Anglo-Irish Agreement forged a lasting reshape of the landscape

30 years on the merits of inclusive dialogue still hold true

 

In the long series of difficult, often tortuous political/constitutional negotiations through the last half century of the North’s troubles, one stands out as truly transformative, the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Signed in Hillsborough Castle by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago on Sunday, the landmark agreement, which this paper commemorates today with a special supplement, represented a qualitative change in the relationship between London and Dublin unparalled since the Treaty of 1921, and a profound refashioning of the dynamics of Northern politics.

It set the essential parameters upon which subsequent deals like the 1998 Belfast Agreement were to be built, the principle of equality of both traditions and most importantly the first explicit acceptance by both London and Dublin that unity could happen with consent of the Northern majority, but only by consent.

At the heart of the agreement was a recognition for the first time that Dublin had a legitimate interest in the running of the North – not an explicit acknowledgment of its claim to sovereignty, but rationalised for Mrs Thatcher as merely a means of ensuring that the interests and concerns of the North’s nationalists could be articulated in a formal institutional context. That found expression in a consultative role through a ministerial council and the Maryfield Secretariat in Armagh that could be, and was, interpreted as tantamount to a form of shared sovereignty, quietly in Dublin and among nationalists, angrily on the streets of the North by unionists who felt bitterly betrayed.

The vilain of the piece in their eyes was Mrs Thatcher who had loudly proclaimed her unionism and her mantra that the North was “as British as Finchley”. Her willingness to accept a Southern role was a remarkable transition, attributable in part no doubt to a combination of war weariness and wanting to be seen as someone who got things done, but also to the special relationship that FitzGerald nurtured skilfully with her and the patient drafting skills of the officials on both sides .

It was all possible because of Thatcher’s “Finchley unionism” – it did not seem odd to her that bilateral talks with Dublin would not include the Northern parties any more than she would includerepresentatives of Finchley in talks with, say, the French. The talks were thus from the start, as several of our contributors have put it, “unboycottable”, free from the danger of being held hostage by walkouts of disgruntled parties, specifically unionists. They would be outside until the deal was done.

That reality made a deal possible, but was the agreement’s long-term Achilles heel in terms of legitimacy. It taught unionism an important lesson about self-reliance and who its real friends are, as Jeffrey Donaldson argues, a lesson that has shaped the more inclusive nature of all subsequent dialogue.

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