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The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: Inside the room where it happened

The late David Goodall’s memoir gives a candid and gripping account of negotiations

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher shake hands in November 1985, while (from left) Fine Gael TDs Peter Barry and Dick Spring look on. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times
The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: A Memoir
The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: A Memoir
Author: David Goodall
ISBN-13: 9780901510877
Publisher: National University of Ireland Press
Guideline Price: €20

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by the taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, in November 1985.

It provided, in an internationally binding treaty, that if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished for and formally consented to the establishment of a united Ireland, the two governments would introduce and support in their respective parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.

It also gave the Irish government a role in relation to Northern Ireland and provided for the establishment of an Irish government office in Belfast to support the implementation of the agreement on a continuous basis. The Irish government affirmed that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people there, and recognised that the present wish of that majority was for no change.

Negotiations for the agreement were initiated by the taoiseach, assisted mainly by the tánaiste, Dick Spring, and the minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry. Thatcher was assisted mainly by foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe. The close, personal relationship between Barry and Howe facilitated agreement on many difficult issues.


Detailed negotiations were carried out by a small group of Irish and UK civil servants led by the respective cabinet secretaries, Dermot Nally and Robert Armstrong. As secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was one of that group. We met 29 times, frequently over long weekends, and there were also other less structured meetings. Key political meetings frequently took place on the margins of EU meetings. Remarkably, secrecy was maintained and there were no leaks.

The late David Goodall was a member of the UK group and in retirement he finalised this astonishingly candid and gripping account of the negotiations, drawing largely on a contemporaneous diary.


Goodall and Michael Lillis, a senior Foreign Affairs official and close adviser to FitzGerald, were the day-to-day drivers of the negotiations and brought considerable personal skills and tenacity to the task. In the process they became lifelong friends, and it is on Lillis’s initiative that this memoir is published.

As in any negotiation, even when agreement is reached selling it back home can frequently be challenging. And so it was for the British negotiators. They were never clear that Thatcher’s heart was totally in it. She wrestled repeatedly and frankly with the thought that there could perhaps be no final settlement in Northern Ireland until the British withdrew and left the two communities there to come to terms with one another.

Thatcher had a “temperamental dislike of things Irish, fuelled by the whole IRA terrorist campaign, by Airey Neave’s assassination, by the mutually embittering tensions of the hunger strikes, and sharpened into a sense of personal affront by the anti-British stance adopted by the Haughey government in the Falklands War”.

In contrast,she had a high regard for FitzGerald’s integrity and a degree of affection for him personally. She could “do business with him”. Given her temperamental dislike of things Irish, it is remarkable that she was not deflected by the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where she and the top tier of her government were staying in October 1984.


The Irish side kept the US informed during the negotiations. US president Ronald Reagan was helpful throughout and particularly so after Thatcher’s insensitive “out, out, out” remarks in November 1984.

When agreement was close to being reached, uniquely in Anglo-Irish relations Robert Armstrong and I travelled to Washington jointly to brief the administration and the leadership of the Friends of Ireland in Congress. We wished to ensure US backing for the agreement and specifically financial backing for an international fund to support its implementation. In 1977, then president Jimmy Carter had promised substantial US aid to Northern Ireland in the event of progress being made towards a political solution. Reagan generously honoured the commitment made by his predecessor.

In retirement, Thatcher is said to have regretted signing the agreement because it had not brought the peace and stability to Northern Ireland that she expected. The role of the US was an important factor in persuading her to sign. Her Conservative Party friend and supporter, Alastair McAlpine, is quoted in his memoirs as saying that she had signed because of “pressure from the Americans”.

In his account, Goodall notes that the need to ward off American pressure over Northern Ireland was always an important consideration, though he did not think it was the decisive factor. When he asked Thatcher privately in July 1992 if she was still happy with the agreement, she thought for a moment and then said dismissively that it had “helped a lot with Reagan”.

The late David Goodall has done us all a great favour with this memoir, and his family are to be warmly thanked for facilitating its publication. Our thanks also go to the publishers, the National University of Ireland Press, and editor Frank Sheridan, who has brought great archival skills to the task.

Seán Donlon is a retired diplomat