Book Review: John Bruton on The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985

"Mrs Thatcher liked and trusted Garret FitzGerald. But he had to overcome deep British fears and prejudices."
Book Review: John Bruton on The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985

The Anglo-Irish Agreement signing at Hillsborough Castle. Margaret Thatcher and Irish Premier Garret Fitzgerald present.

  • The Making of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 
  • David Goodall
  • National University of Ireland, €20

THIS book gives a lively account, by one of the leading diplomats on the British side, of the origins and negotiation of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. It is well written and a valuable contribution to history.

It also gives a searing insight into Mrs Thatcher’s governing style from the perspective of someone who had to work with her.

Mrs Thatcher had strong prejudices, mainly of an English nationalist kind. Her eventual acceptance of the Anglo Irish Agreement was a case of her even stronger sense of political realism eventually overcoming her prejudices.

But it was a stormy process. Mrs Thatcher was difficult to brief and hard to keep on topic. David Goodall describes her “eclectic and discontinuous style of argument”, and how she often adopted a “hectoring and tangential mode, both confusing and dominating the discussion”.

She saw the nationalist minority situation in the Northern Ireland, as similar to that of the Sudeten Germans in pre war Czechoslovakia, hardly a hopeful starting point.

That she was eventually won around to a more balanced appreciation of the Irish problem is a tribute to the persistence and persuasiveness of Garret FitzGerald, and also of her own Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe.

Indeed, Howe emerges as an unsung hero of the whole process, along with his Irish counterpart, Peter Barry. These two men, and their officials, kept the show on the road, despite many discouragements, not least the horrifying attempt by the IRA, to murder Mrs Thatcher herself in Brighton on 12 October 1984. That she could agree something as radical as the Anglo Irish Agreement, so soon after this, showed real statesmanship.

Mrs Thatcher liked and trusted Garret FitzGerald. But he had to overcome deep British fears and prejudices. Goodall says Garret was so convinced of his own and his party’s loathing of the IRA, that he could never understand why, in the eyes of many British people including Mrs Thatcher, Irish nationalism as a whole was tainted with the terrorist brush.

Goodall praises John Hume’s “deep strategic thinking” and his reasonableness in public. But he found him unwilling in private to say what the Irish government might offer unionists as reassurance that they were not being driven down the road towards a united Ireland.

This Agreement gave, for the first time, the Irish government a formal Treaty based right to put forward proposals on political, security, legal and cross border issues in respect of Northern Ireland. It was given a means of doing this through an Inter Governmental Conference, which was to meet regularly at ministerial level and which was supported by a Secretariat based in Belfast.

By agreeing to this, the UK accepted that Northern Ireland was no longer a purely internal British matter. The UK government also pledged itself to make determined efforts to resolve differences that might arise on these proposals from Dublin. This was an important breakthrough in psychological as well as legal terms.

Loyalists burn an effigy of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher labelled 'Thatcher Traitor', at a demonstration outside Belfast Town Hall, 23rd November 1985. The protest is against the previous week's signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland, which gives the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
Loyalists burn an effigy of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher labelled 'Thatcher Traitor', at a demonstration outside Belfast Town Hall, 23rd November 1985. The protest is against the previous week's signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland, which gives the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

It was resented deeply by unionists, but was a necessary step on the road towards acceptance by unionists of equality between the two traditions, without which the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could never have been negotiated, with the inclusion of unionist political parties.

From an Irish government point of view, the goal of the Agreement was to combat northern nationalist alienation from the state and its security services and this persuade them to disavow any support for the IRA campaign and support the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein. The Agreement did not achieve this goal at the time, and the SDLP’s political distinctiveness was later blurred by the Hume/Adams dialogue.

At the time of the Agreement , Northern Ireland was under direct rule from London. The UK wanted to devolve powers to a Northern Ireland Assembly, but the SDLP was not willing to participate because of the way in which the power sharing government, established in 1973 at Sunningdale, had been brought down by a Loyalist strike. 

The SDLP would not re enter the Assembly without stronger guarantees on power sharing and north/ south arrangements, and it looked to Dublin to get such guarantees for them, which eventually came about through the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement also contained an incentive to Unionists to share power with the SDLP in a devolved administration because it said that the Irish government would give up its right to “put forward proposals” under the Agreement, on any subjects that were devolved to a power sharing Administration. So Unionists had a simple choice- share ministerial power with the SDLP, or put up with Dublin being involved.

One of the British goals in the negotiation was better cooperation between the security forces and this was to be an important part of the work of the Inter Governmental Conference. Garret FitzGerald’s idea of mixed courts, including judges from the South sitting on sensitive cases involving terrorist offences in Northern Ireland, did not , however , make it into the final Agreement.

On the long term status of Northern Ireland, the Agreement reaffirmed that a majority, at that time , wished to remain in the UK, but it added that if, in future, a majority “clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland” both governments would give effect to this.

This wording is more nuanced than that of the Good Friday Agreement , which leaves less room for negotiation and preparation for such a radical step, and does not even require formal consultation with the Irish government before a border poll might be called..

Goodall tells his readers that when he first came to deal with the Northern Ireland question, he thought then that “the circumstances of Northern Ireland were such as to make it impossible for it to function contentedly , either as an integral part of the UK tout court , or as part of a united Ireland” If that was true in 1983, it is unfortunately still true today.

The “aspirations” of the two communities, which loom large in this and subsequent Agreements negotiated between the two governments, are fundamentally contradictory. Both the Good Friday Agreement and the Downing Street declaration talk of respect for unionist and nationalist “aspirations”, even though these aspirations contradict one another, and for one to succeed, the other must fail. Perhaps the focus on aspirations of this nature was a mistake As long as the unionists and nationalist communities are defined, and described by themselves and others , in terms of their competing and contradictory “aspirations” around the constitutional status, it is hard to see Northern Ireland, of the island as a whole, “functioning contentedly”, as Goodall put it.

Brexit , and the pressure for an early border poll, have combined to sharpen the divide even further . Perhaps it is time for the two governments, and the parties in Northern Ireland, to move away from seeing their task in terms of finessing two incompatible aspirations for the future, and decide to focus instead on goals which unionists, nationalists, and the middle ground between, would be content to achieve together and be proud of achieving.

John Bruton served as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997

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