Agreement left many unionists feeling things were moving away from them

Thirty years on unionists still recall their sense of betrayal and bewilderment that Mrs Thatcher would do such a thing

 Belfast loyalists clash with RUC officers at the gates of Maryfield in 1985

Belfast loyalists clash with RUC officers at the gates of Maryfield in 1985

 

Now 65, John Doogan was one of those who stood in the throng outside Belfast City Hall 30 years ago, cheering loudly with every other unionist in the crowd when Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley declared: “Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary? The Irish Republic. And yet Mrs Thatcher tells us that that Republic must have some say in our province. We say, never, never, never, never.”

Now retired, the ex-transport manager from Armagh believes Paisley and James Molyneaux had failed to spot the shifting winds. “[They] didn’t see it coming. I was a Ulster Unionist councillor at the time and wanted to support the party. Mrs Thatcher had shown herself to be very much against the nationalist agenda, so from that point of view it was very unexpected.

“She didn’t so much betray as mislead, but unionists didn’t engage enough in the process,” says Doogan.

In the 1980s unionists “seemed to run away from everything” while “morale was very low”. In the 1990s they did engage . Today he believes the future of the United Kingdom “is very much in the hands” of the people of Northern Ireland.

“Consent is the principal advantage which we have got to sell and really make sure that unionism is attractive to the people of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.” Instead of talking about “sell-outs and Lundys” unionists have to show that unionism brings benefits. It’s in our hands really.”

Robin Stewart (58), now a project manager from East Belfast, was in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in 1985, having earlier been a Royal Irish Ranger.

“It was like a social occasion for me going to rallies. We would meet at the Welders Club on the Newtownards Road, have a few pints, go to a rally, it was sort of a day out. I had no time for Margaret Thatcher. At the time it didn’t have that much impact on me, but I am more politically aware now.”

Futile fury

“What have we got now that we couldn’t have had then without all the hurt and pain? My son says when my generation die off we will be better off because we are still fighting old battles. Maybe not shooting and bombing, but fighting in other ways.”

Thirty years ago journalist John Coulter (56) was covering the 1985 Belfast City Hall rally for the Ballymena Guardian, a newspaper in the heart of Paisley’s North Antrim constituency.

“It was one of the biggest crowds I have ever seen since Bobby Sands’s funeral. The atmosphere was one of controlled anger at what Margaret Thatcher had done because they always saw her as the great bastion on unionism, who would always defend the union.”

However, unionism is divided today between “the right wing, those on centre-right, and those in the imaginary land known as liberal unionism to encourage stay-at-home Protestant voters”.

“Coming from a unionist background, given the improving relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, I think unionism must start thinking more outside the six counties and start developing a profile within Ireland as a whole.”

Queen’s University Belfast political history academic Prof Graham Walker said the Anglo-Irish Agreement was a “great shock” to unionists. “A lot of them had fondly imagined Margaret Thatcher understood their cause and was supportive of their position ,so her signing the agreement seemed to be a total betrayal. There was that sense of profound disillusionment with somebody who notionally anyway seemed to be a strong unionist.

“There was also, I think, a profound sense of shock because it seemed to be the case that unionists were not counting, I suppose, in terms of the British family. One of the great phrases of the time used by Peter Robinson was ‘unionists were put on the window-ledge of the union’. This was certainly widely felt by ordinary unionists in terms of belonging to the UK.”

Ferocious reaction

“The changes Margaret Thatcher thought she would see in terms of security didn’t happen immediately either. I think as we move into the 1990s to what we have come to know as the peace process, I think we can see the importance of the Anglo Irish Agreement in preparing the ground for that.”

On the perception today of abandonment among some loyalists and unionists , Walker also recalls that sense in 1985. “The loyalists today certainly feel that but there was also a sense, even back then 30 years ago, among unionists that things were slipping away.

“The text of the agreement actually referred to determined efforts being made to meet the concerns of the Irish Government. That seemed to unionists to suggest their wishes, their aspirations, their identity were being sidelined.

“If you want to trace the current kind of unionist mentality around feeling like they are losing out in the peace process, you might trace it back to that. Some might trace it further back, but certainly the Anglo-Irish Agreement was an important event in terms of unionist feeling that things were moving away from them.”

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