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15 August 2016

Men like the late British diplomat Sir David Goodall unsung heroes of the peace

Ruth Dudley Edwards recalls the quiet dignity and determination of one of the key architects of the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald shake hands on the Anglo Irish agreement, an accord which Sir David Goodall helped broker
Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald shake hands on the Anglo Irish agreement, an accord which Sir David Goodall helped broker

Sir David Goodall, a diplomat who was a major player in the negotiations that led to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was opposed by unionists and republicans, died last month.

He was a delightful man of whom I was very fond: although clever, cultured, witty and successful, he never took himself seriously and his sense of the ridiculous about everyone was never far from the surface.

My favourite story about him came from Professor Ronan Fanning, who was in the bar in the late evening during the 1983 Oxford conference of the British-Irish Association and heard a slightly belligerent drinker who wanted to start the singing attempt to shut Mr Goodall up with the withering question: "are you addressing your remarks to me, or are you merely talking to yourself?"

"I am talking to myself in the hope that I may be overheard," replied David Goodall.

"It seems to be the only way of conducting Anglo-Irish relations."

As someone who had become part of what you might call the Anglo-Irish circuit at the time, I can confirm that he'd got that right.

Hardly anyone was listening to anyone else: republican and loyalist paramilitaries were killing people, unionists of all stripes were too paranoid to trust anyone and SDLP leader John Hume was dictating policy to his party and the Irish government.

David Goodall, then working in the Cabinet Office, believed that political paralysis made everything worse, and caring as he did for both Britain and Ireland, he worked hard to encourage dialogue.

A proud Yorkshireman, he wrote about his Irish roots in Co Wexford, where Goodalls had been on both sides of the 1798 Rising.

After a subsequent distinguished period as High Commissioner to India, in his retirement his passion for Ireland was evident in his presidency of the Irish Genealogical Research Society and his chairmanship of Anglo-Irish Encounter and later the British-Irish Association.

I became friends with him in the early 1980s, and - as someone who regarded herself as British-Irish - I had sympathy for his embrace of his mixed heritage, though it was understandable that unionists thought him suspiciously green in his outlook.

Certainly Margaret Thatcher did, but then she saw most foreign office people as insufficiently patriotic.

She also distrusted his Roman Catholicism.

At the time, she was particularly concerned that while John Hume was constantly being briefed by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, unionists were being kept out of all the negotiations.

In his later recollections, David Goodall described their exclusion as "uncomfortable and unfair".

And so it was, but with justification Mrs Thatcher colluded because she thought James Molyneux weak, Ian Paisley difficult and was averse to leaks and unpleasant scenes.

As a visceral unionist, as Charles Moore puts it in his biography of her, "she believed that she could defend the Union herself without the tiresome unionist leaders."

One of the pleasures of talking to David Goodall was that he looked back at the past with empathy and objectivity.

He recognised that the Anglo-Irish Agreement had not lived up to diplomats' and nationalists' inflated expectations and that Mrs Thatcher, who regretted it in retrospect, was right in her suspicions that the British team were ganging up with the Irish to persuade her against what she considered her better instincts.

"It is very fair to say that we were all trying to persuade her…" he later wrote.

"We did a bit conspire … We did have moments when she was being terribly difficult and unreasonable."

On balance, though like the Foreign Office in general he deplored her dislike of internationalism and consensus, David was an admirer of "her downrightness, her clarity of mind, her ability to cut to the heart of a problem … and the courage and resolution with which she stuck to her guns."

In retrospect, I think on balance that the friendship between British and Irish diplomats played well in the end for everyone.

It was the recognition that the British diplomats had a greenish tinge that made the Irish trust them and be ready to give up the more unrealistic of their ambitions.

Good, selfless, honest and generous-hearted people like David Goodall contribute a great deal to mutual understanding.

I will miss him.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards