different levels. In the first instance, issues were raised with our British opposite numbers. Now if there was something which, like Navan Fort, involved one of the local Northern Ireland departments, then we would bring those people in, we would bring people up from Dublin or wherever and have a joint meeting, just to argue it across the table. The Navan Fort one eventually was decided at ministerial level, but when dealing with the UDR, for example, we were dealing with our British opposite numbers. We might on occasion have a wider meeting involving the police or have a wider meeting involving other people in the NIO and involving people from the Department of Justice. On things like education we might have the Department of Education in Dublin. The work was done between the two sides of the secretariat.
PS: Across the table.
DOCH: Across the table.
PS: Daithi and I were looking through the logs yesterday and I was surprised at the amount of work we actually did in those first few months. The amount of paper. We had a lot of meetings on prisoner issues ‑ we were looking for an agreement on accelerated release or early release programmes. Something to give the terrorists, the IRA, something to get them on side. So we had a couple of meetings on prisoners which were fractious; they were difficult, but we persevered.
ML: Let me just say something about a memo which was released in, I think, the Belfast Newsletter [fourth footnote] some years after the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in ’85. It was a memo from the head of the Northern Ireland Office in London, who was extremely opposed. He was sort of the head of a UK government department, in this case the Northern Ireland Office. His office or department was only brought into those negotiations shortly before the Anglo-Irish Agreement was concluded. And at a point where it was impossible for the British to draw back. He did everything possible to stymie the agreement, to stop it happening. It was an extraordinary performance because he was after all an official of the Crown and this was a British, a UK government, issue and the negotiators who had led it were the head of the cabinet office and the deputy head of the cabinet office. You don’t get closer to British power in that system. They ran the intelligence system, they ran the security system, they ran British power both domestically and internationally and the Northern Ireland Office frankly was small potatoes by comparison. But that official tried everything he could. Then Douglas Hurd, who had been the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was moved out of the Northern Ireland Office just immediately before the agreement to the Home Office. He was replaced by Tom King, who was a very nice man, who had a classic military personality. But he was a person of some frankness and directness and honesty and he hated the agreement because he thought it was completely unfair to the unionists, whom he would be instinctively disposed to support. So when the agreement happened, we had been dealing with the centre of British power, the prime minister and the two top officials in the cabinet office and we had a relationship going which was collaborative. We then immediately switched to a relationship which the agreement itself provided for, which sounded fine to us when we perhaps hadn’t sufficiently considered it, but it was between Dublin and the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Civil Service and Northern Ireland ministers, most of whom were hostile. This is from a situation where we had been collaborators. And I always blame myself here a bit. We should have maintained as a very active review channel the leverage of the two cabinet offices – Dermot Nally and Lord Armstrong – because that’s where there was a shared objective and a shared desire to see co-operation.
Instead we found ourselves working with a system which was extremely hostile and which wanted to destroy the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That wasn’t successful and I’m not claiming that we were particularly ingenious in our opposition to that effort, but I have to say several things happened which made it difficult for them to pursue their extremely negative programme. The most important one was the very simple but extremely ingenious system of creating a common log. Not an Irish log, but an Anglo-Irish Secretariat log which could not be in any way denied because it was based on articles of the agreement, on issues that were raised, on what the responses were and how the responses were pursued, and then responded to again ‑ and it proved to be extraordinarily effective. I personally had nothing to do with it. It was Daithi’s invention and it was pursued by the other colleagues in the secretariat as being sort of a working method. And in itself it had its own unanswerable momentum, which created a lot of the success that we certainly saw in the beginning. But to give you an idea of how extremely opposed to all of our intentions the senior people in the Northern Ireland Office were, not one of the three senior officials of the Northern Ireland Office once visited the secretariat or spoke to me and I was the senior person on our side. Not once for several months.
DOCH?: The head of the NIO never came, did he?
ML: No, not once. They made it very difficult for us to interact. The Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is a subsidiary entity below the Northern Ireland Office led by Ken Bloomfield, a decent man who has never hidden his extreme antipathy to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, did not make things easier either. There were a couple of things that worked in our favour and they were very important. One extraordinary one was Jack Hermon, who would be a figure of hate in certain Provo circles. From early days he came over to meet us and he stayed until four or five or six o’clock in the morning emptying our cellar – and not just of wine but in some cases of the harder stuff – and he engaged and would speak passionately on all of the issues we were pushing. So in other words instead of having to go through the Northern Ireland Office, we were actually dealing with the person whom we wanted to deal with. Curiously he started a fashion and the next thing we had was other senior levels of the RUC, including their notorious Special Branch, were coming in, partly we suspected because they heard there was free drink. But also then we had the commanding officers of the British army coming by. Again without the approval of the Northern Ireland Office. They just came in because they didn’t really seem to have any respect for the Northern Ireland Office. They were the UK army but they were intrigued and interested to know what we were selling. We then would have great debates about the behaviour of the British army, which we criticised without reservation and of course extremely strong views from us on the UDR and on events and other things like that. So we were, particularly on those, the most difficult issues always were security in the North and we were actually quite successful in moving forward on those. There were always disasters, provoked naturally by the two sets of terrorists, the IRA and the UVF/UDA, and that could always destabilise things, but the thing had actually been transformed for the better by the time we both left.
DOCH: Well, let me give you an example. In about April there were very serious attacks on Catholic places in Portadown. Bríd Rodgers of the SDLP was inside the area that was being attacked and was passing on the information to Dublin, who passed on the information to us, and we were passing it on – it was on a Saturday – to the British side of the secretariat ,who were passing it on to the RUC, so there was direct information coming from within the area that was under strain, to the RUC that was trying to protect the people inside and it was extremely helpful. I just wanted to say that about the assistance we were getting from people like the RUC.
ML: And we were very lucky in that respect. Now the RUC has itself been radically reformed and for the better; its symbolic attachment to one side of the community has been basically obliterated. Those people deserve some credit and, without that frankly, the first period of the secretariat could have been a disaster. But I suppose, had it been veering in that direction, we would have forced the issue back on the two-cabinet-office channel and would probably have turned it around, but with great difficulty because Mrs Thatcher was extremely unsure of her support for this whole enterprise.
DOCH: There was another piece to it which was very helpful, which was the very regular meetings of the conference. Peter Barry has almost been written out of history, and wrongly. Peter Barry had a very strong view that it was the duty of the government in Dublin to look after the nationalists of Northern Ireland. He was a very strong nationalist. I’m not saying he was a thirty-two-county man, I don’t mean in that way. But he felt that nobody had helped and he was very tough in that conference and he was so tough because … I remember when Tom King went down to the first one in Dublin, I went with him in the helicopter and Tom King didn’t like Peter Barry, largely because I think he felt a little bit uneasy in his company, but Barry was very insistent in that conference on making progress and, under the terms of the agreement, they had to make determined efforts to reach agreement. So there was a mechanism, as it were, for pushing them, even if they didn’t like to be pushed and Peter Barry certainly pushed.
ML: I would agree with that.
The mechanism for interaction between the two sides was very well-devised but it would have worked a lot better had there been goodwill on the side of the Northern Ireland Office. And had there been goodwill on the side of the Northern Ireland Office we would have understood or been ready to understand their difficulties in working with us more readily than in the end we were. Because all we had at that level was a complete refusal to co-operate. At the same time, it did work and it worked in the conference although the atmosphere in the conference was not always terribly happy – putting it mildly – mainly because Tom King was a bit out of his depth and his advisers were hostile to us. His foreign policy man, who was my opposite number in the secretariat, had been deeply influenced by the Northern Ireland Office approach, even though he maintained minimal, decent levels of co-operation but not as frequent or certainly not as wholehearted as they should have been. But the fact that that mechanism was there, even though it wasn’t worked wholeheartedly by the other side, was infinitely better than had it not been there at all. And it was enhanced from our point of view by the fact that they knew those who were unwilling to work with us, that some of the people in their own system – notably Hermon, notably senior army people – wanted this thing to work. And those people were largely independent of the Northern Ireland Office system. There’s been a lot of discussion down in the South in the last few days about the gardaí, with a great deal of emphasis on operational independence. The RUC was operationally – curiously – much more politically independent of government than were the gardaí, much more. And they may have made the wrong decisions on various issues and various incidents, but Hermon was entirely his own man and paid no attention whatever to the secretary of state, much less to his senior officials. And that worked, and the army of course was the British army; it wasn’t a part of the Northern Ireland security system, so they were themselves somewhat independent. As time went on, I felt that we were winning the war a bit, if not winning every battle and that the guys at the next level of the Northern Ireland Office were starting to co-operate with us because they felt that the opposition of their top layer was just going nowhere. And it is fair to say that four, five, six, seven months in we were getting some co-operation.
DOCH: Yes, including from the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
ML: Yes, so it was a very hard beginning. I’d often talk to my British opposite number in the negotiations about the idea of using a mechanism like this for other conflict situations, the obvious one being Kashmir in India which has an almost exact analogy. But it depends in his view – he was actually High Commissioner to India later – on a minimum level of goodwill existing on the part of the conflicting parties which appears not to be the case. And there was, of course, the Anglo-Irish Agreement itself, which created a degree of co-operation, indeed in some cases collaboration which had not hitherto existed, so that helped a bit.
DOCN: I would endorse that and, in the end, as quartermaster rather than the strategist – I would have more the perspective of an observer rather than full-on participant – starting off, this agreement on the local level was an imposition and an implicit rebuke of the previous management of Northern Ireland. That is a difficult thing to bear. Also when something starts, there is an inherent provisionality about it until it beds down so, at best, a policy of containment is what happens. Whether it’s deliberate or just implicit – “oh God, this is an awful nuisance and these guys haven’t a clue and they have read it all wrong and read this place all wrong” – it is a very important factor. There are two related factors. One that the secretariat bedded down, stayed and we seemed quite happy to live in what might have been seen as primitive squalor, but also that the main protagonists on our side of the interface, Daithi, Michael and Noel, were collaborative in their dealings with their opposite numbers and the discussions were issues-based. Invariably there was never “Hey, on the backdrop of eight hundred years of oppression here is the latest example.” That was not the approach. It was “look, here’s what’s happened and, you know, the facts as we’re hearing them present this pattern and, surely we all agree that this kind of thing shouldn’t be happening or should not endure.” That’s an easier way. The quality of the people was very important.
ML: I agree with that. There is something so fundamental that it’s almost easy to lose it from sight – the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by their closest devoted icon, Margaret Thatcher, was a total betrayal of the unionist entity, historically speaking. It was shocking and it was very difficult to digest for them but it was a necessary step and without it there wouldn’t have been a refocusing on the part of the unionists.
JR: Setting up the unit in Maryfield as distinct from one on more neutral territory seems to have been an enormous decision. How did that actually get through the Anglo-Irish Agreement?
ML: I went through that, through those discussions in some detail and I would say that among the core group on both sides – not including the Northern Ireland Office – that’s to say our cabinet secretary, Seán Donlon, Noel Dorr, myself – we felt that it required something of a kind of tectonic plate move somewhere along the line for this thing to be seen to be significant. And there were two tectonic plate moves: one was we had a say in the processes of government in Northern Ireland which is kind of unique in the world and the other is that we had a presence which represented our assertion of a right to have that say and in terms which were provocative in the extreme. I would go along with that and some people here in Dublin felt it was too provocative – Mary Robinson, for example.
DOCH: Conor Cruise O’Brien.
ML: Conor Cruise O’Brien, yes, quite … I have no hesitation in saying that this was shared by the British side. We never had a discussion in which either side said “isn’t it time that we kicked them in the teeth, woke them up, make them realise that they can’t have total control of the agenda and the decisions here regardless of anything else”. We didn’t have that discussion and there was no need to have it and I think that was even more significant. If you read through the negotiations, debates, which are very interesting, that was never asserted by our side and never asserted or accepted by their side, but they totally understood it. And at the end when the Northern Ireland Office intervened very vigorously to have the whole thing turned around or at least to have its effects reduced radically, the Northern Ireland Office said we can’t have the secretariat here in Belfast because it would be too provocative and the people who fought back on that and won – everybody knew our position – but the people who actually got Thatcher to go along with that were her own senior advisers. So it was a conscious betrayal by the British of the unionists.
DOCH: Yes, in one way, it was, but we also accepted in the agreement that there couldn’t be a change in the status of Northern Ireland without the support of a majority. It seems to me that if you look in simplistic terms at the unionist veto, there are two aspects to it. There’s the first – their right as a majority to remain in the United Kingdom. The aspect that the British government was not prepared to tolerate any longer was that the unionists could prevent nationalists having any say in their own position in Northern Ireland. I think that’s critical.
ML: Well I think there’s another point, and that is one that went much further than that, which was they couldn’t prevent a foreign government, Dublin, from having a say. Because the British position has always been in favour of power-sharing. This was a transformation like we hadn’t seen anywhere in the world and it was done with a certain minor malevolence on their side. And it did work, they changed – very hard to change unionists.
JR: You said that Tom King was kind of instinctively sympathetic with the unionist position?
ML: Oh, wholly. Most British ministers supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement, whether complacently or even with a degree of enthusiasm. Tom King was influenced hugely by his interaction with the Northern Ireland officials who gave him the very simple argument that it’s majority rule or it’s despotism and he thought it was very unfair.
DOCH: The senior people in the NIO at that time were all opposed to it. They were not in favour of it at all – a man who afterwards became the permanent under-secretary of the Northern Ireland Office thinks it was a mistake that the NIO was not involved from the beginning. Because it wasn’t only the unionists who were excluded from the negotiations on the British side, it was the Northern Ireland Office.
ML: Let’s be very clear, we never actually asked for them to be excluded. It was the British, without consulting us, without saying a word to us, who excluded them. Rigorously. We never discussed it with them. I wrote an article fairly recently in The Irish Times saying the first significant development that persuaded me that the British were serious was that they excluded those NIO officials from those negotiations and it showed that there was a serious rethink going on in London. And it’s interesting that Mrs Thatcher, who had hesitations and vacillations and regrets and all the rest of it that have been canvassed quite a bit, has ‑ she never intervened to stop anything like that. Mrs Thatcher knew what she was doing.
JR: That’s a 1980s shift, though, isn’t it? You could say Sunningdale had elements of North-South, but this is something different?
ML: Sure. Sunningdale involved the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and the unionists. This was a rather horrifying but necessary exclusion of all of them from the entire process and the British engaging only with the government in Dublin about the future of Northern Ireland.
DOCH: It’s astonishing.
JR: And that’s the 1980s, that’s not previously about the 1970s?
ML: No, and then what happens in the next shift is that after the effect of this has been digested by the unionists, something that has been written up very well in a recent supplement in The Irish Times ...
DOCH: And by Sinn Féin.
ML: And by Martin Mansergh. But they have absorbed this, digested it and their whole approach has changed and they accept that they have to share power. That actually probably is the long-term achievement of the agreement itself. It was rough stuff but the British play rough against their own and they did it in that respect in a way which surprised me. And certainly surprised them, the unionists. Necessary but salutary, I think.
JT: Say you have forty logged cases or claims in the first few months, what sort of percentage of those would have been dealt with?
DOCH: The vast majority. There were very few of them not resolved. And it led to changes in practice on the ground. The way the UDR managed things on the ground. When you get two UDR men firing shots and the next thing is they’re off-duty until there’s an inquiry ‑ that never happened before, so they don’t fire shots any more.
The two which I had forgotten about altogether which had nothing to do with security: Navan Fort was a very big one in persuading people like Cardinal Ó Fiaich that it was actually possible to do things through this agreement and Divis flats ‑ people had been trying to get rid of them for a long time.
ML: And the Rossville Street flats also in Derry.
ML: In Latin American terms.
DOCH: At the request of the British government, the Irish government didn’t make any claims for success because there was a massive unionist reaction against the agreement. And so we tended not to blow our trumpets, which Seamus Mallon told us at the time was a mistake.
ML: Maybe it was a mistake on our part.
DOCH: Well there was another thing that came out of this. It didn’t happen immediately, but it did happen quite quickly. The other side, whether it was the NIO or the police, or whether it was the Northern Ireland Civil Service, they began to realise that we didn’t actually have horns on our heads, that we weren’t actually trying to replace them, but that we were trying to help them manage Northern Ireland in a better way and so we did begin to get a very positive response as we went along. I’m not saying from everywhere, and I’m not saying from everyone, but there were people on the other side who realised …
ML: The prison service, as I remember, was a very good example. They were actually looking for our advice, believe it or not, to stave off hunger strikes, that kind of stuff.
DOCH: Sir Kenneth Bloomfield appointed a man to the central secretariat and within the Northern Ireland Civil Service there was what they called the central secretariat, which was a sort of a cabinet office but they didn’t have a government and he appointed a man there who was a very helpful liaison between the secretariat and the Northern Ireland Civil Service. And he was exceedingly helpful.
JT: So was there policy learning in Northern Ireland?
DOCH: Yes, on both sides. Because we would have meetings North-South involving things like economic co-operation across the border, joint programmes on tourism, this sort of thing, and they began to see that we weren’t trying to take them over, number one, but we were trying to find solutions that would help both sides.
DOCN: That this was no Trojan Horse was another confidence-building metaphor.
ML: Why did the Provisional Sinn Féin/IRA movement not respond more positively to the agreement? Because the agreement showed that it was possible to make progress politically including on the nationalist agenda, because here we were with a foot inside the camp and calling the shots to a certain extent. I don’t know the full answer to that. After I left the Irish government service in 1989, I had two full days’ meetings with Gerry Adams on my own. This was with the approval of Garret FitzGerald, who had been taoiseach when I was there most of the time and also of John Hume who then asked me to stop, which I did immediately, because he was doing his own thing with Hume-Adams. Adams was very interested in the agreement. The session was arranged by Mary Holland, who is alas deceased, a very fine journalist who had terrific access to all of the parties, and Adams asked questions over about two days as to how you got to this point and what was the resistance like and how did you deal with it and I, having told him how much I deplored the campaign of violence of the IRA – the IRA was still active at this time – and he listened silently. I did my best to be honest with him because, if there was any way you could help these people out of their isolation, I thought one should do it. When the agreement first of all was launched, and we had many a discussion about this, the first thing that was a bit of a disaster was the fact that Fianna Fáil opposed it in the Dáil.
DOCH: I think that’s key.
ML: Had that not happened, we’re only speculating, but there is a good chance that it would have been easier for Sinn Féin, not to say we think it’s a great thing, but to say “Hey it’s a start, let’s move on to another level.” Something like that. So they weren’t under any pressure to do anything like that because Fianna Fáil had taken that position. But then, for several months, they did a lot to destabilise the agreement. They attacked and they exploded bombs in towns where they had not hitherto, at least very often, launched attacks. These were mainly in unionist-dominated areas, middle class, and where the effect inevitably would be to entrench unionist revulsion against everything from the nationalist camp. And that continued for several months and it was very difficult for us to deal with actually. We didn’t expect any co-operation and we weren’t looking for it from these guys but what they were doing was engaging in a deliberate campaign to prove to the British that the agreement was irrelevant to British concerns about security. But actually, to give her her due, Margaret Thatcher stuck to her guns or non-guns or whatever you want to call it and despite all of the convulsions and legitimate reaction of innocent people to this campaign of violence, she didn’t change her position one inch. She emitted signals of dissatisfaction and regret and she said things to FitzGerald like, “you’re getting all the glory and I’m getting all the bad news” et cetera. And I think, and I’m not going to put words in Noel Ryan’s mouth, I think we could have been more proactive on improving security co-operation but the Garda Commissioner was, for some respectable reasons, but which I think were difficult for me to agree with, held back and that didn’t help us at all. When you think of very simple things like this that are very efficient like an impressive army – highly respected – that was not allowed to have any communication with the British army north of the border, I think that was greatly resented. I felt reasonably. It had to be done through intermediaries, the gardaí et cetera. And there were certain life-threatening and life-saving issues which could easily have been improved but our guys were not prepared to do that and that didn’t help. And Noel Ryan, whom we miss so much, had a lot of these concerns, he wished like me that we could have been a bit more forthcoming. It wouldn’t have cost us anything, even politically. But it would have made it easier for people like Thatcher to feel it was worthwhile, which would have been no harm.
JR: What was the procedure for actually getting the issues that were raised to the table? Was representation done personally? Was it done through letter?
DOCH: Most of it was going on through the department in Dublin. We had a number of people who were operating in Northern Ireland talking to the community in Northern Ireland and so on and then there were people in the Anglo-Irish Division who would draw up policy papers. Now, we’d been involved in drawing up policy papers but we operated fundamentally on instructions from Dublin. Now we had considerable influence on what was in those instructions but we were under instructions from Dublin. So for example, let’s say you got a UDR issue where somebody felt they had been mistreated by the UDR; they would complain to somebody in the department and the department would ask us to take it up. On policy papers we would have quite a big input because both Michael and I had been involved in Northern Ireland for a long time before then. So that’s where it emerged. I mean this stuff was not coming out of our own heads. And the agreement itself, if you have a look at the agreement as a whole, there are very, very many headings within the agreement of the topics which it said the conference and the secretariat would deal with. Now the department in Dublin were preparing papers and preparing positions and so on on all of these areas, frequently in consultation with the SDLP, but not limited to the SDLP by any means, and so we would put these things forward, they would be debated and eventually the decisions would be taken. And equally there were papers that came from the other side. They gave us papers, for example, on things like the relations between the police and the community. They were very keen indeed for advances in security co-operation and they produced quite a lot of papers on those sorts of things. I would differentiate between particular incidents and policies. And in the policies over a period of years, there was very considerable change indeed in the manner in which policies were carried out in Northern Ireland and in the influence which the Irish government had on those policies, including things like, for example, appointments to public bodies. We would put forward names – we would probably get most of the names through the SDLP – but we would put names forward for positions.
JT: What was your relationship with the SDLP? Did they come to Maryfield in person?
DOCH: Oh God no, we had no connection except on one or two occasions. The British absolutely insisted that we were to have no direct relationship with the population, as it were, in Northern Ireland. We did build up a relationship with the RUC, with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, with the Northern Ireland Office, with people within government; we did not, except on one or two rare occasions, have any contact at all with people who were not in government: those contacts were carried out by the department in Dublin.
DOCN: In association with the agreement, the department substantially beefed up the legion of what we called “travellers”, the people who liaised with the community in Northern Ireland so they would … I mean travellers always existed but it was a bit more systematic and structured activity. They would feed into Dublin. Dublin would feed into Belfast, which acted as a combination of filter/sanity-check/post-box into the Northern Ireland government system. We were the interface.
JR: Policy-making still goes on in Dublin rather than the secretariat?
DOCN: No we were additional contributors.
ML: Before we went to Belfast, several of us had been the principal policy-makers in Dublin, including myself. Daithi and myself would have been in the top group of maybe two or three people that were creating policy, so when we moved to Belfast we certainly didn’t stop doing that.
DOCH: We did not. But we also led the negotiations. We argued for the policy with the British.
JR: There, in situ?
DOCH: Yes. I mean it was a typical diplomatic job – we didn’t have diplomatic immunity by the way.
ML: Yes, it was, except for the unique character of the institutions, because here we are representing issues which are internal matters in a “foreign country” in a way which puts a lot of obligation on our interlocutors to come to an agreement with us. Because any time we don’t come to an agreement, and I don’t recall that we ever reached a situation where the British said to us, “That’s it, we’re not going to negotiate with you any further.”
DOCH: There was one issue; it was on the courts.
DOCN: Three-judge courts.
ML: Oh yes, but that was actually on the agreement itself, and then the agreed implementation follow-up measures which were part of the agreement but not on anything that happened in our time
DOCH: I mean there is a sentence in the agreement that both sides had to make determined efforts to achieve agreement. We used that very frequently.
ML: And by the way it didn’t end with making a determined effort. It said “in the interests of peace and stability”, that’s your obligation and we abused their good will.
JR: Were you like a permanent delegation as opposed to a sovereign entity, the presence of the Irish sovereign state on their territory? How might it be best described?
ML: I think that embassy is actually not the best analogy, because I think it slightly confuses the issue or distracts it from its unique character. An embassy, for example, if Daire were the ambassador in France and we had issues in foreign policy at the United Nations or on EU matters, he would go into the Quai d’Orsay and argue this and he would, using his charm, undoubted charm and persuasiveness, hope to influence a bit the way the French were dealing with that matter. But you couldn’t expect them to change their policy. It wouldn’t happen. They would maybe nuance it a bit to ensure you got some manifest comfort from the way they were proceeding. In this case we were talking to them about their own internal government system in every single aspect of it. There was nothing which we weren’t attacking: economic policy, the social policy, the institutions, the way the electoral law worked, the way the police were structured – there’s no such thing as an embassy that deals on that range of issues with any government on earth. This was an entire government role. It was based on an obligation: they had a) to try to listen to us and b) to try to come to an agreement. And we of course had to show that we had an open mind and weren’t totally committed to our starting position and we would say “That’s good, you’re right on that one”, so it is completely unique. There is this very interesting document on the Anglo-Irish Agreement which we call the catechism. It was a document which was negotiated between us in the run up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and there was a chap called Sir Christopher Mallaby – he went off to Moscow …
DOCH: Tough as nails. I was in Moscow with him.
ML: Well he and I negotiated the “catechism” for the most part. It’s quite a lengthy document. Obviously the most important issue, theologically, for anybody who is interested in these matters, is whether the role of the Irish government is consultative or executive. And the compromise because, obviously we wanted it to be as close to executive as possible and they wanted it to be as far from executive as possible, so to avoid unionist convulsions and the answer finally was “there is no single word to describe the role of the Irish Government” in this thing, this was the agreement. And they actually accepted “it is consultative and more than consultative”. That is the “catechism” according to the British government and accepted by them and she actually said that, so there is nothing like it anywhere in any treaty.
DOCH: There is no doubt that as a result of the conference and the secretariat and the way it worked – but keep in mind all the time the agreement because there are lists of things in the agreement to which they had committed – there is no doubt that the Irish government had huge influence in Northern Ireland and I think that’s the reason why the Northern Ireland Civil Service began to work with us, because they realised that we had that influence.
ML: I agree with you – I think it took some time, but I think it did happen.
DOCH: They realised that the influence wasn’t as baleful as they feared.
DOCN: Yes, we were trying to be helpful.
ML: The one thing I would recommend to everybody and I know some of you have read this, Charles Moore, the very conservative, unionist-minded Daily Telegraph journalist has just published volume two of his biography of Margaret Thatcher and in it there’s a very long chapter, fifty pages, on the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and his approach to it is, he starts from a position of great dubiousness, dismay and dislike of what she did, et cetera, et cetera. But actually it’s based to a large extent, not entirely but to a very large extent, on a remarkable journal by one of the British negotiators, David Goodall, the deputy cabinet secretary, and he [Moore] ends up saying, more or less “Well, I’m not sure that I like it and it is extraordinary and maybe she shouldn’t have done it but in the end it had gone so far that she couldn’t turn back.” But it is a recognition also that she knew what she was doing.
DOCH: He says that actually.
ML: So it’s coming from a source like that and it’s about the best thing I’ve read about the agreement by anybody by the way, but I recommend it to you as something to spur your interest.
DOCH: I had a very quick look yesterday for an hour and a half, and I think it will be worthwhile looking at these archives as they begin to come out because it’s now thirty years.
ML: But why haven’t they come out, Daithi?
DOCH: I saw the log. The log is really an index and so you need to get the file for example on Divis flats. You need to get the file on Navan Fort, you need to get the file on UDR, whatever it might be and the problem is they are put into the archive when the most recent paper on that file is the last date of the file. What was very noticeable – they just gave us two or three representative files – the files are ending in ’89. They’re ending therefore four or five years later so they won’t be going into the archives for a few years. It will take another while to see how this thing worked. It was unique and to see how, and particularly the conference ‑ there are very detailed reports on the conference because I used to try and take shorthand notes and Noel Ryan would help me, and Michael used to write a note on the private part himself … Robert Andrew and Tom King and Peter Barry, they used to have maybe half an hour on their own before the big meeting. All that stuff is all there in great detail and some of the files that we looked at, the files that they showed us, all the stuff that you typed all night, it’s all there.
PS: It’s all there. I was amazed at the amount of stuff.
DOCH: There’s an enormous amount of paper.
JT: Where did the vetoes come from?
ML: I mean the vetoes took the form of either a failure rather than a refusal to co-operate. The most obvious example to me is that these folks who were the senior officials of the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Civil Service certainly in the beginning would not co-operate in the sense that they didn’t make themselves available, we couldn’t talk to them. However, happily we weren’t confined just to those people and we found others who were prepared to, in particular, people on the security side, who just took an independent view. But the atmosphere would have been an awful lot better had the people in charge shown any willingness to co-operate.
DOCH: You’re forgetting your own role with Tom King, Michael. You actually persuaded Tom King to be helpful.
ML: Oh well, Tom King was a very nice man.
DOCH: Michael had gone to see him and there were one or two ministers on the British side who were helpful, the more junior ministers. Nick Scott and Richard Needham later on, and Michael had gone to try and persuade King that really we could be helpful to him and we could do business together and then King came into the secretariat and he was horrified at the conditions under which we were living and he made quite a difference.
ML: He gave us curtains on the windows. Well actually, after three months without curtains, you’d be surprised at how nice it is to have some privacy.
DOCH: You can’t have a dinner and a few glasses of wine with fellas with submachine guns marching outside looking in through the window.
ML: Also because we were from the notorious South, we had to hide the number of bottles under the window ledge. But don’t say we didn’t have a good time. We had great fun. And I mean I think, I don’t think anybody here would not have done that.
DOCN: Play hard and work hard.
FK: It was wonderful.
ML: And it was, because it was unique and it was being attempted for the first time anywhere. It had that kind of level of excitement to it.
DOCH: But it had a huge level of risk as well.
ML: Oh sure. It was dangerous.
DOCH: I mean risk in terms of not actually being able to deliver.
ML: I agree with that too but I think the physical risk was extreme. And thank God we’re all here to laugh about it.
JR: The second Fair Employment Act, and setting the fair employment commission – was that already being discussed from the beginning, the question of equality of employment, or when did that come up?
ML: I think that discussion had begun.
DOCH: Oh it had begun. In many ways the agreement codified a lot of what was already happening because under Peter Barry and Garret FitzGerald for the three years before the agreement, we had taken a great deal more interest in Northern Ireland than in the past. And there were a couple of travellers and I was one of them.
DOCN: They were always a permanent fixture.
DOCH: And so we would hear things and we would call the British embassy. We did a lot of this stuff through the British embassy. But about the Fair Employment Act – it had been done but there was an enormous amount left to do, it just added a completely different level to the negotiation.
ML: Also, something like fair employment, discrimination, et cetera, et cetera, there were some very, very able idealistic but professionally impressive people who were pushing the right agenda in Northern Ireland itself on these issues and they get huge credit.
JR: Who do you mean by that? Bob Cooper for example?
JT: Or SACHR (Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights)?
ML: Yes, exactly.
DOCH: And the Department of Foreign Affairs kept in touch with all these people through the travellers. They weren’t only dealing with the SDLP, they were dealing very much with the churches, with the universities, with people in these sorts of bodies. And it was interesting – frequently we were able to tell the British things about Northern Ireland that they themselves didn’t know.
ML: Oh yes.
DOCN: That was one of the keys.
ML: I’ll give you one example. Before we even got into the agreement itself, there was something about being able to put forward the names for public bodies and stuff and the judiciary and there was … the one area where Dublin failed was on the judiciary and that was because Lord Hailsham in Britain and Lord Lowry, Lord Chief Justice in Northern Ireland, together absolutely refused to co-operate. But when the British were trying to negotiate these things, I remember the British ambassador in Dublin was a great friend of all of ours, Alan Goodison, and he came in with a note, a very polished diplomatic note saying what we had said about the make-up of the judiciary, how many members of the higher court in the North were Papists and how many were Prods and he said, “your information is incorrect” and I said, “are you sure?” And he said: “Well, this is what I’m told.” He was a very honest man so I just pulled down the Who’s Who to find that the two other guys that he said were Catholics were members of the supreme bodies of the Presbyterian and the Church of Ireland churches and he went off and wrote a snorter to his colleagues in the Foreign Office. But it’s an example.
DOCH: There were only two judges on the Supreme Court who were Catholic. One of them was an Alliance man, an Alliance supporter, but they had told us that there were four.
ML: There were a lot of well-intentioned people there and they got it wrong and it was our job to keep them straight and sometimes it was their job to put it to us that we were wrong, but that didn’t happen very often.
JR: Travellers have come up several times. Are these people who roved around?
DOCH: No, I was one of the principal travellers for three years.
JR: What does a traveller do?
DOCH: In 1985 I made thirty-nine journeys to Northern Ireland before the beginning of November. I would leave maybe at six o’clock in the morning, I would meet eight, nine, ten people, some of these people and record notes on a Dictaphone, then I’d get back home maybe at one o’clock in the morning and up again at six the following day. Meeting all sorts of people. We had huge networks in Northern Ireland. That’s how we were able to tell the Brits that they were getting things wrong. Because we knew what was happening in Northern Ireland and they didn’t.
JR: When did that practice begin?
DOCH: That went back to the ’70s.
ML: To Eamonn Gallagher. To 1968.
DOCH: It was formalised, either just before or just after Sunningdale, but it certainly was in operation from Sunningdale onwards.
JR: Had the southern government not adequately kept abreast of nationalist feeling on the ground? Were they a bit out of touch by the time of the hunger strikes and the mobilisation of Sinn Féin as a political party?
DOCH: I don’t know. I wasn’t in involved at that time.
ML: Maybe there was a feeling of that sort but I don’t think it was correct, actually. The simple fact is that the hunger strike with all its emotional impact is, once it kind of takes hold is – even in the South – is impossible to contain. I remember travelling around and the big hunger strike going on, in southwest, Kerry and Cork and even in Kilkenny and going through towns and black flags flying from every window. It’s just something that is part of our heritage and it’s something which we have to be very careful to try and avoid provoking. Don’t forget that our principal partner in Northern Ireland was John Hume and he was dealing with the hunger strike without any more success than we were, and it made his own political job and his party’s job infinitely more difficult. And did a huge amount of damage. But there was nothing, because the British frankly mishandled it. Even had they handled it better, by the way, you might disagree, but in my view had they handled it better and there was a good certain chance that they might have and there is now evidence by the way, clear evidence that Thatcher wanted to, but it didn’t come off, but had they handled it more efficiently, I’m not sure that the effect of it would have been all that much less to be honest. I think the damage, once a number of them were dead, was irreversible. But by the time that we got into the Maryfield secretariat the British were very open to our advice on avoiding hunger strikes. You could chalk that up to the success of the hunger strike or chalk it up to their own desire to avoid another catastrophe is what it was. Daithi handled that for us with the British and I remember distinctly how they were virtually begging us for whatever counsel we could give them and indeed they did a lot to avoid other problems in the prisons.
JT: On a different note, would it have been different in Maryfield if had been based on the Malone Road for instance?
ML: Well, we couldn’t have been in a nice house on the Malone Road, walking out, going to the shops and, you know, football matches or to church even because that wasn’t the way this thing was going to be permitted. We were offered a house; it was actually in that neck of the woods.
PS: We bought it. We used to have running repairs on it and I used to have to go over to supervise the work.
ML: But the problem about it was that it wasn’t going to be big enough for all of us to be together and so we would have had two houses and we took the view we wanted to all be together.
DOCN: Is the question about effectiveness vis-à-vis external matters or the internal cohesion and solidarity and sense of purpose? I think there was kind of contra mundum unity in the face of adversity, kind of a spirit of the blitz. You know, there was never a moaning about any of the facilities or adversities that we had to put up with, that I can recall –thirty years makes every spectacles rose-tinted – but here’s what we need to fix and how we might fix it rather than “ah the things I have to put up with”, I would think. I think the adversity actually did make for more cohesion.
ML: It probably did. I mean there was no doubt the choice which was imposed on us, several of our suggestions having been rejected, included an element of visible malevolence because it was a horrible place and they didn’t try to … It was their territory, they controlled with the slightest difficulty large tracts of the territory, including of Belfast and they could have put us into more congenial places. I don’t know how much difference it would have made; I’m inclined to say that the fact that it was pretty unpleasant made it a bit more interesting.
DOCN: Arguably it wasn’t unpleasant enough.
PS: Thank you very much, keep your hair-shirt to yourself.
ML: Well, we had to make a bigger effort to make it pleasant and I think we’d all agree that we did succeed in that respect. I’d like to pay a tribute here to our cook, Barry Noonan, who was not a civil servant and who knew nothing about the civil service or the government or its policies. He happens to be engaged: he’s a member of a political party but he’s not remotely active otherwise and it was a tremendously challenging task for him to come in and with all these people he knew nothing about and to find himself sitting in this place to his astonishment without any provisions, apparently except for a freezer full of food that he couldn’t use, that’s what he told me today. And he, with great good humour ‑ he’s not and wouldn’t claim to be the greatest cook in world history ‑ but he jollied us along and was extremely warm and cheerful.
ML: He was. And he is an extremely good man and we certainly all feel a lot of respect for him and the other person I think I should mention is Padraig Collins. Padraig Collins was a very gifted diplomat from Foreign Affairs who had served with great effect in a number of places around the world, notably in Spain, and who got into this team and who gave it everything that he got, sometimes a bit more than he should have, but he was a wonderful cheerful companion. And I suppose the most gifted of all our companions was our colleague from the Department of Justice, Noel Ryan, who was one of the most intellectually impressive people I have met and who really managed to become so much part of our team that we thought of him not as somebody from the Department of Justice but as one of ours.
Yes, and so we were extremely lucky. And of course the four extraordinary women on our team – Frances Killilea, Mary Quealy, Caroline Bosshard-Bolger and Mary Shanahan – who gave us all a hard time and who were unbelievably hard-working and devoted. It’s one little story of Irish adventure which we hope will give pleasure not just to us but actually to somebody or other, inspire them a bit.
JR: Could you say something about the subsequent history of the Maryfield secretariat as it continues up to the Good Friday Agreement?
DOCH: Maryfield continued until the Good Friday Agreement and it was the final bit that Trimble demanded should be abolished before he’d sign the agreement, before he’d agree. Now it was abolished in the sense that it moved from Maryfield to Windsor House but by then it had become a much more representational function. We were not representational in the classic diplomatic term. I had lunch with the current secretary of what’s now called the British-Irish Secretariat, which is sort of us thirty years later, and he told me his job is effectively representational, which is a completely different job to the job that we were doing. So I think really, you can say it lasted until 1998.
JR: And it keeps, it retains its original form up until 1998?
PS: Oh there were a lot of improvements internally. They did huge things, they bought chandeliers and I think a fireplace.
DOCH: They also had big parties which was not possible in our day, the security situation just wouldn’t allow for it. They’d have a Christmas party to which they’d invite all the local politicians and the local journalists and they all came in, this was long after we had gone, so there was a representational element to it even by the time of the Good Friday Agreement which most certainly had not existed earlier.
ML: Just textually there’s an important point here – at the insistence of Trimble and the unionists generally the Anglo-Irish Agreement was abjured or abrogated in 1998. Except that it wasn’t. If you look through the Good Friday Agreement there are three strands as you remember and strand three is the Anglo-Irish Agreement, slightly compressed but textually it is the same agreement. And it talks about relations between Ireland and Britain and that the constitutional position has changed of course by referendum at this stage. But it says that there will be an intergovernmental conference, that the Irish side will put forward views and proposals, that determined efforts will be made to reach agreement. It doesn’t have the phrase “in the interests of peace and stability”, because I suppose that was supposed to be taken for granted at that stage and it says there will be a permanent secretariat established to service the conference. So in effect textually it’s absolutely there. And more importantly it is the default position. If all the experiments that are being tested at the moment in terms of power-sharing et cetera, et cetera, if they collapse, automatically that becomes the default. So back to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that it’d be a much better system than having these two tribal crowds.
DOCN: But of course culture has caught up with paper in the sense that you could not imagine the British government doing anything in relation to Northern Ireland without reflexively going lockstep with the Irish government: it’s just inconceivable.
ML: It has to be done. I mean all the recent stuff between Charlie Flanagan and Theresa Villiers is based on the Anglo-Irish Agreement; literally, that’s its juridical basis.
DOCN: But now they ride the bike rather than procuring an instruction manual.
DOCH: But the change is enormous. I was at a meeting in Belfast last Thursday week at which the two speakers spoke and then took questions together and it was Charlie Flanagan and Arlene Foster on the possibility of a Brexit and its implications on Northern Ireland. It’s astonishing.
ML: Well, that’s not Anglo-Irish Agreement, that’s the Unionists and …
DOCH: I know, but none of this would have happened without the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
ML: No, what I’m saying is that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is alive and throbbing under the surface.
DOCH: Should anything go wrong.
ML: It’s there. And actually the way that Villiers and Flanagan have their discussions, that’s the legal basis for it. We hope it won’t be necessary to start the secretariat again. Anybody? Any volunteers?
DOCH: Mary, you don’t mind going up in a little aeroplane?
ML: I mean I’m mainly in South America, Mary’s in Brussels, right or Luxembourg?
MS: I’m in Dublin now. I’m back from Brussels.
ML: Caroline’s in St Gallen in Switzerland. The rest of them are available as far as I can see.
CBB: I’d be available too you know.
ML: Caroline, that was a threat.
CBB: I’m always up for the challenge.
JT: Thank you all very much.
1. Tom Bolster, an extremely competent official from the Department of Foreign Affairs (later ambassador in Lisbon), served at the secretariat on an interim basis for several months from its inception.
2. Seán Donlon, former secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs and one of the negotiators of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, has reminded us that he had arranged for the purchase of a comfortable house, Mertoun Hall, near Palace Barracks, before the Dublin team arrived and which he had intended as a residence for all of the team, but that Sir Robert Andrew, permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, had vetoed its use on security and political grounds.
3. Sir John Hermon, chief constable of the RUC.
Photographs courtesy of The Irish Times