Massive ‘wake-up’ call for unionists forced us to rethink our approach

Agreement spurred a rethink in unionism and a new sense of self-reliance

Harold McCusker: “I felt desolate because as I stood in the cold outside Hillsborough Castle everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth.”

Harold McCusker: “I felt desolate because as I stood in the cold outside Hillsborough Castle everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth.”

 

The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement on the November 15th, 1985 , was a defining moment for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

We had just come through a very violent period linked to the hunger strikes, with the Provisional IRA having acquired even more weapons and semtex explosives in massive shipments from Libya as well as many new recruits to their cause. Sinn Féin was beginning to enter the electoral fray and had won seats in local councils and at Stormont. I had just completed my service with the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and weeks earlier been elected for the first time as an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the age of 22.

These were dark and difficult days and about to become even bleaker for unionists as they watched helplessly a British prime minister in Margaret Thatcher, whom they had come to revere, sign an agreement with Garret FitzGerald that gave the Irish government, for the first time, a say in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

That event in Hillsborough in my constituency cut deep into the unionist psyche. We felt betrayed. We felt alone. We were angry. The sense of hurt was palpable. Months after she had won unionist praise for her infamous “out, out, out” rejection of the findings of the New Ireland Forum, Thatcher had apparently given in to “Dublin’s demands” and conceded a vital constitutional foothold to the Irish government.

Speaking afterwards in the House of Commons, the late Harold McCusker MP summed up the mood of unionism when he declared: “I felt desolate because as I stood in the cold outside Hillsborough Castle everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth. Even in my most pessimistic moments, reading the precise detail in the Irish press on the Wednesday before, I never believed that the agreement would deliver me, in the context that it has, into the hands of those who for 15 years have murdered personal friends, political associates and hundreds of my constituents.”

Diktat

Ian Paisley gave vent to their frustrations in loud and powerful tones but it was the quiet words of Jim Molyneaux, the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who brought the reality home to the masses who filled the city centre that day. He warned them there was no “quick fix” to this imposition – that overthrowing this agreement would take time, probably years. He was right.

Thatcher argued that she had entered into the agreement in order to “break the cycle of violence” and to enhance security cooperation with the Irish government. At the time, unionists felt that the agreement effectively rewarded violence by enabling a “foreign government” to interfere in Northern Ireland while retaining a claim to “our territory” in Articles two and three of the Irish Constitution.

Alienation

Molyneaux engaged with then prime minister John Major and made clear that what we needed was a clear indication that our constitutional position would be safeguarded in any negotiating process. The Downing Street Declaration made by Major and Albert Reynolds in December 1993 provided that guarantee in the form of the Principle of Consent. This established that the people of Northern Ireland had the right to determine whether they should remain in the United Kingdom or be part of a united Ireland and this guarantee would be enshrined in any new constitutional arrangements. Eventually, this would lead to the amendment of Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution and the withdrawal of the so-called territorial claim over Northern Ireland.

Unionism also learned a number of other key lessons from this period that significantly influenced our approach to a new agreement. Amongst these was that we could not depend on a government in London to look after our interests. We would have to do that for ourselves. Hence, in the Belfast Agreement, the Anglo-Irish institutions were replaced by new arrangements that put unionists on an equal footing and enabled North-South cooperation to be controlled by Belfast and Dublin.

Having felt excluded by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, unionism also recognised that a process that excluded any major player was a process doomed to failure. Hence, when the IRA called a second ceasefire and Sinn Féin signed up to the Mitchell Principles of Democracy and Non-Violence, republicans entered the talks process for the first time and the rest as they say is history.

In fairness, my contacts in the military and in the police tell me that cross-Border security co-operation did improve after the Anglo-Irish Agreement and thanks to good intelligence, the security forces were able to thwart a very high proportion of terrorist operations during this period. Perhaps this was one of the factors in persuading the IRA of the futility of their violence, resulting in the first ceasefire in 1994. I like to think that another factor was the fact that unionists were not going to succumb to IRA violence and abandon the Union because of this murderous campaign.

Massive implications

Today, whilst our current situation is far from perfect, each of those relationships is in a much better place for all of us. To those who argue against the current arrangements and want to bring the institutions crashing down, I point to the wilderness years of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with unionism sidelined and powerless, and say that this is a place that no unionist in their right mind would ever wish to return to.

Jeffrey Donaldson is the Democratic Unionist MP for Lagan Valley and a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly

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