1985 State papers point to way out of Stormont impasse

In the midst of the power-sharing difficulties in the North, Ryle Dwyer argues that people should remember how such problems were initially resolved.

The State Papers just released contain documents going back to 1985 that provide a key to solving the current power-sharing difficulties in Northern Ireland.

Ever since the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, power-sharing has been viewed as the way to tackle the problems of the divided society in the North.

In the wake of the Sunningdale Agreement, Loyalists and Unionists resisted power-sharing so strongly that the British government of Harold Wilson quickly capitulated.

When power-sharing was tried again as part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Unionist opposition, led largely by Ian Paisley, was even more vocal.

But British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defied them. She was rattled by the level of their opposition, but US President Ronald Reagan quietly encouraged her to stand up to them in order to boost his government’s efforts to undermine the vital support that Americans were giving to the Provisional IRA in the form of arms and money.

Encouraged by the White House, Thatcher confronted Paisley and company. If the people of Northern Ireland could not agree on power-sharing, she warned them that the Anglo-Irish Agreement provided for Intergovernmental Conferences through which the British Government would consult with Dublin in running the province.

Although Britain was retaining the right to make the ultimate decision, it agreed to consult closely with Dublin before doing so.

Following the first Intergovernmental Conference on December 11, 1985, Foreign Minister Peter Barry and Northern Secretary Tom King issued a joint statement calling on the Northern security forces to behave impartially.

“The RUC and the Armed Forces must not only discharge their duties even-handedly and with equal respect for the unionist and nationalist identities and traditions, but be seen by both communities to be doing so,” they declared.

The Intergovernmental Conference on March 11, 1986, engaged in extensive discussions on cross-border co-operation. The conference considered some sixty items under headings, such as economics, transport, agriculture, fisheries, marketing, health, social security, education, environment, taxation, arts, sports, along with cultural and joint studies.

Giving the Republic a say in just about every aspect of Northern life, further inflamed Unionist opposition. Paisley and company became so vocal, that nationalists soon began to look more favourably on the Hillsborough Agreement.

“The nationalists did not support the Agreement very much at the beginning,” Fr. Denis Faul explained in a RTÉ radio interview, “but as they saw the Unionists taking it so badly, they had to believe that there was something in it. It is a very good thing, because I think it is the beginnings of an alternative to all the violence. Now I saw the Anglo-Irish Agreement, not as perfection itself but as a definite and good step in that direction and I think the Catholic people have accepted it as that.”

Once a devolved administration was set up, Thatcher made it clear that Dublin and London would have no role. “The people of Northern Ireland can get rid of the Inter-Governmental Conference by agreeing to devolved government,” she emphasised. “If they do not want an inter-governmental conference the remedy lies in their own hands. It is to sit down with the SDLP, all of them, and the Alliance, and work out a system of devolved government.”

Charles Haughey had opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement as leader of the Opposition, so there was uneasiness at his return to power in March 1987. But he soon convinced Nicholas Fenn, the British ambassador to Ireland, that there was no need to worry, because the Dublin government increased cross-border security co-operation.

“We recognise fully the need to improve the situation of the nationalist community in the North of Ireland and we approve and support any effective measures taken on their behalf,” Haughey proclaimed.

When he met Thatcher on the periphery of the European Summit in Brussels on June 30, 1987, she welcomed the cross-border security co-operation.

The number of Garda/Army patrols on the border had been doubled, resulting in increased finds of arms and ammunition. But Thatcher was still uneasy about the continuing level of loyalist opposition to the Agreement.

“I did not expect the extent of this disaffection at the time I signed the Agreement,” she complained.

Haughey complimented her for resisting this opposition, unlike her predecessor Harold Wilson. “You did not, like Prime Minister Wilson, for example, back down,” Haughey told her. By standing up to the Unionists and consulting Dublin, the British persuaded the Unionists to agree to power-sharing. This then bloomed with the development of what had once seemed unthinkable. Despite all his roaring, even Paisley began working with Sinn Féin.

Indeed, Paisley and Martin McGuinness got on so well together as First and Second Ministers that they were called “the Chuckle Brothers.”

People should remember how this came about.

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