Negative response to Anglo-Irish deal

Papers show ambivalence on part of Thatcher and Northern secretary King

At the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985: Peter Barry, Dick Spring, Garret FitzGerald, Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Tom King

At the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985: Peter Barry, Dick Spring, Garret FitzGerald, Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Tom King

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 01:00

Declassified state papers released today reveal mixed and even negative feelings towards the impending Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 on the part of the British prime minister, her secretary of state, and the head of the Northern Ireland civil service.

Northern Ireland Office concerns at the commitment of Margaret Thatcher to the emerging agreement just two weeks before it was signed are identified for the first time.

In a briefing note for secretary of state Tom King on October 29th, 1985, RJ Andrew of the NIO hinted at Thatcher’s ambivalence over the agreement in a handwritten comment at the bottom of a page.

Stressing that the prime minister must play a prominent role “to get a steadying message across to Unionist moderates”, he told King: “Her response, indicating that she is uncertain about opening the Parliamentary debate [on the signed Agreement] is disturbing: her wholehearted support for the Agreement is essential.”

King’s lack of enthusiasm for the agreement is also revealed. In a long memo to the prime minister on September 27th, 1985, he reminded her he had not been involved in negotiating the agreement – this had fallen to his predecessor Douglas Hurd – and that the arguments for and against an agreement were “finely balanced”.

In particular, King was strongly opposed to mixed (British-Irish) courts – an Irish demand – and determined to “eliminate any suggestion” that the proposed Intergovernmental Conference had any executive responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs, especially over security.

Unionist reaction

The newly appointed secretary wrote: “I am sure that we are right to seek an agreement that will bring us benefits. But we must satisfy ourselves that both the agreement and the arrangements for implementing it will do this without unwelcome or unmanageable consequences, particularly in handling the Unionist reaction.”

Referring to recent meetings with taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry, King declared that the agreement struck him “as offering considerably more to the Irish than it does to us”. It would certainly be perceived as such by the unionists.

He told Thatcher: “The Irish are being given an unprecedented foothold in the internal affairs of a part of UK. This must be balanced by some comparable benefit to the advantage of the UK generally and of the majority [unionist] community.”

Unionists, he wrote, “were bound to feel . . . an imbalance in the fact that the Irish Government is to represent the Nationalist minority while there would be no corresponding representation for the Unionist majority, since the British government must consider the interests of both communities even-handedly.”

King reminded Thatcher that the Irish had felt unable to surrender Ireland’s constitutional claim to the North or sign up to the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism without moves on mixed courts.

In his view, the location of Irish officials in a Belfast secretariat from the outset “would be asking for trouble”, while any formal input from Dublin on parades would “act as a red rag to the Unionists”.

Trenchant hostility

Just two days earlier trenchant hostility to the terms of the emerging agreement were communicated to King by the head of the North’s civil service, Sir Ken Bloomfield. In a blunt memo, Bloomfield revealed his deep-seated opposition to the very basis of the accord, describing it as “fundamentally flawed, by reason of its ambiguity, its one-sidedness and, above all, the grave risks that it will serve to destabilise rather than to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland.”

In particular, he regarded the question of a secretariat, its location and role as “absolutely crucial”, adding: “I do not believe that assurances of no change in the constitutional status of NI without consent could carry the slightest conviction if senior officers of the Irish Government are to be high [sic] visible on the ground in Northern Ireland in a new and distinctly ambiguous role.”