Charlie Flanagan: “From the consciousness of danger to the consciousness of peace”

Anglo Irish agreement laid the foundations for the peace process that followed

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in Hillsborough Castle in 1985. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in Hillsborough Castle in 1985. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

On July 11th, 2014, I was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. That afternoon I called Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to discuss how we could best work together as co-guarantors of the peace process.

Our focus ever since has been on helping the parties work together more effectively and deal sensitively and comprehensively with the past, while looking to a future where Northern Ireland is free of the dark shadow of paramiltarism.

Over the last 16 months, my engagement with Northern Ireland has been intensive. It has included three months of talks that lead to last year’s Stormont House Agreement and the most recent round of negotiations, which began in early September and will, I hope, conclude in the coming week.

For anyone watching from afar, it must be tempting to think it’s like Groundhog Day, one continuous grind of slow, agonising negotiations with little progress – often one step forward, two steps back. That perhaps, after all, not much has really been achieved.

I totally reject that thesis. Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement can help us realise just how much has been accomplished.

The 1985 agreement – the achievement in the main of Dr Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher – deserves to be remembered as an exercise in leadership against the odds. The agreement laid the foundations for the close British-Irish partnership, which itself helped make possible the peace process that followed.

And remembering the agreement is not just a matter of historical record. Thirty years later there are still lessons to be drawn from its negotiation and implementation, as well as its inevitable shortcomings.

In the 1980s, political relations between Britain and Ireland were operational and civil, maybe, but hampered by both mutual suspicion and disagreement on how to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. The agreement, by bringing our two governments much closer together, dramatically changed that relationship for the better.

Most importantly still, the agreement was a bulwark against those who did not want peace on our islands. It demonstrated that diplomacy and dialogue could secure real results. And, by corollary, it landed a telling blow against the argument that violence was the only path worth following.

Shock to the system

As subsequent peace initiatives were developed in the 1990s, key lessons were learned from the agreement’s deficiencies. While the exclusion of unionists from the negotiations in 1985 was a regrettable necessity, both governments became convinced over time that only an inclusive approach could achieve a comprehensive settlement.

And while the agreement was intended to marginalise the paramilitaries, it soon became apparent that peace was better served by the offer of inclusion – conditional on the rejection of violence.

The agreement did not solve all the problems in Northern Ireland. It never claimed it would. But considering the environment from which it emerged, it could hardly have achieved more.

Building on its achievements, and establishing a stable structure to allow the communities to work seamlessly together in Northern Ireland, has proved undeniably challenging ever since. The Good Friday Agreement was a big advance. There is, as we know, much road to travel still. But we are getting there, step-by-step.

No collapse

Most significant of all was the clear signal from the people of Northern Ireland to their politicians that they want functioning power-sharing government and will not settle for less. This fact in itself is a significant accomplishment.

During my time as Minister, I have often reflected on the words of WT Cosgrave in 1927, five years into the establishment of our independent State. Mindful “of the historical circumstances of our times”, Cosgrave spoke of the transition in Ireland from “the consciousness of danger to . . . the consciousness of peace”.

The past 30 years have been about just such a transition in Northern Ireland, from those first steps taken by both governments in 1985 to the crucial next steps that all parties, with the support of the two governments, are now taking towards real, lasting peace.

Charles Flanagan is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

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