Intense rivalry extended north

Haughey u-turn in power repaired his mistake in opposing Anglo-Irish Agreement

The scene outside Hillsborough courthouse while the Anglo-Irish Agreement was being signed in Hillsborough Castle. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea.

The scene outside Hillsborough courthouse while the Anglo-Irish Agreement was being signed in Hillsborough Castle. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea.

 

Charles Haughey’s trenchant opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement was undoubtedly a mistake, which had negative political consequences, but it also created some openings after his return to government. As Fianna Fáil’s head of research at the time and Haughey’s Northern Ireland adviser, I share some subordinate responsibility.

The political rivalry between Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, who each alternated as taoiseach and leader of the opposition during the 1980s, was intense and unparalleled. It extended to most subjects, including Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.

For FitzGerald, the golden missed opportunity had been the Sunningdale Agreement and short-lived power-sharing government brought down in May 1974. Haughey, on the other hand, in opposition at the time, detested Sunningdale as compromising the republican position. What both Haughey and FitzGerald shared, however, was a desire to work closely with John Hume, leader of the SDLP, despite occasional differences both had with Hume.

The New Ireland Forum, convened in 1983/84, brought together the Dáil parties and the SDLP to modernise and reformulate the nationalist position in preparation for negotiations, having listened to expert witnesses from Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Three models

Three models were put forward: the unitary state (the preferred one at Haughey’s insistence), a federal/confederal state, and joint sovereignty/authority (favoured by John Hume). But there was also an escape clause indicating a willingness (in negotiation) to consider other proposals, put in mainly at the insistence of Labour senator Mary Robinson.

While Irish officials tried to construct an agreement about the principles and requirements for a peace settlement set out in the forum’s report, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher let loose at a press conference following a meeting with Garret FitzGerald, famously ruling out each of the constitutional options: “Out, out, out”. Not having been present at this, FitzGerald’s press conference came across as confused, and he suffered a strong attack from Haughey in the Dáil the following week.

Senior Irish and British officials worked together to salvage all they could from the political train crash, with political support from Irish-American politicians. While keeping a watchful eye on developments, Haughey was convinced nothing of substance would emerge.

In reality, officials were extending and deepening the scope of the Anglo-Irish framework that had first emerged in 1980/81 as a result of two Haughey-Thatcher meetings, giving the framework more of a North-South emphasis, rather than an east-west one.

Cleverly, the wording of Article 1 about the consent principle in relation to Northern Ireland was lifted verbatim from a communiqué issued following the first Haughey-Thatcher meeting in 1980, making it much more difficult for Haughey effectively to assault.

Positive publicity

Fianna FáilBrian Lenihan

Haughey’s stated objections to the agreement were based on two grounds. The first was that it gave away the constitutional position set out in Articles 2 and 3. This did not cut much ice with people who thought the constitutional position was unrealistic, or those who thought that in practice the Republic had given it away long ago.

Anyway, it turned out to be mistaken, when the Supreme Court, in 1990, found in the McGimpsey case that Article 1 of the agreement, being a statement of policy, was compatible with the Constitution.

The second ground of objection was that the agreement did not contain any reforms of substance, simply a long agenda of topics to discuss, where the Irish Government could put forward its views to the British Government.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was the biggest achievement of the second FitzGerald-led coalition. The public supported it on the basis of giving peace a chance. It was also claimed the agreement represented a breach of sovereignty and even that it was tantamount to joint authority.

Some of the calculations behind it worked out. FitzGerald’s biggest worry was that Sinn Féin would overtake the SDLP, and then claim a mandate from the nationalist community for the IRA campaign.

By giving the SDLP an inside track to the British government through the Irish government and the Secretariat at Maryfield, outside Belfast, their position would be bolstered, and this proved to be the case.

Where it was less successful was in inducing unionists to accept power-sharing as a means of diminishing the role of the Irish government, and it had no short-term effect in squeezing out IRA violence, which is why Thatcher rapidly lost interest in it, although to her credit, she did not renege on it. The huge unionist outcry against the agreement, based on the claim that it placed Northern Ireland standing on the window-ledge of the union, enhanced its credibility in nationalist Ireland.

Once the agreement was ratified by the Dáil and registered at the United Nations, Haughey accepted the battle was over, and remarked privately that parties in government often ended up implementing measures they had criticised in opposition.

He undertook to renegotiate Article 1 in government, but dropped this immediately on coming to power in March 1987, ahead of a visit to then US president Ronald Reagan at the White House.

Arguably, Fianna Fáil’s opposition to the agreement precipitated the founding of the Progressive Democrats and cost it an overall majority in the 1987 general election.

Implementing the agreement conscientiously, but not zealously, in government – the most substantial achievement was the revamping of fair employment legislation – channels of communication opened up with opponents of the agreement, both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement became an important building block in the making of peace, and contained in it was a stimulus for the search for an alternative.

Martin Mansergh was head of research for Fianna Fáil in 1985 and Charles Haughey’s key adviser on Northern Ireland

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