Anglo-Irish Agreement was transformative

A new spirit of co-operation followed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which in turn led to the Belfast Agreement

 Seamus Mallon, Joe Hendron, Eddie McGrady and John Hume of the SDLP, at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin in 1985, after a meeting with taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and members of the cabinet.  Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times

Seamus Mallon, Joe Hendron, Eddie McGrady and John Hume of the SDLP, at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin in 1985, after a meeting with taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and members of the cabinet. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times

 

For the Northern nationalist community, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was truly transformational. More than a decade had passed since hopes of a new beginning raised by the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement had been cruelly dashed by the Loyalist Workers’ strike and the Provisional IRA’s terrorist campaign.

Following that “victory”, unionism split and retreated behind one of two demands, either a return to the discredited majoritarian form of devolution or the continuation of direct rule from London. The Provisional IRA’s campaign remained as futile as ever as it descended deeper into a nihilism of murder and destruction.

The tragic hunger strikes of 1980-81 and the doomed attempt at an internal settlement in the “rolling devolution” assembly of 1982, had only added to the sense of political despair.

Despite this backdrop, the SDLP, the party supported by the overwhelming majority of nationalists, remained committed to a cross-community partnership within the North and a new relationship with the South. However, faced with continuing unionist opposition, the party had concluded that pursuing power-sharing as the first step towards such a new constitutional framework was no longer a viable option.

What the SDLP now believed was required as that first step was a joint Irish and British approach that would produce solid outer walls for a new constitutional framework. Those walls would be the guarantees and support the Northern communities needed against any threat to each other’s identity, to their rights, or to their legitimate political aspirations Secure within those walls, the local parties would be able to more freely develop positive relationships.

This thinking shaped SDLP policy from the late 1970s. The first significant result was the New Ireland Forum, 1983-84, in which the party sought to persuade the leading parties in the Republic – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour – of the need for this framework.

While the forum’s three main proposals were unceremoniously dismissed by the prime minister Margaret Thatcher, its fourth proposal provided the key to a way forward. That proposal was that negotiations with unionists should proceed on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s identity and rights and that there could be no coercion towards achieving Irish unity.

These principles and the proposal for a joint British-Irish framework became the kernel of the negotiations of taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, tánaiste Dick Spring and foreign minister Peter Barry with the British government from late 1984. These negotiations, a year later, produced the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

For the nationalist community, this agreement was the most significant political development since 1921. Effectively the Irish government, with its now formal consultative role in the government of the North, became a co-guarantor of the the community’s fundamental rights, its security and its aspirations. The agreement also allowed the Irish government to promote and support reconciliation and co-operation with the North, especially with the unionist community.

Significant developments

The new legislation, in the formation of which the SDLP played a significant role, ushered in a era of fair and equitable employment conditions that has had lasting positive effects.

Other post-agreement developments included judicial reforms, the beginnings of police reform, the removal of restrictions on the public use of Irish and the appointment of people from a nationalist background to public bodies where they had been severely underrepresented. These anticipated more comprehensive reforms following the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

The political domain witnessed the agreement’s most significant and long-term effects. Unionist opposition to the agreement was widespread and the fear was that the British government would concede, faced as it was with large demonstrations, unionist boycotts of district councils and other public bodies, accompanied by threats to make Northern Ireland ungovernable.

Despite these pressures, the British government did not resile from the agreement. That stand produced the gradual realisation among unionists that the new framework could only be changed by negotiating a more comprehensive and transcending agreement with all parties.

Secondly, the agreement witnessed significant changes in approach within the main opposition party in the Republic. Initially Fianna Fáil opposed the agreement and leader Charles Haughey vowed to repudiate it, if returned to office. However, just over a year later, when again taoiseach, he very publicly endorsed the agreement. This endorsement effectively ended what had been a serious constitutional disagreement on the North between the main parties in the South.

As the SDLP had expected, the outer walls of a new framework were proving solid and were attracting support.

The third effect was seen in the emergence of new thinking within the leadership of the Provisional IRA. Fifteen years of a terrorist campaign had brought the movement no nearer to its goal of a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland. The campaign had only heaped tragedy upon tragedy and had deepened divisions between communities.

Hume-Adams dialogue

John Hume

Finally, the agreement’s most transforming effect was on Anglo-Irish relations. Gone was the megaphone diplomacy that had characterised the approach of the two governments to the Northern crisis.

In its place came a new partnership and a new spirit of co-operation that led to the Belfast Agreement and which remain essential to resolving today’s problems in the North.

Dr Seán Farren is a former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and minister in the power-sharing executive of 1999-2002. Now retired from politics, he is author of The SDLP – The Struggle for Agreement in Northern Ireland, 1970-2000.

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