A profound shock to unionism – a necessary step along the road to final agreement

The Anglo-Irish Agreement whose 25th anniversary falls today immediately exposed the limitations of a unionist veto on all political progress. But its equally significant and unintended result over time was to demonstrate the impossibility of reaching full agreement without participation by all sides, Sinn Fein as well as unionists. Understandably perhaps, retired mandarins of Iveagh House like Sean Donlon stress the check to unionism. Essentially the elements of the 1985 Agreement remain the default position should the GFA and St Andrew’s collapse, in the form of the British-Irish intergovernmental council.

David McKittrick recalls how the situation on the streets grew worse before it became better. There is no doubt that both governments gambled greatly with the security situation in favour of a new found if undefined common interest in the future of Northern Ireland. Whether the form the Agreement took was worth it should not be judged entirely with the hindsight of history.  A slightly different closer relationship without the provocative presence of Maryfield might have been found. But then, jolting unionism out of it negative complacency was a part of the agenda. Is Donlon being disingenuous when he records the omission which he must have known was deliberate?

It was assumed, incorrectly as became clear, that the British side kept unionist leader James Molyneaux informed.

Remarkably, this was a civil service dominated process on both sides and cemented relationships which remained cordial for life, as was seen when the British Cabinet secretary of the time Robert Armstrong attended the funeral of his opposite number Dermot Nally earlier this year.

Ironically the medium term hopes vested in the Agreement by each Prime Minister were not fulfilled. As he explained again last Saturday, Garret FitzGerald sought to thwart the political rise of Sinn Fein. Clearly, he failed, even though  the Agreement may have thrown down a couple of paving stones on the route to IRA ceasefire and a  deal. On the British side, the Agreement revealed the contrast between Margaret Thatcher the verbally aggressive pro-unionist leader and the more pragmatic politician. Even so, her main hope for the Agreement was a level of security co-operation which never transpired.

Two interesting sidebars. Mary Robinson resigned from the Labour Party because unionism had been undemocratically excluded from a relationship that could influence their destiny. And two years later it led to an report by two politicians of the younger generation, Frank Millar then of the UUP and Peter Robinson of the DUP.  An End to Drift remains a intriguing footnote to history which their elders rejected at the time. It was yet another tragic wasted initiative.

We cannot believe that constitutional security is to be found in a campaign to persuade mainland political parties to extend their organisation to Northern Ireland. We believe that only a government representative of and answerable to the people of the province can properly understand and respond to the continuing terrorist campaign. Devolved-government therefore is our objective and whilst we hope this will prove attainable within the context of the United Kingdom, Unionists would be wise and prudent to anticipate that it might not.

We are convinced and agreed that the Anglo-Irish Agreement represents a fundamental and unacceptable change in the constitutional relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have no doubt that the Anglo-Irish Conference is tantamount to joint authority and that its early demise is vital if we are to arrest a quickening process leading to our inevitable absorption in an Irish unitary State. Having sworn never to accept the Agreement as a basis for continued membership of the United Kingdom, we must ascertain what alternative terms for the Union can be found.

As we know this cautiously worded recommendation to recognise political realities was not taken up for another decade by the UUP and even longer by the DUP. The 1985 Agreement may have prefigured the more inclusive later deals but was hardly decisive. It took  years of attrition and IRA weariness of the “long war”  to make the difference in bringing about the decisive result.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London