Anglo-Irish Agreement marked a crossing of the Rubicon

Sense of betrayal and exclusion fueled unionist rage and furious protests

Probably the most memorable footage capturing the visceral depth of unionism's antagonism to the Anglo-Irish Agreement is of Ian Paisley at Belfast City Hall roaring out his "never, never…" speech. The DUP leader was at his most thunderous in insisting Ulster said no to any Dublin involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Frequently it is reported that he voiced the word “never” three times, but there was a fourth “never”. Paisley bellowed out the first three but then there is the slightest of pauses and a little diminuendo as he more tentatively uttered the fourth “never” – as if there was some doubt in his mind, some inkling that, protest as unionists would, a Rubicon had been crossed.

You could say that “never, never, never…never” declaration stemmed from Margaret Thatcher’s “out, out, out” speech when in November 1984 she curtly rejected the three options proposed by the New Ireland Forum – a united Ireland, a federal or confederal 32-county state, or British-Irish joint authority.

The nature of that dismissal incensed much of nationalist Ireland, and led Thatcher, under pressure from the Irish Government, the smooth promptings of the British Foreign Office, and some in her own Cabinet Office to make amends through the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

READ MORE

It must also be remembered that US president Ronald Reagan, under the influence of the likes of Tip O'Neill, with Teddy Kennedy and John Hume, also pitching in, played his part in persuading Thatcher to open the door to Dublin.

But it took great political and diplomatic skill and work to get her to the place where she consented to Dublin having a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland through the Maryfield British-Irish Secretariat. Close to Stormont, it was dubbed the “Bunker” because of the huge security around the building to protect Irish officials working there.

Warnings

Ahead of the accord there were unionist warnings against any concessions to Dublin. Yet unionism did not see the Anglo-Irish Agreement coming. The then Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Down Enoch Powell warned that giving the Republic a say in the administration of the North would be “treacherous” and “stupid”, akin to the British government “sprinkling petrol in a wing of their own house and setting fire to it”.

Unionists did not believe it would happen. At that time the UUP leader Jim Molyneaux boasted of his “special relationship” with Thatcher, but not so special that he anticipated the Anglo-Irish Agreement which he had insisted was not being discussed by London and Dublin.

There was a story around then that the then UUP MP for Upper Bann Harold McCusker got hold of a copy of the agreement and flung it into Molyneaux’s office, shouting “where’s your special relationship now?” His now 44-year-old son Colin, a Craigavon UUP councillor and a potential candidate in next year’s Assembly’s elections, cannot verify that story but he is not surprised by it. He can also reflect the deep sense of betrayal that was felt at the time across a broad swathe of unionism – a response that is literally engraved on his father’s headstone.

Harold McCusker, who had been an MP since 1974 and was tipped to succeed Molyneaux, died aged 50 in 1990 from a cancer that he had overcome many years earlier.

“My father genuinely believed that his attitude to life in general after the agreement was so negative,” Colin says, “that he was so demoralised, that his immune system allowed this cancer to recur.”

On his headstone are the bitter comments he directed at Thatcher during prime minister’s question time shortly after the agreement was announced: “I shall carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of the injustice that I have done to my constituents down the years – when, in their darkest hours, I exhorted them to put their trust in this British House of Commons which one day would honour its fundamental obligation to them to treat them as equal British citizens.”

"During the month of July," Colin recalls, "my father flew the union flag outside our house. But for at least three years after the agreement he had the flag rolled up and tied with a black ribbon because he felt Northern Ireland was no longer an equal part of the United Kingdom. "

If that reaction was personal and extreme the more general political response was no less fevered and fervent. Its headiest day was marked by that Belfast City Hall speech eight days after the agreement on Saturday, November 23rd, where Paisley issued his “never, never, never…never” denunciation of the accord.

Shoulder to shoulder with him was Molyneaux, still not quite with the game, who urged the throng to prepare for “the long hard road to victory”.

Estimates of the crowd ranged from 100,000 to, according to Paisley, half a million, with The Irish Times erring very conservatively on a figure of 35,000.

The opposition rolled on relentlessly with more mass demonstrations and “Ulster Says No” banners unfurled across the North. It gave rise to the glib addendum, based on an advertisement at the time: “But the man from Del Monte says yes – and he’s an orangeman.”

Resignations

Unionists also demonstrated their opposition by resigning 15 Westminster seats thus triggering 15 byelections – sold as a virtual referendum against the accord. Yet that did not go so well as the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon had his great breakthrough, taking Newry and Armagh and ousting current UUP MEP Jim Nicholson.

Unionists also used the Northern Assembly of that period, which nationalists boycotted, to further rail against the agreement. It was dissolved in 1986 with a number of unionists famously carried out of Stormont by police. Naturally, one of them was Paisley. At a press conference at that time he warned of the North being on the “verge of civil war” and facing possible “hand to hand fighting in every street in Northern Ireland” due to the agreement.

“Don’t cry to me when your homes are attacked,” he shouted at the officers who carried him out of parliament buildings.

There were other dramatic incidents too, not least the loyalist "invasion" of Clontibret in Co Monaghan in August 1986, led by the current First Minister and the then deputy leader of the DUP Peter Robinson, during which two gardaí were assaulted.

There was further trouble involving loyalists and republicans, with gardai in the middle, when Robinson turned up for his trial in Dundalk. Robinson ended up paying a fine of £17,500 that kept him out of prison but earned him the mocking title of Peter the Punt – some loyalists felt he should have done his time

Regretted deal

In subsequent years Thatcher conceded that she did not foresee the force of the unionist and loyalist response to the agreement. Ultimately she regretted the deal but as the Iron Lady she at least had the tenacity to stick by it – unlike, say, one of her predecessors Harold Wilson who buckled under the combined loyalist and unionist opposition to the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973, resulting in the collapse the following May of that first powersharing administration.

Some unionists employed more subtle tactics. The McGimpsey brothers, Chris and Michael, still senior figures in the UUP, took the unusual step of challenging the legitimacy of the agreement in the High Court and Supreme Court in the South. They claimed it contradicted Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution which described the “national territory” as the whole of Ireland. They said the deal was invalid because it recognised British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

Not only did the McGimpseys lose the case, but the Supreme Court decided that this was not merely an aspiration to unity but a “constitutional imperative”. For years this became another big bugbear for unionists. It took the referendum on the 1998 Belfast Agreement to amend the articles whereby the Constitution now acknowledges the consent principle of the status of Northern Ireland only being changed through the wishes of a majority of its people.

“I thought I could effectively stop the Anglo-Irish Agreement by making it unconstitutional. That didn’t work, but I think the case irreparably damaged Articles 2 and 3,” said McGimsey.

The McGimpseys were liable for about £20,000 in government costs but Dublin “did not come after me”, he said. “I was also quietly told by a senior figure in Fianna Fáil that ‘I don’t think you should be worrying too much about those costs’.”

Unionist protests continued but gradually they began to peter out. Other political developments began to take precedence – in 1988 Hume and Gerry Adams opening a dialogue, the 1993 British-Irish Downing Street Declaration, thereafter the slow road to the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and then on to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 with its North-South dimension – a considerable advance on the agreement.

In terms of reassessing the 1985 accord McGimpsey notes that “politics has moved on dramatically”. Then the drive was to achieve power-sharing between unionism and the SDLP – with continuing IRA violence no one was thinking of Sinn Féin as part of that arrangement. McGimpsey says he fully believed in power-sharing at the time but that concept could not be sold to wider unionism.

More than a generation on he still believes unionists had no option but to campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. “I think that at the time, in the times that were in it, unionists were right to object to it. It was wrong, it went over the head of unionists.”

But regardless, as Paisley may have subconsciously discerned at Belfast City Hall 30 years ago, a Rubicon was indeed crossed. Dublin would have its say.