Anglo-Irish Agreement a triumph of persistence and backdoor diplomacy

British state papers show long and difficult negotiations in run-up to agreement

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was a triumph of persistence and backdoor diplomacy for the Dublin government, which was confronted with a divided British cabinet and an increasingly sceptical prime minister in Margaret Thatcher, it emerges in newly released British state papers.

The papers for 1985 released today demonstrate how Irish officials and taoiseach Garret FitzGerald kept up the pressure on the British throughout the year when Thatcher reluctantly conceded – at a meeting with the taoiseach in Milan in late June – it was too late to pull out of a deal.

On the British side, the key driving forced behind the agreement was Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, who built a particularly strong relationship with Dermot Nally, his Irish counterpart.

Armstrong received strong support from the foreign office, headed by Geoffrey Howe, who was to play a central part in Thatcher’s downfall five years later. Another influential voice in favour of the deal was Douglas Hurd, the Northern Ireland secretary for the first part of the year; he became home secretary after a reshuffle in early September 1985.


Critical point

Opposition to the deal was strongest in the Northern Ireland Office and crystallised around the figure of Tom King, who replaced Hurd as Northern secretary on September 3rd, just as negotiations reached a critical point. Other sceptics included Charles Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, and the prime minister herself, who regularly demanded that her officials push back against the Irish negotiators.

Thatcher later claimed in her memoirs that she regretted signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement as it failed to deliver on improved security co-operation.

Initially, Irish officials seem to have engaged British attention by offering to make serious concessions. On January 11th, Armstrong informed Thatcher there was a serious prospect of an amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, in return for a “consultative” role in Northern Ireland. It soon became clear, however, that the FitzGerald government was not strong enough to risk a referendum on the Constitution and it was preferable to keep him in place, rather than risk the return of Charles Haughey.

On March 7th, Howe informed Thatcher of his view that an agreement was a “prize worth having”. Hurd agreed, although he warned that “an agreement cannot be an end in itself”. There was “still a significant gap to be bridged” and the British wanted something on the “constitutional front”.

When FitzGerald met Thatcher in Brussels on March 30th, he expressed hope about the negotiations, although he complained about the fact that some British officials seemed to be leaking details to the press.

Thatcher, in keeping her with her previous hardline stance on Anglo-Irish relations, replied that progress had been made, but only “in adjusting expectations” on the Irish side about what might be achieved.

‘Consultative’ role

In May, a draft memorandum was drawn up by Armstrong which raised the prospect of giving the Irish government a formal “consultative” role in Northern Ireland. In return, it was hoped the Irish government would be willing to sign up to the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism as a measure to reassure the unionist population.

The language used in any agreement remained a sticking point. The Irish hoped for something more substantive and formalised than a “consultative” role, whereas the British objected to use of the word “joint” as it had connotations of “joint authority”.

While the Irish government wanted to give a boost to the SDLP, the British did not seem particularly concerned about the rise of Sinn Féin.

A report on the local elections in Northern Ireland in May noted that the SDLP had “held its ground” and Sinn Féin’s share of the vote had not increased. Meanwhile, Nally asked the British to keep the unionist parties in the dark about the talks, because of fears that they would attempt to derail the deal.

After the elections, the Irish negotiators grew bolder. In addition to the agreement itself, they sought to tack on a series of “confidence-building measures” to their demands.

These included reforms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment – such as a new code of conduct – with the professed aim of reassuring the minority community in Northern Ireland. Another was that of joint courts, made up of judges from both countries, to officiate in terrorism trials.

Thatcher saw this as a tactical move. “They are asking too much. Possibly this is deliberate,” she wrote in May. At a meeting with the taoiseach on June 29th in Milan, she objected to the way the Irish had introduced the idea of “associated measures” into negotiations.

However, she also struck an unusually emollient tone. She and FitzGerald “had the same problem in mirror image”. Despite her own concerns, she admitted that “it would be very damaging now not to go ahead with proposed agreement”.

One consideration here was the attitude of the Americans if talks collapsed. In July, the foreign office informed the Reagan administration that a deal was “by no means a foregone conclusion, but that, if an agreement was not achieved it would not be because of any lack of seriousness on the British government’s part”.

‘Utterly astounded’

Despite feeling that she had become locked into a negotiating process, Thatcher retained a tight rein on her officials and pored over every detail they presented to her. On July 26th, on receiving an update from Armstrong on the talks, she claimed to be “utterly astounded” by creeping Irish demands.

She was particularly upset by a suggestion that, if an Anglo-Irish Agreement led to “a real and sustained reduction in the level of violence, that will be among the factors to be taken into account by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in reviewing the release of prisoners in Northern Ireland who have been convicted of terrorist crimes.”

“Shouldn’t dream of putting my name to such terrible English,” she wrote, scribbling “No” all over the document.

By August, it was reported that the secret nature of the talks was beginning to have a destabilising effect in Northern Ireland. A briefing prepared for Thatcher reported there had been “an increase in terrorist incidents and the unionist community are in an edgy mood in anticipation of an Anglo-Irish Agreement”.

Jim Molyneaux of the Ulster Unionist Party and Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party both visited Thatcher to seek reassurance.

At the start of September, Hurd impressed upon Peter Barry, the minister for foreign affairs, the need for a “low-key measured approach to presentation which would achieve a period of reassurance” for unionists. The Anglo-Irish secretariat could not be “too high powered and interventionist”. Unionists had to see Irish assurances on “the constitution and on security measures”.

Belfast pub

Barry reiterated the need to reassure the nationalist community in Northern Ireland too. He said the “most difficult nut to crack” was west Belfast and suggested that it would be a good thing for an Irish minister like himself to be seen having a drink in a local pub, to demonstrate things had changed. Hurd disagreed strongly.

Serious tensions remained. The British refused to agree to establish mixed courts or introduce reform of the Ulster Defence Regiment. Meanwhile, the Irish began to equivocate on their promise to accede to the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism.

Charles Powell reported this to Thatcher on September 26th, saying this was “one of the main attractions for us in the agreement, which has been an incentive to continuing the negotiations. Their sudden and belated change of direction calls into question their good faith.” The following day, Thatcher warned that this was a “serious retrograde step”.

The growing concern about the deal was articulated by Tom King. In his view, it seemed to offer “considerably more to the Irish than it does to us”.

“The Irish have not been able to surrender their constitutional claim on the North,” he complained, “The most direct advantage for us will be in better security co-operation, but so far we have only a rather vague indication that the Republic will redeploy their task force to Border areas to combat terrorism.”

Hurd, who remained involved, still believed it was right to pursue an agreement but admitted the “balance of margin is a fine one”. Howe was firmer in pushing back strongly against King.

“We must judge the points made in Tom King’s latest minute against that background of continuing Irish good faith in our determination to strike, if possible, a bargain that will stand the test of time”, he wrote at the end of September.

It would be wrong to postpone the deal any further, he warned. The Irish government was already having difficulty holding its position “against the leaks and accompanying speculation, not all of which have come from their side of the Irish Sea”, he added.

In a note to Powell on October 10th, Thatcher wrote: “I think we must fight for our viewpoint. The Irish are still trying to convey the impression that they are going to get some kind of authority in Northern Ireland.” The consultative status would “give enough trouble as it is – the limitations of their role must be made clear”.

At the end of October, the crucial breakthrough was made when King and Howe were able to agree on a joint communique to the cabinet, recommending that it support the agreement.

“From our own point of view, the balance of advantage is a fine one,” the document read. That the deal was likely to provoke a bad reaction from unionists would “hinder rather than assist the process of reconciliation”. Long term, it was felt that it “does offer considerable prizes”: a better relationship with Dublin, taking away the SDLP’s excuse for opposing power- sharing and “international benefits” for the UK’s reputation, particularly in the US.

Fierce debate

After a fierce debate, the British cabinet agreed to support the deal, on the condition that King continue to lobby for the “the maximum possible improvements” in the text of the agreement, particularly on security co-operation, to the last minute.

As late as November 11th, Armstrong reported “some signs of ‘first-night’ nerves on the Irish side”, with Haughey’s attacks on FitzGerald gathering momentum.

Eventually however, the negotiators limped over the finish line and the deal was signed on November 15th at Hillsborough Castle. John Bew is reader at the war studies department King's College London and the author of Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny