Anglo-Irish Agreement: How the deal was done

Against all the odds, the agreement showed that politics could actually work in the North

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 15th, 1985 was formally abjured by the British and Irish governments on April 10th, 1998 as a key concession to the unionists which was necessary to win their acquiescence in the new Belfast Agreement.

Its essential provisions are preserved, however, in the original language in “stream 111” of the new arrangement and must be observed by Northern Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan as they deal with the latest crisis.

The Government may put forward views and proposals on all internal issues which have not been devolved to a local Assembly in Northern Ireland, a region of the separate sovereign state of the United Kingdom and both governments are enjoined by treaty to make determined efforts to resolve any differences between them on those matters.

This is a unique mechanism between two countries that have inherited a historic conflict and would be almost unimaginable in any other analogous situation in today's world. One of many striking examples where it could be useful, if the parties could bring themselves to accept it, would be the almost directly comparable problem of Kashmir. It was created by the partition of the Indian sub-continent into Pakistan and India but left an important and dangerously alienated pro-Pakistan community in that region of India.


Almost as astonishing is the fact that this mechanism was agreed by the most assertively nationalist British prime minister of modern times in the form of an international treaty registered at the United Nations by her government and that of then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

Margaret Thatcher had expended blood and treasure at huge hazard and on a great scale to reassert her cherished sovereignty over an almost abandoned Falklands archipelago inhabited by 2,000 sheep-farmers 8,000 miles away in the storm-tossed South Atlantic.

But how was she persuaded to agree to such an encroachment by a foreign country that she had generally mistrusted on a section of the United Kingdom that she had described as being “as British as Finchley”, her own parliamentary constituency?

Séamus Mallon has memorably and accurately described the Belfast Agreement of 1998 as “Sunnningdale for slow learners”. Power-sharing, a North-South council of Ireland, acknowledgment of the aspirations of both traditions, consent required for constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland: they had all been there 25 years earlier in the 1973 package agreed by Liam Cosgrave, Edward Heath and the North’s constitutional parties.

The refusal of the Wilson government to protect that arrangement in yielding to his generals’ craven self-serving reluctance (worse than that of the “Curragh Mutiny” of March 1914) to intervene to protect Sunningdale from the beginning of the loyalist workers’ strike in 1974 itself created a new and apparently unbreachable unionist veto to any proposed solution thereafter.

This shameful legacy of the British government – the unionist veto of 1974 – sadly entrenched by Harold Wilson, Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason, was only redeemed by the combined efforts of FitzGerald and Thatcher in 1985 and by those of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in 1998. The Provisional IRA used it to justify their murders: there was no use negotiating with the British, they said with some credibility. Thousands had been killed or maimed and not a single one of the "war aims" of the IRA or UVF/UDA was achieved when they settled for the Sunningdale terms of 1973 in 1998. History offers few more heart-breaking or cruel paradoxes.

Hunger strikes

By 1982, when FitzGerald was elected taoiseach with a majority for his Fine Gael-Labour coalition in the Dáil, and when Thatcher, a self-declared “unionist and loyalist”, had been re-elected prime minister, Anglo-Irish relations were in a state of frozen crisis.

The hunger strikes so disastrously mishandled by her government, the ludicrous overselling of Charles Haughey’s initially promising totality of relations “Teapot Summit” initiative and his capriciously provocative but failed attempt in the Security Council to scuttle Thatcher’s efforts to recover the Falklands had created a complete breakdown of communication and trust between Dublin and London.

John Hume and FitzGerald had an extraordinary rapport, based on shared principles, mutual intellectual esteem and trust.

The taoiseach gathered a formidable team to try to create a breakthrough: tánaiste Dick Spring, the supreme realist; Peter Barry, FitzGerald's inspired choice as minister for foreign affairs and probably the southern politician most trusted by the North's nationalists at that time; adroit minister for justice Michael Noonan; and my fellow officials, Dermot Nally, secretary to the government, Seán Donlon, head of foreign affairs, Noel Dorr, ambassador to the UK, all of whom were deeply experienced since before Sunningdale, Andy Ward, head of the department of justice and the most brilliant person I have met in a lifetime of diplomacy and international business, Richard Ryan, the poet-diplomat who beguiled the Tory grandees, and Dáithí Ó Ceallaigh, our brilliant intermediary with the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

I was present at several of the FitzGerald-Hume discussions. Even though both passionately supported the concept of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, it was clear that any prospect of this plan succeeding would be wrecked again by the unionists who were immune from all persuasion by their confidence in their veto of 1974, not to mention the killing of so many innocent Protestants by the Provisional IRA.

A way forward

FitzGerald and Hume agreed that the only solution which could have any chance of enduring would have to be “unboycottable” and proofed against the 1974 veto. Neither had the remotest interest in political kudos arising from Northern Ireland. A solution could only be found strictly in an international treaty framework within which the two governments would work together.

But how to engage Thatcher, flushed with her Falklands victory? She was patently interested only in a security-based victory over the Provisional IRA and her visceral instincts were likely to support the unionist veto.

FitzGerald and Hume agreed to set up the New Ireland Forum for the constitutional parties on the island to find a way forward. The unionists predictably refused to attend. The forum, in its Principles and Realities chapter, produced insightful and subsequently undervalued agreements on the need to acknowledge and institutionalise fully the rights and British identities of the unionists and the Irish identity of the nationalists in any eventual framework.

It became evident from the discussions, however, that despite Hume's indefatigable shuttling between the main parties in the Dáil, Haughey believed, apparently sincerely but (I would hold) mistakenly, that a radical Fianna Fáil position was a necessary bulwark for the State against the IRA.

He was determined to oppose the possibility of any outcome other than his irredentist preference for a unitary Irish state which would, of course, completely devalue the forum as a negotiating tool with the British, because this would only prove that Irish constitutional nationalism was not seriously interested in any workable solution.

At this stage, it seemed the forum might become an obstacle rather than an aid to negotiation. It became necessary to begin a serious dialogue with the British forthwith.

Dialogue was discreetly re-opened between Nally and UK cabinet secretary Sir Robert (later Lord) Armstrong. Seasoned negotiators blessed with imagination and the patience of Job, they had known and trusted one another since before Sunningdale. They led two small negotiating teams.

In September 1983, on the personal instructions of the taoiseach, I told Sir David Goodall, the deputy cabinet secretary (deputy head of the UK foreign office, a gifted watercolourist with ancestors in Wexford on both sides of the 1798 rebellion) in fairly dramatic detail why we were convinced that only through a visible Irish government role in helping run the security and justice systems in Northern Ireland could the catastrophically dangerous and worsening alienation of the minority in Northern Ireland be addressed.

We did not want this role, but we were sure it was essential. Goodall reported to Thatcher and returned some days later to inquire again whether the taoiseach would be prepared to contemplate changing article 2 and if necessary article 3 of our Constitution to facilitate such an approach.

Again, on instruction, I said this would be possible only if the political side of a negotiated equation could be defended by our government.

There followed a marathon secret negotiation alternating between Ireland and Britain over 18 months, with 36 meetings, some of them lasting several days. These ranged over constitutional, political, human rights, cultural, legal and security issues and their many historical dimensions.

I would say both sides learned a lot in a series of what were basically exercises to probe each other’s capacity to accommodate formulas and ideas for “progress”.

Much of the discussion was intense, occasionally quite emotional (at least as far as I was concerned), but the remarkable bond of trust and patience between our leaders, Nally and Armstrong, infused the atmosphere to the point that the exchanges were often, though by no means always, essentially more collaborative than competitive.

For me, one of the first heartening and significant signals of British seriousness of intent was a negative one: the obviously deliberate exclusion by the British themselves from the first year of the exchanges of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the more recently established Northern Ireland Office. By the time they joined the talks directly or indirectly, the momentum towards a deal and its outlines were irreversible.

The taoiseach’s debriefing of the Irish team started after every session with the typically genial but forensic interrogation by FitzGerald and his ministerial colleagues of every detail that had been discussed; then began the elaboration of instructions for the next round.

Their “reality” also included the relentlessly derisive public contempt of the opposition and of much of our own national media and public opinion. This descended to levels of political vitriol unprecedented in my lifetime after Thatcher’s infamous dismissal of the forum report but which FitzGerald, with exceptional foresight and patience, bore stoically without retort. In the process, he gained considerable advantage within the negotiation which he single-handedly saved from unravelling at that stage.

We kept Hume – but only Hume – informed about the progress of the talks. He meticulously observed confidentiality even with his closest supporters.

All the more difficult issues, known to both sides as “the neuralgic points”, were reserved for the taoiseach and Thatcher, and they met several times during the process, sometimes alone during summits and sometimes on the margins of EU meetings.


My abiding memory of the taoiseach on these challenging history-making occasions was his habit of preparing first in a free-for-all with his ministers and advisers, and then spending an hour or two in deep solitary introspection as he reviewed his objectives and anticipated Thatcher’s unpredictable moods and sometimes astonishingly bizarre ideas (redrawing the Border and the Sudetenland Germans regularly surfaced).

She always seemed to me to be highly, almost physically, nervous about any discussion of Irish matters. On make-or-break occasions, such as their last meeting in Milan before Hillsborough, he spoke with a quiet, formidable clarity such as I had almost never heard from him, and his arguments about the need for confidence-creating measures to accompany the agreement won the day when she had rejected them from her own advisers.

She disliked Ireland; she didn’t really understand the Irish or perhaps didn’t want to; she disliked having to approve the terms of the 1985 treaty with Ireland but, as Charles Moore, who shared her inhibitions, makes clear in the fascinating and well-researched lengthy chapter on Ireland in the latest volume of his biography of Thatcher, she definitely liked FitzGerald because he was honest in his dealings with her.

It is important to acknowledge Thatcher’s formidable courage in the wake of the bombing of her Brighton hotel when the Provisional IRA almost succeeded in killing her. They killed five of her close friends and maimed several others.

Instead of calling off the negotiations which we might have expected she ordered her officials to go ahead. That deserves immense credit.

I was in her room in Hillsborough Castle with the taoiseach on November 15th, 1985 just before they went down to sign the agreement before the world. To my eye, she was in a state of palpable stress. I couldn’t help remembering Michael Collins’s remark about having signed his death warrant. But she went downstairs and signed the thing, adding some graceful words.

We owe her an important debt, whatever about the errors for which she will otherwise be remembered.

The taoiseach addressed the nationalists of the North: “Lift up your heads.” They did . . . for the first time since the dismal veto of 1974.

Unity of purpose

The unionists rallied loudly against the agreement and for weeks barracked and attacked the primitive little secretariat office building (ever since affectionately known as “the bunker”to its original denizens) which housed seven of us Dublin-based officials as we worked to “resolve differences” with our British opposite numbers on every issue from the behaviour of the security forces and housing to the economy, the Irish language and security co-operation.

At night the roars of the protesters kept us southerners huddled in one room; we played a lot of poker. Our families who followed the convulsed scenes at our gates on television were more alarmed than we were. The mob urged on by Paisley (“Never! Never! Never!”) threatened strikes and boycotts.

Thatcher, unlike Wilson and his generals , wasn’t having any of it. The agreement proved unboycottable as Hume and FitzGerald had planned.

Tragically, Haughey opposed it in the Dáil debate, undermining the unity of purpose of the nationalists North and South and, gratifyingly, the Provos: to paraphrase Professor Ronan Fanning’s view, however, like Éamon de Valera in 1922 , although this treaty had not been his compromise, he implemented it when he returned to power.

The "Four Horsemen" – Tip O'Neill, Hugh Carey, Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan – gave Haughey's poor envoy, the late Brian Lenihan, who was sent to Washington to persuade them to oppose the agreement, very short shrift. The SDLP, which had always avoided the political rows of the Dublin parties, publicly rejected the Fianna Fáil position.

The Tories with few exceptions approved it, and it gave Tony Blair the political cover of Thatcher herself to deal with Ireland in the Belfast Agreement without traditional jingoistic obstructionism of the Tories when in opposition.

The agreement showed that politics could work and that violence yielded nothing but more misery. Mallon’s “slow learners”, even Ian Paisley, even Gerry Adams, learned slowly, but they learned.

Michael Lillis was deputy secretary general of the department of foreign affairs from 1983-85 and first joint secretary of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast 1985-87