Anglo-Irish Agreement: deal was crushing blow for unionism

The 1985 accord meant that power-sharing with Sinn Féin was the only way forward

The Rev Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux speaking to supporters in Hillsborough prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

The Rev Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux speaking to supporters in Hillsborough prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

 

The hall was full. Every chair in the building had been brought in from other rooms, yet there were still dozens of people huddled in the hallway and down the stairs. Someone was trying to rig up a Tannoy system to allow the growing crowd in the car park to listen to what was being said.

There were people in tears. Many others were just numb with shock. It was like a scene from one of those films in which, after a great tragedy, people gather together for comfort and to try to make sense of what has just happened. But even the prayers of two local ministers, asking God for guidance, were falling on deaf ears.

It was November 15th, 1985. It was an Orange hall in Belfast. It was about 8.30pm. Orange Order members and unionists from the area were still reeling from the news that the British and Irish governments had signed a deal in which the future of Northern Ireland would rest in “Dublin’s bloodstained hands”.

They were bewildered. They were seething with anger. People talked of armed rebellion and of Lord Carson’s original UVF. Many in that meeting believed Margaret Thatcher had betrayed them and that a civil war was a distinct possibility. It was the first time in my life – I had just turned 30 – that I had seen real panic, real fear in the eyes of ordinary unionists. They knew, even in those first few hours, that things were never going to be the same again.

UUP leader Jim Molyneaux and the DUP’s Ian Paisley were also in shock. They hadn’t seen it coming. Even though a number of papers had been signalling for months that London and Dublin were moving closer together, Molyneaux, who always believed he had Thatcher’s ear, refused to countenance the possibility. Enoch Powell had assured him that the Conservative Party’s backbenchers would “rise in open revolt’’ if Thatcher attempted to dilute parliamentary sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Paisley had argued in summer 1985 that Thatcher would “never dare hand power to Dublin for any part of the United Kingdom”.

Crushing blow

Anglo-Irish Agreement

Worse, the agreement rammed home to every unionist party and fringe group – unionism has always had a “Heinz 57” varieties aspect to it – that Thatcher was prepared to go over their heads and deal directly with her Irish counterparts if they weren’t prepared to buy into power-sharing and an “Irish dimension”.

Those first few days were really dangerous for Northern Ireland as there was a real sense that unionism was rudderless, confused, outmanoeuvred and completely bereft of a strategy.

If you look at photographs and TV footage of Molyneaux, Paisley, Powell and other leading figures during that first week, you can see the pain and anxiety on their faces.

No one really knew what was going to happen and there were fears of a violent response from loyalist paramilitarism – the sort of response that would see them at war with republicanism, the RUC and the British army.

I met Molyneaux at Aldergrove airport in Belfast on Monday, November 18th before he boarded a flight to London. He was worried that mainstream unionism wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on the anger and even more worried that Paisley would say something so provocative that “he’ll wind up the crazies and not be able to rein them in again”.

Wasted years

What came next was a decade of wasted years and drift for unionism. Molyneaux and Paisley sulked and whinged and clung to the notion that the agreement would just wither away of its own accord. No new strategies or policies were offered, leading to a situation in which both Peter Robinson and David Trimble reckoned that Northern Ireland was in danger of falling off the “window ledge’’.

And while it was clear, very clear in fact, that the British and Irish governments were agreed on a policy of creating a solution into which Sinn Féin and the IRA would have to buy, the UUP and DUP refused to budge and then found themselves outflanked again by the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document in 1995.

Even now, 30 years on, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that unionism still hasn’t grasped the real message of the 1985 agreement: which is, that for the most part, London and Dublin will work together when it comes to Northern Ireland. And they will still find a way of working together even if the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union.

So unionism needs to accept that reality and stop pretending it can play one government off against the other.

The British have accepted that Northern Ireland can leave the United Kingdom if that’s the wish of the majority, so they will not be playing an exclusively pro-union card just to keep the DUP and UUP happy.

The fate of the union still lies in the hands of the unionist parties. They have to remember the core message of the Anglo-Irish Agreement: if you don’t make devolution work then don’t be surprised if London and Dublin step in with an alternative you probably won’t like. Power-sharing with Sinn Féin is as good as it’s going to get for unionism (having missed their chance with the SDLP on too many occasions).

They need to accept that and then, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice, concentrate on authentic mammon, rather than bogus gods. Alex Kane is a political columnist and commentator based in Belfast and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party

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