State Papers

'All unionists are bigots' Irish official 'told British ambassador'

The latest batch of government files released under the '20/30 year rule' sheds further light on the political and security situation in Ireland in the critical months around 1993. In the second part of a series of reports Dr Éamon Phoenix reveals some of the conversations taking place behind closed doors as the peace process was beginning to take shape.

Peter Brooke who shared his view of the importance of promoting a more realistic understanding of the Northern Ireland problem in the Republic.
Éamon Phoenix

A FAREWELL despatch from the outgoing British Ambassador to Ireland, on his five-year experience of Irish affairs, caused a stir in British Government circles in 1991, according to declassified files.

Sir Nicholas Fenn, using the pseudonym ‘G D Fergusson’, revealed that, on his arrival in Dublin, he had been struck by "the naturalness ... of the moderate nationalist position, as I had previously been struck by the naturalness in Belfast of the moderate unionist position".

Fenn, who had been a regular visitor to Belfast during his diplomatic tenure in Dublin, said of northern unionism: "Most unionists are not exotic Protestant fundamentalists ... Much of their heightened sense of identity with the symbols of nationhood is attributable to the many years during which vigorous attempts have been made to sever them from their natural identity ..."

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However, Fenn noted: "Among the great majority of apolitical unionists ... Northern Ireland is now seen as natural a unit as many identified by man-made frontiers ... It is surprisingly self-contained and when wider horizons are needed, Great Britain seems at least as natural a destination as the Republic ..."

He admitted, however, that "seen from Dublin, the “missing” six counties do look unnaturally sundered.

Dr Eamon Phoenix has pored over the latest batch of state papers released under the '20/30 year rule'

"The 26 counties do not constitute a satisfying map [with] an oddly-hinged Co Donegal flapping about at the top ... And the sense of nationalism here is heightened by past persecution and the history of struggle ..."

The diplomat went on: "Combine all this with a still astonishing lack of knowledge of the two parts of Ireland about the other, and it is not surprising that each group’s motives and objectives are misunderstood."

The ambassador claimed that in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the "Protestant identity was accepted as “an obligatory mark of pluralism”, but the notion of giving equality of esteem to unionism and nationalism has "yet to get off the ground".

He recalled an Irish DFA official informing him (in Belfast) that "all unionists are bigots".

Turning to east-west relationships, Fenn felt that, despite their ignorance of northern unionists, the south had a wide understanding of Britain.

"We are not seen as foreign, even by Irish people who don’t like us ..."

On British attitudes to Ireland, he asserted: "It has been sobering seeing British ignorance and prejudice from the Irish end of the telescope’, particularly the ‘offensive’ treatment of ‘the Irish’ in the British press."

In his view "the simultaneous bitterness and friendly warmth in our relationship are closely reminiscent of a family feud" where each side defends the other against outsiders.

On the need for cross-border security co-operation, the ambassador felt it was reasonable for the British to expect the highest degree of cooperation in security and on extradition.

To encourage a wider perspective, Fenn proposed that Embassy staff in Dublin should spend some days in Northern Ireland in order to give them a feel for the region.

This, he believed, would help to foster North/South links.

Fenn’s memo drew a warm response from the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke who shared his view of the importance of promoting a more realistic understanding of the Northern Ireland problem in the Republic.

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State Papers

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