A little over two months ago marked the passing of the 25th Anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The anniversary resulted in posts by Brian Walker of Slugger O’Toole and by and other articles by Newspaper journalists across Ireland.
One of the curiosities of the Agreement is that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, James Molineaux was not consulted as the negotiations progressed. This is most odd. That the negotiations were taking place was not a state secret. From time to time, the fact of these discussions was made public. The SDLP was certainly consulted. In about September 1984, the Conservative Party, in edition No. 31 of their contact programme (“CPC 31”), published a detailed brief on the state of the negotiations at that time. It was available for sale in the Conservative Party bookshop for anybody who wanted to buy a copy. A link to this document can be located on the Conservative Party Archive website.
It is not as though the Ulster Unionists were sitting there doing nothing about the political problems either. In May 1984, they published their own document “the Way forward” (also for sale in the CPC bookshop).
Perhaps when the Government archives are published in 3-4 years time, we will have a more precise picture on unionist consultation.
CPC 31 mentions the three proposals put forward by the Irish Government which were rejected by Mrs. Thatcher. These were: a unitary state; a federal or confederal state; or joint authority. Dr. Fitzgerald, writing in the Irish times, recalled Mrs. Thatcher’s public reaction to those proposals in November 1984, some time after they were rejected.
On Open Unionism, in a post entitled “Reflections on the Anglo-Irish Agreement,” Turgon articulates the mainstream unionist view of the agreement. He recalls the sense of betrayal felt by unionists following the agreement. The Government would have known how Unionists would have reacted to the proposals, regardless of whether or not they had been consulted. Why, then, did they risk alienating the great mass of the unionist population?
Better security was often cited as the main reason for it. Certainly, Mrs. Thatcher put a strong emphasis on the importance of better security but if that all there was to it, the agreement would not have taken place.
The 1981 hunger strikes proved to be a watershed in Northern Ireland’s political history. It launched the political career of Gerry Adams and later Sinn Fein representatives. This development worried the ROI Government, particularly.
The Catholic population in Northern Ireland was a large minority but barely represented in Parliament. In the 1983 General Election, the number of seats in Northern Ireland had been increased from 12 to 17. Still, the representation of the Catholic Population at Parliament was very small. Of those 17 seats, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein had been elected as MP for West Belfast in place of Gerry Fitt. The only other non-unionist MP to be elected was John Hume in the constituency of Foyle.
The Government, rightly, perceived that there was a link between support for terrorism in the Catholic community and the lack of political representation. Looking for a solution to this problem remained a Government policy, despite the collapse of Sunningdale.
James Prior, Northern Ireland Secretary of State (1981-1984) summarised five principles which had to be observed, if there was political advance. These are set out in set out in contact programme document No. 31 at page 5: They were:
(i) The Constitutional position of Northern Ireland of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom can only be changed freely given consent of its people. This is not a matter of law. Any other approach would be immoral, undemocratic and unworkable.
(ii) Not all of the political aspirations of the two communities can be completely or equally satisfied. There are two identities to be accommodated, in an environment where alienation exists on both sides.
(iii) The government and administration of the Province must ultimately remain a matter for Parliament. This means that there cannot be any Unionist or nationalist veto over the framework which Parliament prescribes.
(iv) The distinctive needs of Northern Ireland are best met through a devolved administration commanding support from both sides of the community. In the absence of agreement the Government will continue to administer the Province in the way it judges to be in the best interests of all the people and of the United Kingdom as a whole. The determination of the majority to maintain the Union must be upheld but this must be balanced by showing due regard for the minority’s interests in any internal arrangements.
(v) Geography, history and economic interest together with the identification many in Northern Ireland feel with Dublin call for a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic.
There was nothing wrong with the Government’s principles or motives for signing the Agreement. As it turned out, the Agreement yielded very little in terms of security gains. However, the political gains are still underrated. The agreement, fully supported by the SDLP helped many Northern Irish nationalists to see the UK Government in a new light. The agreement also secured formal recognition, by a Republic of Ireland Government, that Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom.
Today, the scars of the Anglo Irish Agreement are still felt by unionists. At the Ulster Unionist Party conference in December 2008, David Cameron felt compelled (albeit in an oblique manner) to make an apology for the signing of the Agreement. Looking back on that speech, David Cameron’s apology had more to do with appeasing Ulster Unionists than taking responsibility for a political wrongdoing. He should not have made that apology, unreservedly.
The unfortunate thing is that many Northern Irish Unionists still do not seem to recognise their community’s failure to be fair to Catholics in the past was a major cause of the Anglo-Irish agreement coming into effect. In CPC 31, the Conservatives said this about a UUC proposal to turn the regional Assembly into a super council:
“The local Government was the sphere where most of the discrimination has tended to take place; matters such as housing and education are thus extremely sensitive.”
Back in 1985, power sharing seemed a long way off and Northern Ireland unionists were angry. They can not deny that the Agreement was a stepping stone to the Belfast Agreement.
In years to come, they will not be able to deny that the Belfast Agreement (and therefore the Anglo Irish Agreement) paved the way for peace, prosperity, a stronger union and a shared future for Northern Irish people.
Conservatives, meanwhile, should not be ashamed of the Anglo-Irish agreement. They have every reason to be proud of their government’s achievement at the time.