Pragmatism wins out ahead of conviction

While Margaret Thatcher was unionist at heart, the situation in the North wasnot working. In Garret FitzGerald she found a leader to reach agreement with

I have a vivid recollection of what it felt like that day as I watched the prime minister and the taoiseach put their signatures to an agreement between the two governments, the drafting of which my colleagues and I had spent the best part of two years on.

We had been crafting a new structure, like an artist painting a picture, altering it – a stroke of paint here, another line there – as those who commissioned the work required. Now the structure was complete, the last adjustments made, the curtain drawn back, and the final text of the agreement put out there for all to see: beyond our power to change it.

The process started in the autumn of 1983. Margaret Thatcher had been returned to office for a second term with a large majority in the House of Commons. Garret FitzGerald had been returned as taoiseach with a sufficient majority to be able to look forward to a period of several years in office.

Thatcher's sympathies were instinctively unionist, but she knew that the programme of "rolling devolution" in Northern Ireland was not getting anywhere.


She felt the need to do something to stem the losses of military, police and civilian lives in Northern Ireland, to try to mitigate the level of violence there, and reduce the financial and economic costs of supporting Northern Ireland.

FitzGerald had set up the New Ireland Forum to consider what role there might be for the Irish government to contribute constructively to the process of dealing with “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and containing, if not diminishing, the influence of Sinn Féin and the PIRA [Provisional IRA] in the Republic.

Informal contacts had shown that there was a willingness on both sides to talk, without commitment.

Thatcher asked me to visit my counterpart in Dublin, Dermot Nally. She wished me to lead the team of British negotiators so that she could keep the closest possible degree of supervision and control of the process: she was determined that whatever was agreed should not involve or imply any impairment of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

It helped that Nally and I had worked together as fellow “sherpas” in the preparations for a G7 economic summit, as well as on Anglo-Irish business, and had come to like, respect and trust each other.

That led to the long series of negotiations, alternately in London and Dublin, between two teams of officials, in which I was admirably supported by David Goodall, Robert Andrew, Tony Brennan and latterly Christopher Mallaby; and Nally was no less admirably supported by Seán Donlon, Michael Lillis and Noel Dorr.

After each meeting I and my colleagues would report the result of it to the prime minister, foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, and the Northern Ireland secretary (for most of the time Douglas Hurd and latterly Tom King) and seek instructions for the next meeting. Thus progress was monitored and controlled rigorously and in detail by ministers, and particularly by the prime minister.

As Charles Moore’s account shows, there were times when it seemed quite uncertain whether it would be possible to find an acceptable basis for an agreement. But the prime minister never suggested, or seemed to wish, that the negotiations should be broken off.

They were long and often tortuous as each of us worked faithfully to give effect to the instructions from our principals but all of us were conscious that, if an agreement could be reached, we should be writing a new chapter in the long history of relations between Britain and Ireland.

There were occasional meetings between British and Irish ministers: Thatcher and FitzGerald would meet in the margins of meetings of the European Council, and there was one meeting between ministers and officials from both sides at Chequers in November 1984.

This meeting took place only a few weeks after the IRA bombing at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, and was partly intended to demonstrate that the bombing was not to be allowed to derail, though it might delay, the process of negotiation.

The meeting itself, though tense, went well enough, but it was followed by a press conference at which Thatcher, with characteristic robustness, ruled out three possible developments suggested by the New Ireland Forum (“out, out, out”), a development of which FitzGerald was not aware until he was asked about it at his press conference.

The fallout was devastating, and threatened to derail the whole process and destroy the chances of reaching an agreement. But Thatcher knew that she had gone too far, and FitzGerald was forbearing, and neither wished the process to be brought to an end.

That was the worst moment, and after that the process continued inch by inch on its way until a final text was approved on both sides.

Neither side got all that it wanted. Thatcher had hoped for greater co-operation on security and FitzGerald would no doubt have liked to see deeper involvement for the Irish government in the governance of Northern Ireland, and was not able to secure British agreement to proposals for joint courts between Northern Ireland and the Republic for certain offences.

But Thatcher was satisfied that British sovereignty in Northern Ireland had not been compromised, and FitzGerald could point to the arrangements for giving the Irish government a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland.

And the first clause in the agreement was a prize for both governments: the provision that there should be no change in the status of Northern Ireland unless and until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted for it. This assured the British government that the Irish government would not press for the unification of the island of Ireland unless and until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland had voted for it, and assured the Irish government that, if that time came, the British government would not stand in the way of unification.

After she had retired Thatcher was heard to say that she wished she had not signed the agreement. If so, why had she signed it in 1985? As I have said, her sympathies were instinctively unionist and she prided herself on the strength of her convictions; but she was also, at least while in office, a pragmatic politician. She preferred success to failure.

She knew that most of her Cabinet colleagues were likely to support an agreement. And she knew that the US government, and specifically President Reagan, would welcome and support the agreement and would be disappointed by failure. So long as she was in office she stood by the agreement with unswerving commitment.

What were the consequences of the agreement?

It was modest in its scope. As was to be expected, it was resented and opposed by unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, and there were protests and some strike action, but the discontent did not lead (as the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 had done) to sustained violent protests on the streets of Belfast or Derry.

Perhaps its greatest importance was in transforming the relationship between the two governments.

Until then that relationship had been strained. It had been formal rather than close, and disagreements about Northern Ireland had tended to be pursued in megaphone diplomacy. After the agreement they tended to be dealt with in serious intergovernmental discussion. There came gradually to be greater confidence and trust between the two governments.

Thus the agreement was a first stage in the process which was continued by John Major and Albert Reynolds in 1994 and culminated under Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in the Good Friday agreement in 1999.

By way of a coda, I recollect a visit to Dermot Nally in Dublin early in 1987 when Charles Haughey had just returned as taoiseach.

While I was with Nally we were summoned to the presence of the taoiseach. He reminded us that, as leader of the opposition, he had steadfastly opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement; and told us that on returning to office he had come to the conclusion that it was in the interest of the Irish government to stay with the agreement until it could get something better.

I recognised another pragmatic politician.

Robert Armstrong was principal private secretary to the British prime minister from 1970 to 1975 and cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1987. He was made a life peer in 1988, and sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher