It was shortly before 8am on the morning of November 15th, 1985, and I was one of a group of journalists who gathered at Dublin airport for a flight to a mystery destination. We knew we were about to be witnesses to a momentous event in Irish history, but we didn’t know where we were going. We were issued with standard airline tickets with one important difference: the destination was unknown.
For the previous few weeks, media speculation had been steadily building to a frenzy that an historic agreement on the future of Northern Ireland was on the verge of being concluded between the Irish and British governments, led by Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher.
Secrecy shrouded the venue for the unveiling of the agreement for fear of unionist obstruction or IRA bombs. It was initially expected that it would be somewhere in Northern Ireland, but with plans afoot for massive unionist demonstrations it emerged Dromoland Castle, in Co Clare, had been the subject of a detailed inspection by the Irish and British security services as an alternative.
The media crew was shepherded on to the Aer Lingus plane by officials from the taoiseach’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs. After the plane took off, we craned our necks to get a good look out of the windows to see in which direction we were flying.
When we saw we were flying up the east cost over north Co Dublin rather than south to Shannon, it didn’t take long to figure out the venue had to be Hillsborough Castle, in Co Down. After landing at Aldergrove airport outside Belfast, we were bussed through security cordons down to Hillsborough.
A press centre had been set up in the courthouse opposite the castle and journalists from Ireland and the UK were cooped up there until we were escorted over to the castle to witness the formal signing at 2pm. FitzGerald and Thatcher put the seal on the agreement at a press conference at which everything was sweetness and light.
It was such a contrast with what had happened just a year earlier. FitzGerald and Thatcher had met at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, and had made some real progress in intensive negotiations following the publication of the New Ireland Forum report, which had sought to devise a nationalist consensus on the way forward.
That report offered three preferred solutions to the problem of the North. The first was a unitary state, the second was a federal Ireland and the third was joint authority. Some variant of the last option was the only one that had the remotest chance of success, and FitzGerald, Thatcher and their officials believed they had made substantial progress on the issue.
Out, out, out
At her press conference after the meeting, Thatcher was generally positive, but when asked about the three options in the forum report, she went through each one and said it was out. This response was abbreviated to “out, out, out” in the media commentary and appeared to mark a disastrous end to FitzGerald’s negotiation strategy.
Despite the fact he was subject to scathing attacks by Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey, and was dismissed as hopelessly weak by much of the media, FitzGerald swallowed his pride, said nothing and determined to work on.
“I concluded that my best long-term course of action, regardless of the short-term humiliation involved in remaining silent, would be to ignore what had happened. Any critical comment in public by me would reduce, and possibly even eliminate, the helpful reaction I believed this debacle would evoke in Britain,” wrote FitzGerald in his autobiography.
That long-term strategy paid dividends a year later but only after a lot of hard work at political and official level. FitzGerald kept the SDLP leader John Hume in the loop right through the negotiations, and that was essential in ensuring the support of constitutional nationalism in the North.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Peter Barry kept in close touch with nationalist opinion and voiced the concerns of the community at every opportunity, and that was also important.
The key negotiations took place at official level and the two countries were fortunate in the teams that were assembled. The Irish and British cabinet secretaries Dermot Nally and Robert Armstrong developed a strong bond, and their rapport was essential to the success of the talks.
The secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean Donlon, was another important player, but it was the head of the Anglo-Irish division, Michael Lillis, who emerged as the key negotiator in the complex and difficult discussions that continued over the following year.
The agreement that emerged did not formally accept the forum option of joint authority, but it went a long way towards that in giving the Irish government a formal role in the affairs of the North through the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the Irish secretariat at Maryfield.
The dilution of British sovereignty in allowing another state a say in the affairs of a portion of its territory was an extraordinary concession by Thatcher, and it stunned the unionist community.
It demonstrated a fundamental shift in British policy with the relationship between the two governments taking precedence over the unionist veto.
marked the end of the historic quarrel between Ireland and the UK. In future the relationship between the people of the two islands would take precedence over the feud between the two communities in the North. There was a clear lesson for unionists and republicans who rejected agreement.
Thatcher had no difficulty in carrying the Conservative Party with her, despite the anguish of the unionists who felt so betrayed. FitzGerald had the backing of the SDLP thanks to John Hume and Seamus Mallon and opinion polls showed there was wide public support in the Republic for what was the most important breakthrough in Anglo Irish relations since the treaty of 1921.
Haughey’s rejection of the agreement prompted Des O’Malley and Mary Harney to leave Fianna Fáil and found the Progressive Democrats, but despite his initial petulant reaction, Haughey worked the agreement when he achieved power in 1987.
Ironically another leading southern politician who rejected the agreement was Mary Robinson, who resigned from the Labour Party in protest at the way unionist concerns had been ignored and was elected president three years later while Haughey was taoiseach. By that stage the institutions established by the agreement had changed the nature of the relationship between the two islands for good.