Margaret Thatcher “grabbed her handbag” and “stormed out” of a meeting with the Belgian prime minister in a row over the extradition of an Irish priest wanted in London over alleged connections to the IRA, newly declassified files show.
A senior Tory adviser told an Irish diplomat about the incident by way of contrasting Thatcher’s “quite natural” way with then Irish Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, adding there was “a lot to be played for between them”, confidential files just released into the National Archives in Dublin disclose.
Anthony Teasdale, political adviser to Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1989, told Richard Ryan, a diplomat in the Irish Embassy in London, that he was “very struck” by the rapport between the two leaders.
Ryan and Teasdale met for lunch on January that year, just weeks after Thatcher and Haughey held a meeting on the fringe of a European Council summit in Greece.
In his report back to Dublin about the lunch – marked confidential and stamped “Seen by Taoiseach” – Ryan said Teasdale told him “unprompted” that he was “very struck” by a report of the Rhodes meeting.
The report was written up by Charles Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary and adviser.
“They were clearly both talking seriously, frankly and constructively about the same thing,” Teasdale said.
The affinity between the pair contrasted sharply with a separate meeting Thatcher had with the Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens at the same summit, during which they “hardly shared a common subject”, suggested Teasdale.
“Martens was totally ineffectual in his replies and just tried weakly to repeat arguments which she had already chewed up,” Teasdale told the diplomat
Thatcher “terminated” the meeting by saying: “We have nothing further to talk about, you and I.”
According to Teasdale, she then “grabbed her handbag and stormed out” leaving the Belgian prime minister “sitting there”.
At the time, relations were strained between Ireland, Britain and Belgium over the delayed extradition of Fr Ryan – an Irish priest wanted in London for alleged connections to the IRA – who was flown to Ireland after the Belgian government refused to extradite him to Britain.
Belgian police had arrested Fr Ryan in June 1988 and found large quantities of cash and bomb-making equipment in his home.
Thatcher had pulled back from her outspoken criticism of Ireland over the affair and “felt she regretted as having gone over the top”, Teasdale told Ryan.
“She saw the Irish to a real extent as victims of the Belgians and she wanted this to get across to the Taoiseach,” he added.
Teasdale said: “She was going as far toward an apology as she could ever do.”
The Tory adviser said the British valued ongoing correspondence between the Thatcher and Haughey.
“The last letter – from her – showed him, he said, how ‘businesslike’ and ‘normal’ their relationship can be. ‘She obviously feels quite natural in the correspondence’,” he said.
Teasdale said he wanted to see this leading to a “real meeting” – one other than on the margins of a summit – between the pair.
“For what it is worth, he said, he took from the papers he sees the feeling that ‘there is a lot to be played for between them’.”
A handwritten note on the report reads: “This is a particularly interesting and useful report”.