The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: Bedrock of the Peace Process

15 November 2005

Written by Brian Lennon   

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald on 15 November 1985, at times seemed unlikely to survive. But survive it did and it became the bedrock of the peace process.

Before the Agreement the UK and Ireland had quite different views of what the Northern Ireland conflict was about and how it could be resolved.

For the UK it was an internal matter. Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley, to paraphrase Thatcher. Terrorists were attacking the legitimate government. The answer was more security.

The Irish saw it as a colonial issue. The British had taken our fourth green field. They should give it back. Most saw the IRA as a disaster because of their murders, but many shared their aims.

Of course there were dissenters in each camp who came up with more nuanced views, but it was difficult for them to shift the official position because Northern Ireland was politically part of the UK, and the Irish Constitution claimed it as part of the Irish nation.

The 1985 Agreement marked a change,for several reasons.

At the end of World War II, in 1945, Germany had been completely defeated. This was the third cataclysmic conflict between France and Germany in 70 years. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was followed by the First World War from 1914-1918. These wars left both countries were devastated, with millions of orphans, war widows and wounded. Some visionaries, among them Jean Monnet (France) and Robert Schumann (Germany), decided there had to be a better way forward.

Between them they helped create the European Coal and Steel Community. It was founded both on trade and on the need for peace making.

In 1973 the UK wanted to join the Community because so much of its trade was with France and Germany. The Irish had to follow suit because over 70% of their trade was with the UK.

Once in the community several things happened. The Irish found themselves equal partners with eleven other States. That helped them get over their inferiority feelings resulting from centuries of colonisation. The British faced increased questioning from other EC countries about the conflict in Northern Ireland. British and Irish civil servants and politicians were thrown together on committees working on a variety of issues, many not connected with Northern Ireland. This helped them understand how each other's political system worked.

Immediately before the 1985 Agreement the British hoped for more security cooperation from the Irish. The Irish wanted to bolster the SDLP against Sinn Fein because they knew increased electoral support for a party tied to a private army would further destabilise both North and South.

All these reasons encouraged the two Governments towards the Agreement. But it was still a momentous step for the British to accept that the Irish Government had to be consulted about the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, and for the Irish to accept formally that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until the majority of its people decided otherwise.

When the Agreement was signed over 100,000 Unionists took to the streets and they maintained their campaign for years. They were appalled that their Government would allow the Irish Government a say over the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. The stomachs of even moderates churned when they heard Garret FitzGerald speaking in Irish at the signing ceremony in Hillsborough Castle.

The precedent of 1974, when unionist demonstrations ended the Sunningdale pact, was in everyone's eyes.  At times the survival of the Agreement seemed in doubt. But in fact it could only have one outcome. The critical difference between 1985 and Sunningdale was that the latter depended on the cooperation of the Unionists. The 1985 Agreement did not. The two Governments had the power to determine their own relationship. Neither Unionists nor Republicans could block them doing this. That was why the Anglo-Irish Agreement, unlike Sunningdale, survived.

The major contribution of the Agreement was to set up a new framework: the two Governments would cooperate on the Northern Ireland conflict because it was in their interests to do so. They agreed that the conflict was neither a colonial nor an internal one, but rather one involving a double minority: Nationalists were a minority within Northern Ireland, Unionists a minority within the context of the whole island.

The way forward was to respect both and to ensure that there could only be devolved government with the consent of both. The two major groups within Northern Ireland could no longer use either Government against the other side.

The outcome was that both Unionists and Nationalists faced a new world: either they cooperated or were stuck with direct rule.

Republicans faced another issue: the Agreement accepted the principle of consent, that there would no constitutional change without the consent of the majority. Given that, and given the Irish Government's move away from seeing the conflict as a colonial one, it was increasingly difficult for the IRA to argue that the block to their ambitions was the British Government and not Northern Ireland Unionists. That reality, and the fact that they faced military stalemate encouraged some of them to begin to think of a different way forward.

The 1985 Agreement did not solve everything. Twenty years later we still have two divided communities, which is why today Community Dialogue are launching a new leaflet on sectarianism (available from our Belfast office, or at  www.communitydialogue.org).

The big changes brought about by the Agreement were to challenge both Unionists and Nationalists to think of working together instead of against each other and secondly to face the fact that each group, in different contexts, is a minority. That was a considerable outcome from a treaty which 20 years ago started on what seemed like shaky ground.