A Meeting with the Irish premier soon after Tony Blair became Prime Minister paved the way to end three decades of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, files released today reveal.
Documents on Anglo-Irish relations from Mr Blair’s first few weeks in office, following New Labour’s landslide election victory in May 1997, show a meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signalled an intent to bring peace.
Less than a year later, the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, largely ending the violence in Ulster.
A briefing note from Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to Mr Blair said: “Your meeting with the Taoiseach on July 3 was inevitably dominated by discussion of Northern Ireland.
“But there was agreement in principle to developing the wider relationship.”
Mr Cook acknowledged a nationalist government would likely be “less instinctively committed to improving” the relationship between Ireland and the UK.
But he said having Mr Ahern as the Fianna Fail party’s leader gave genuine cause for optimism.
“Ahern is a pragmatist,” Mr Cook wrote.
“He has spoken privately to our Ambassador and in public of the possibility of developing a new era in UK/Irish relations.
“Better so-called ‘East/West’ relations have intrinsic value and will improve the climate for our exchanges with the Irish over Northern Ireland.”
Documents published by the National Archives also show Prince Charles abandoned a proposed visit to Ireland in summer 1996 amid concerns about his personal safety.
Aides originally planned for the Prince of Wales to undertake a three-day visit to the Republic from June 29, just as early talks laying the way for the subsequent Good Friday Agreement got under way in earnest at Stormont.
But secret arrangements for the “low-key” official trip were scuppered when officials either side of the Irish Sea voiced concerns.
A letter from Foreign Office diplomat Dominick Chilcott to No10 private secretary John Holmes revealed how Irish authorities had “expressed concern about the risks which His Royal Highness would face” if the visit went ahead without a ceasefire in place, amid renewed tensions between the IRA and Unionists.
The document also signalled a possible diplomatic slip-up if the prince used the Royal Yacht Britannia during the visit – a floating symbol which would “be unwelcome to parts of the population”, it said.
The letter added: “We share Irish concerns about security. And the benefits which this visit might bring are limited.
“The timing, on the eve of the Irish presidency, is not ideal from the Irish point of view.
“The risks now seem to outweigh any benefits.”
It added: “Since there has been no publicity, postponement of the visit now would reduce the risk of being seen to concede to terrorist threats.”
John Major, the Prime Minister at the time, indicated he was content for the visit to be shelved.
The trip was scheduled a year after the Prince of Wales’s maiden official visit to the Republic in 1995, which was heralded a success despite some protests from Republicans, including those who threw eggs towards the heir to the throne during a walkabout in Dublin.
The visit was deemed so successful that Mr Major subsequently wrote to Irish Taoiseach John Bruton, thanking them for inviting the royal.
“For you and your Government to invite him, and to go out of your way to ensure the success of the visit, was a typically bold step, and you were proved absolutely right,” Mr Major wrote.
“You caught the spirit of the times.”
Britain’s Ambassador in Dublin, Veronica Sutherland, also gave a glowing endorsement of the visit.
“It takes brilliance to out-charm the Irish,” she wrote. “The Prince of Wales did just that.”