New Ireland Forum helped begin process of changing hearts and minds
Shift in nationalist demands allowed forum to become launchpad for lobbying
Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey signs copies of the New Ireland Forum’s report in May 1984. Haughey initially opposed the subsequent Anglo-Irish Agreement. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Every major political breakthrough requires significant imagination and courage. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was Margaret Thatcher’s Nixon to China moment – like Nixon’s reverse in recognising communist China, she yielded on her belief that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”. Those of us who were in Hillsborough Castle that November morning, with the loyalist mob smashing windows outside and Thatcher cheerfully rehearsing media questions inside, fully realised how momentous it was that the Iron Lady was for turning after all.
Yes, she came to regret the agreement in later years but, for now, she was on board and would resist subsequent IRA and loyalist attacks with the same ferocity she had displayed against the miners andin the Falklands.
But it also took imagination and courage to redefine Irish nationalism profoundly, without which Thatcher would not have signed the agreement. That was achieved through the New Ireland Forum in 1983-1984 and, for the first time, committed 90 per cent of nationalists on the island to the realities and core principles that underpinned the agreement in 1985.
Most importantly it committed them to the equality principle expressed in chapter five of the forum report, essentially recognising the validity of both nationalist and unionist identities and the need for both to be reflected and protected “in equally satisfactory, secure and durable, political, administrative and symbolic” form.
During those months in Dublin Castle when politicians from Fine Gael (including future Taoiseach Enda Kenny), Fianna Fáil, Labour and the SDLP met for 28 private sessions, 13 public sessions and 56 meetings of the steering group of party leaders, I was glad to see a transformative education process was under way for all of Ireland.
That the forum had happened at all was a miracle. In previous decades leaders in the Republic, including Éamon de Valera, had refused to entertain all-Ireland conventions to address the Northern crisis. This time, John Hume and taoiseach Garret FitzGerald were in favour of a conference but some Fine Gael ministers were opposed.
In a clever manoeuvre, Hume convinced them to agree by using the possibility that Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey would take credit for the initiative. Significantly, the forum was the first time Fianna Fáil agreed to recognition of equal rights for unionists. Unfortunately, at the press conference at the end of the forum Haughey retreated to the comfortable populist corner by playing up the preference of the forum for a united Ireland.
As press officer of the forum I made sure the British and international media were fully aware of the significance of the equality principles and the openness of nationalists to other proposals, including a federal/ confederal state and, most notably, joint authority. Many of us felt strongly that the united Ireland mantra was a dead end that had enabled British inaction for decades and empowered discrimination against northern nationalists.
FitzGerald demonstrated remarkable political skill in not taking the bait in November 1984 when Thatcher, after a meeting in Chequers, brutally dismissed all the forum options. We were with FitzGerald in the Irish Embassy as the reports came in of her provocative outburst but he refused to express public anger. We exploited Thatcher’s rant to gain support from the US media for the forum proposals
In September 1985 I became head of press at the London embassy, succeeding the very effective Pat Hennessy and Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, as we sought to persuade powerful Westminster lobby correspondents and MPs to support the imminent agreement. Many were receptive but cautious.
Alan Watkins, veteran political columnist at the Observer, was representative of those who were somewhat mystified by the power of Irish nationalism and wondered why the Irish, like the Welsh, couldn’t enjoy being in the British club. In some ways, we had more difficulty with British Catholics, who, somewhat defensively, thought that Catholics in Northern Ireland should just become British.
Richard Ryan, the Irish embassy political counsellor, and I became fixtures in the Garrick and Boodles, methodically engaging, one by one, with MPs, editors, columnists and influencers generally. I had a special pass to sit in the Commons press gallery, facilitating daily engagement.
Our job was to appeal to the British sense of fair play, now an easier task as we were not asking them to rat on their loyalist cousins in Belfast but to grant equal rights to nationalists. Those in the British media who were more consistently engaged in covering the North issue appreciated the important change , including Jim Naughtie and Julia Langdon of the Guardian and Brenda Maddox of the Economist.
In talking to others we were not helped by the lingering perception of Ireland as an economically depressed, priest-dominated country that had stayed on the sidelines in the second World War. Fortunately, growing respect for FitzGerald and Hume, joint membership of the EU since 1973 and the increasing prominence of Irish people in the academic and business life in Britain were changing perceptions.
Strangely, the opposition British Labour Party played a minimal role in the agreement. Its policy of Irish unity by consent, a recipe for inaction since consent was not likely, was designed to placate the Troops Out and pro-unionist wings in the party. It would take more imaginative members such as Peter Mandelson, who had left television production to become Labour’s head of communications, to play a more significant role in the 1990s.
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If the road to the agreement was a difficult one, its implementation phase was even more problematic. The Sunningdale agreement had collapsed in 1974 due to lack of commitment by Harold Wilson and the British army. Buoyed by this success, loyalists were sure they could destroy the agreement’s intergovernmental conference and the Maryfield joint secretariat.
But the agreement held fast, first because it was “non-boycottable” (only the two governments were participating) and second because of the determination by Sir John Hermon and the RUC to maintain order.
By the time Haughey, who had opposed the agreement, became taoiseach again in 1987, the benefits of the new arrangements were so apparent that he wrote to Thatcher on her re-election that year, saying he looked forward to bringing lasting peace and stability to Northern Ireland “in the framework that has already been set.”
As the British turned to other pressing issues, including growing London as a global financial centre, it was tough to keep them focused on a host of reforms needed in Northern Ireland, including the courts, police, prisons, economic development, cross-Border co-operation and Irish-language teaching.
Thatcher was angered that the IRA continued to bomb and that there was no clear security dividend from the agreement. There were rows over extradition of IRA suspects from Ireland to Britain; one Conservative MP attacked me for being a “bad European” on the issue at the home of veteran BBC journalist John Cole.
But steady progress towards lasting peace continued to be made thanks to the commitment, courage and imagination of politicians, officials and civic and community leaders from both islands. Above all, the integrated actions of the Irish and British governments over the years has led to an interdependent relationship and mutual respect that provides the essential framework for equality and stability in Northern Ireland.
Ted Smyth was a member of the secretariat and press secretary of the New Ireland Forum and head of press for the Irish Government in London from 1985 to 1988.