Roots of Anglo-Irish Agreement well hidden in talks deadlock, 1984 papers show

Negotiations between Thatcher and FitzGerald began with high expectations but came close to an acrimonious end

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1984: by the end of the year emotions of both leaders were running high. Photograph: Eddie Kelly/The Irish Times

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1984: by the end of the year emotions of both leaders were running high. Photograph: Eddie Kelly/The Irish Times

Fri, Jan 3, 2014, 01:00

Expectations for a breakthrough in Anglo-Irish relations were both raised and disappointed in 1984, as secret negotiations between Dublin and London began in February but nearly collapsed in acrimony by the end of the year. It would leave the emotions of both prime minister Margaret Thatcher and taoiseach Garret FitzGerald running high.

Details of the secret talks,
in which the origins of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of
1985 can be traced, have been revealed for the first time
in official papers released
in the UK National Archives
in London.

The UK is moving from a 30- to a 20-year embargo on state papers, meaning that the documents are one year ahead of those released last week in Ireland for 1983.

The new papers reveal that the Irish government offered to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution in 1984, 14 years before this happened as part of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. However, an increase in the potency of IRA violence, including the Brighton bomb that nearly killed Thatcher on October 14th, 1984, threatened to derail the negotiations at a critical stage.

Both London and Dublin began the year concerned about the future of moderate nationalism in Northern Ireland, fearing that the SDLP might be losing electoral ground to Sinn Féin. Secretary of state for Northern Ireland Jim Prior claimed the SDLP had “lost its way” following the marginalisation of Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin and its shift towards a more assertive nationalist position under John Hume. Minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry defended the SDLP leadership as
“the bravest politicians he
knew”, but admitted they
were “tired men”.


New initiative
The plight of the SDLP, combined with a resurgence in IRA violence, prompted Thatcher to consider a new initiative to “isolate the terrorists”, at a meeting with senior officials in Downing Street on February 10th,
1984. Six days later, her
cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong was authorised to make a secret “informal, confidential and strictly exploratory approach” to his Irish counterpart, Dermot Nally, to explore options.

Despite concerns that such negotiations would “raise unjustified expectations and fears in the Province”, it was agreed “the present situation there was so bad that it would be wrong not to explore the possibilities for change.” Talks were to be conducted on the grounds they were the “least unpromising way forward”.

The British remained unenthusiastic about the New Ireland Forum that had been convened in Dublin by FitzGerald, in co-operation with Hume, in 1983, to seek new ways forward in the North. When they were passed early drafts of the forum report, due to be published in April 1984, they described it as “tendentious”, “disappointing”, “rhetorical and thin on practicalities”. Senior civil servant David Goodall felt that FitzGerald had paid a “heavy price” to keep Charles Haughey on board in the discussions.

Energies were instead focused on the direct negotiations between the two governments that explored a possible joint declaration on Northern Ireland. In May, Irish officials produced a document that raised the prospect of a political “joint authority”, together with joint command of military and police forces.

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