President declined wedding invite due to sensitivities

It was the fairytale wedding everyone wanted an invitation to – well, nearly everyone.

When Britain’s Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 29 July 1981, the entire world was watching. And a select group of 2,650 was actually in the Cathedral, including heads of state from around the world.

As a friendly neighbour and fellow member of the EEC, Ireland’s president Patrick Hillery and his wife Maeve were among those invited.

But the invitation came at a particularly sensitive time in Anglo-Irish relations, with the H-Block hunger strike well under way – by the time of the wedding, six of the strikers would have died.

An added complication was that it was received in the middle of a general election campaign, with outgoing taoiseach Charles Haughey locked in battle with his Fine Gael challenger, Garret FitzGerald.

Officials faced a number of tricky questions. The first was whether to delay a reply until the election was over, to avoid raising political controversy on the issue. That one was easy – as a senior official noted on the file, “It will wait for ten days!”

The second difficulty was how to phrase the rejection, and what excuse to use.

As an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs observed: “If the reply is in the negative, it would seem desirable to offer a diplomatic excuse. To simply convey regrets at inability to attend, without a plausible reason, would be difficult and could well be misinterpreted both domestically and internationally. The press will certainly ask the reason for non-attendance.”

But that is exactly what was done: the decision was taken to simply say the President could not attend “because of prior commitments”, and that the Irish Ambassador to London, Eamon Kennedy, would represent him at the wedding.

There was some controversy in public about whether the decision had been taken by the Taoiseach or by Dr Hillery, but the file indicates that the decision was taken by the President himself.

There was also controversy some weeks before the wedding when the Daily Telegraph claimed that Buckingham Palace was not aware that President Hillery had declined the invitation.

Ambassador Kennedy indignantly insisted that he had conveyed the message to the Lord Chamberlain a fortnight before.

[Based on documents in 2023/47/2319]

By David McCullagh and Shane McElhatton

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