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Edging Towards Peace

Michael Lillis and Sir David Goodall were both intimately involved, on the Irish and the British side respectively, in the negotiations which led to the Anglo Irish Agreement, the first of a number of diplomatic steps forward which were eventually to bring about the present almost total peace in Northern Ireland. Michael Lillis’s contribution below has previously been published as part of Franco-Irish Connections: Essays, Memoirs and Poems in Honour of Pierre Joannon, Dublin 2009, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor, Professor Jane Conroy, and the publishers, Four Courts Press.

  1. Michael Lillis: Emerging from Despair in Anglo-Irish Relations

How often I have been asked by thoughtful foreign friends if I, a non-specialist, could recommend a single serious and modern history of our country from early to modern times suitable for the general reader ‑ and have had to say that I don’t know of any in English! A modest proposal: Pierre Joannon’s Histoire de l’Irlande et des Irlandais (Paris 2006) should be translated into English (and other major languages) and made available in Ireland and throughout the world as a reliable and highly readable chronicle. Up to date and sedulous in research and sober in judgment, the narrative is connected and enlivened by the author’s unflagging enthusiasm for his subject in every epoch and by a continental European perspective which persistently broadens the context of Irish history beyond the cauldron of Anglo-Irish claustrophobia. He was perhaps more clairvoyant than even he himself intended in 2006 in cagily entitling his upbeat concluding section “Épilogue Provisoire” (especially given the later Lisbon Treaty referendum result and today’s financial crisis), but he was insightful when he quoted James Joyce: “ce que je veux faire par mes écrits, c’est européaniser l’Irlande et irlandiser l’Europe”. His history of Ireland and of the Irish people and the entire body of his distinguished work on Irish history, biography and culture achieve precisely Joyce’s goals and we are profoundly in his debt.

The negotiation by Dr Garret FitzGerald and Mrs Margaret Thatcher of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 provided an important example, even if fundamentally circumstantial, of the importance of Europe at a moment of despair in Anglo-Irish relations. Dr Fitzgerald in his autobiography All in a Life gives a definitive, masterly and entertaining account of the negotiations in all their complexity (to be compared only perhaps with Jonathan Powell’s account of the labyrinthine negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in Great Hatred, Little Room). The following “footnotes” disclose nothing as to the facts beyond Dr FitzGerald’s account and other published reports, except to suggest an interpretation of the Agreement itself, its significance and one aspect of its origins, as seen in the perspective of elapsed time.

Dr Fitzgerald justly says that when he came into office as Taoiseach at the end of 1982 “the state of Anglo-Irish relations was little short of disastrous”. In Northern Ireland the residue of the hunger strikes, which had themselves provoked the most intransigent ‑ visceral may not be too strong a word ‑ reaction from Mrs Thatcher, continued to churn dangerously, despite the heroic efforts of John Hume and the SDLP to hold the ring for a political way forward. The minority nationalist community was increasingly alienated from the British government, from the security forces on the ground and from the system of justice. The “long war”, the brutal and sometimes nakedly sectarian violence of the Provisional IRA, continued seemingly endlessly, while political support for Provisional Sinn Féin was filling a nihilistic vacuum among many young Catholics; the aims of the Provisionals were summarised at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis of 1981 by Danny Morrison: “with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland”. The unionist majority, understandably outraged at the violence of the Provisional IRA, was nevertheless encouraged in its own entrenched resistance to any political compromise by the capitulation of the Wilson government eight years previously in 1974 to the British army’s reluctance to confront the resistance of Loyalist mobs to the Sunningdale Agreement, a betrayal of democracy which dwarfed the Curragh Mutiny of 1914. Unionists were as convinced in 1982 as they had been for the previous eight years that they held a veto over any proposal whatsoever from London. Butchery of innocent Catholics by Loyalist extremists continued, with plausible (and subsequently proven) suspicion of degrees of collaboration by elements in the RUC Special Branch and the UDR.

In the perspective of today’s peace in Northern Ireland and the warm relations between Dublin and London it is difficult to conjure up the condition of Anglo-Irish relations in late 1982. A low intensity civil war that could explode at any moment ‑ provoked perhaps by an IRA, a British security force or a Loyalist outrage ‑ was simmering in Northern Ireland. The British prime minister, a fearless “conviction politician” with the rawest commitment to confronting and defeating terrorism at whatever political cost, was proud to proclaim herself a Unionist. She had (to state the matter politely) little interest in and less sympathy with Irish nationalist aspirations. She made no secret of the fact that she had been stung by Dr FitzGerald’s predecessor, Mr Haughey, when he had unsuccessfully sought to defeat British policy on sanctions against Argentina at the UN Security Council during the Falklands crisis. She was particularly enraged by Dublin’s public suggestion that the term “the totality of relations” in an Anglo-Irish communiqué somehow implied a British commitment to withdraw from Northern Ireland or to support Irish unity when its purpose had been to foster a series of studies within an institutionalised Anglo-Irish framework on the common ground shared across a set of routine policy issues in the two countries. There was literally no Anglo-Irish political dialogue on Northern Ireland and little prospect of it when Dr FitzGerald became Taoiseach. Mrs Thatcher had none of the good will towards Anglo-Irish relations, much less the determination to work with Dublin to solve the problem of Northern Ireland, of Edward Heath at Sunningdale, of John Major of the Downing Street Declaration, or of the visionary Tony Blair. On the contrary.

How then did the Anglo-Irish Agreement, facilitating the most intrusive role for Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland of any Anglo-Irish arrangement before or since, come about?

There can be little doubt that, but for the regular cycle of European Community summit meetings, on the margins of which the Taoiseach and the British prime minister invariably met – usually on Dr Fitzgerald’s initiative – without fanfare of any kind, the negotiation of any type of agreement between Dublin and London on Northern Ireland would have been next to impossible. Mrs Thatcher was, particularly during the first year of Anglo-Irish exchanges, nervous ‑ almost paranoid ‑ about any publicity which might be interpreted as suggesting that she was selling out the Unionists behind their backs to their enemies in Dublin. As time went on and as the momentum of negotiation gathered pace, there were occasional meetings between the two heads of government in London or Chequers, where discussion was somewhat inhibited by crowds of ministers and officials. The settlement of most of the more “neuralgic” points (a term of London-Dublin diplomacy made current between the teams of officials on both sides by a senior Cabinet Office official, David Goodall) took place discreetly between the two heads of government in the presence of at most one or two senior officials from either side on the margins these Community occasions. As Dr Fitzgerald implies, but does not perhaps adequately emphasise in his memoirs, sometimes the tone of the exchanges was quite lively, not to say dramatic. Contrary to his genial public persona, in several of these critical encounters Dr Fitzgerald proved himself to be an extraordinarily dogged, if always courteous, advocate. Mrs Thatcher, formidable as always, was, even in her most tense moods – and certainly the topic of Northern Ireland often seemed to make her somewhat uptight – well-matched.

Other ministers on both sides, notably the Tánaiste, Dick Spring, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry, and the British foreign minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd, played important roles, but Mrs Thatcher insisted on keeping the decisive discussions for herself and the Taoiseach. In the case of our Government, Mr Spring and Mr Barry both made crucial contributions in numerous meetings with their British opposite numbers and in internal discussion and planning (which Dr Henry Kissinger has correctly described as comprising more than 80 per cent of the diplomatic process). Mr Barry brought to the Dublin approach his unique “feel” for the “nightmare of the Northern nationalists” (his description). Mr Spring’s stern insistence on stark realism – and his occasionally mordant humour – kept the Taoiseach’s approach tenaciously focused. Dublin’s planning was at all stages critically enhanced by the deep strategic thinking of John Hume. We learned that Sir Geoffrey played a key role in keeping Mrs Thatcher “positive” when, as regularly occurred, the negotiations seemed to run into the ground. Mr Hurd on the other hand worked hard, as we would have expected from the political head of the extremely sceptical and, in our view at that time, for the most part pro-unionist, Northern Ireland Office, to narrow the scope of the eventual agreement. He argued, for example, to the intense irritation of Irish ministers, that Dublin should not risk politically an associated referendum on Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution and that, therefore, the overall package need not be particularly significant. His success in this endeavour was in the end limited.

The Agreement that eventually emerged was essentially of Mrs Thatcher’s and Dr FitzGerald’s creation. This circumstance was significant for later British negotiators, who thus won unassailable domestic political cover, especially from what might be called the Enoch Powell wing of the Conservative Party, from the concessions this ardent British unionist had made to the Irish side in 1985. Paradoxically they themselves in the Good Friday Agreement had to concede less ground to Dublin “intrusiveness” than she did, and this in return for the far more significant concession from Dublin of a radical dilution of the territorial claim on Northern Ireland in the Irish Constitution than anything conceded by Dublin to London in the ’85 Agreement.

All of the detailed negotiation was conducted by two small teams of officials, led by the respective cabinet secretaries, Dermot Nally and Sir Robert Armstrong, both men of long experience of Anglo-Irish negotiations (both were in Sunningdale in 1973) and both happily imbued with high intellectual acumen, charm and – perhaps even more important – the patience of Job. Their mutual trust was the cement of the process. David Goodall, seconded to the Cabinet Office, was the senior Foreign Office representative: a creative but tenacious negotiator of immense intellectual energy and commitment, a gifted watercolourist, with perhaps a deeper knowledge of certain aspects of Irish history – notably Wexford in 1798 whence some of his ancestors had come ‑ than any of us on the Irish side of the table. The British ambassador in Dublin, Sir Alan Goodison, was a skilled diplomat of quite unique sensitivity and good will. His sincerity endeared him to everyone and his passionate interest in Christian theology created a bond with the Taoiseach and Mrs FitzGerald. The Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean Donlon, brought many years of experience (also including Sunningdale) and a clear-sighted realism to our efforts, along with his unique access to President Reagan and the White House, a set of contacts that were to provide indispensable leverage in moving Mrs Thatcher from positions of inflexibility as the process unfolded. Noel Dorr (later Secretary of Foreign Affairs) was Ambassador in London: also immensely experienced (again including Sunningdale), his philosophic cast of mind (as I encountered it) and his gift for elegant drafting solutions to negotiating conundrums were a valuable resource for both sides. There was also myself, in my capacity as head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of Foreign Affairs. The two teams met usually for two-day sessions successively in Ireland and Britain, sometimes in the respective capitals, sometimes in remoter country houses, approximately every six weeks during 1984 and 1985.

Later the teams of officials were supplemented by officials from other government departments on both sides. Two stand out in my memory: Andy Ward was Secretary of our Department of Justice and his was intellectually the most brilliant and creative mind I have encountered in a lifetime of diplomacy and international business. And Tony Brennan, a senior official at the Northern Ireland Office, was endlessly ingenious in drafting workable structures for devolution in Northern Ireland within the challenging intricacies of British constitutional and secondary law: a gifted problem-solver.

The diplomatic fieldwork of Dublin with the spectrum of Northern nationalists (but never including hard-line supporters of violence) was led with devotion and outstanding success by Daithi Ó Ceallaigh (later Ambassador in London). Richard Ryan (later Ambassador at the UN) ran a campaign in the clubs of St James’s (and the grouse moors of the north), using charm and cogent advocacy to win support for the concept of Dublin-London cooperation to address the political crisis in Northern Ireland among the often sceptical grandees of the Conservative Party and their backroom henchmen, now crucial constituencies for our purpose, but which hitherto had been relatively unexplored by Dublin : this has rightly become the stuff of legend.

The New Ireland Forum, in practice a constitutional nationalist assembly, was established by the main parties in the Dáil and the SDLP in May 1983 with a view to hearing opinions from all sides, except from those who supported the use of violence, and to analysing the crisis and its causes and to proposing possible solutions. Usefully it agreed, at Dr Fitzgerald’s initiative and under John Hume’s untiring shuttle diplomacy between the main Dublin parties, a set of accurately and cogently expressed “Present Realities and Future Requirements”, including acknowledging not alone the problems, aspirations and rights of the nationalist minority but the British identity of the unionist community and its right, equal to that of the nationalists, to have that identity fully accommodated in the institutions of government. The Forum concluded with a description of the advantages and disadvantages of three possible models for a solution: a unitary state, a confederal Ireland and a structure of joint authority (to be distinguished from joint sovereignty) between Dublin and London for the government of Northern Ireland. This “menu”, and most centrally the “Realities and Requirements” section, were intended by the Government to provide room for a flexible negotiation with London. As is notorious, Mrs Thatcher later peremptorily dismissed all three models: they were “Out, Out, Out”, she declared after the Anglo-Irish Summit at Chequers on November 18th, 1984, creating a brief crisis in Anglo-Irish relations and much political difficulty for Dr Fitzgerald’s Government at home.

But the fundamental challenge from the beginning was somehow to overcome Mrs Thatcher’s strong reluctance to engage with the Irish Government in any way in working for a solution to the impasse in Anglo-Irish dialogue and in Northern Ireland.

Dr FitzGerald has recounted in his memoirs that in early September 1983 I was authorised by him to advance a particular line of argument to the British side based on an analysis which he and I discussed (FitzGerald, All in a Life, p 473 and passim). This was to be presented as strictly a personal view of mine, in the first instance to David Goodall. He was joint chairman with myself of the rather grandiosely named Co-ordinating Committee of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council, where we led inter-departmental teams from our respective administrations to review complementary possibilities in non-political areas such as mutual recognition of professional qualifications and the like (in the context of the somewhat glorified Anglo-Irish Studies). The first opportunity to do so arose during an afternoon walk back and forth along the delightful and tranquil stretch of the Grand Canal between Leeson Street and Baggot Street bridges, so beloved of Dubliners and immortalised in Patrick Kavanagh’s lines inscribed at that time on the side of his commemorative bench which we quietly pondered and which are reproduced at the end of this essay ( they were not replicated on the more recent second Kavanagh bench on which a fine sculpture of the poet is seated).

The argument could hardly have been simpler. It was moreover marshalled with full sincerity on my part in terms of the frightening true facts on the ground in Northern Ireland, while also intended to engage the attention of a British prime minister whose entire focus on Northern Ireland was exclusively on security concerns and specifically the defeat of terrorism.

  1. Trust on the part of the nationalist community in the British security forces, including the RUC and the UDR as well as the local judicial system, had completely broken down. The situation was simply beyond repair and was now feeding the alienation of young Catholics in particular and creating a major political opportunity for the IRA’s terrorism. By now even the least dramatic quotidian encounter between most Catholics and the British system of authority, such as being stopped at a routine road block, was entrenching and spreading the poison of alienation and in many cases hatred. The situation was now so far out of control that the Irish Government were seriously concerned at destabilisation spilling over into the South. There was nothing in the present security or political arsenal of the British as it existed that could begin to address this disaster or to arrest its further deterioration.
  2. A profound and imaginative transformation was urgently needed “on the ground” so that the majority of Catholics could start to identify positively with the agents of authority, be they soldiers, police or judges. This could only be achieved by the direct involvement of the Irish Government’s security forces and courts “on the ground” especially in Nationalist areas where people would see them as “their own”, just as Unionists saw the RUC, UDR, British army and the existing courts as constituting their own tribal security system. This should be done only because it was vital to arrest the spreading pathology of alienation and in order to establish a solid basis for security and stability ‑ and not for merely “political” reasons.
  3. It was understood on our side that there would be a need to address the fundamental insecurities this project would inevitably create among Unionists and that we should be ready in the interest of stability to do what was necessary to allay those insecurities, including reviewing the articles of our Constitution which they read as constituting a territorial claim on Northern Ireland.
  4. This argument had of course an unspoken but inescapable subtext. For such an initiative to be attempted and to succeed, a political and institutional scaffolding would have to be constructed which would facilitate a command and control system for our forces and an authority system for our courts such as would have the support of an extremely sceptical and reluctant public opinion in the South and be consistent with our Constitution and laws. This in practice would have to be in the form of some version of joint authority for Dublin and London in Northern Ireland, or indeed joint sovereignty. None of this was stated in terms because to have done so at that stage would have vitiated any possibility of the “alienation” argument and the associated proposal for an Irish dimension on security and the courts being considered in London. Yet it was beyond doubt that experienced British officials would fully appreciate this underlying dimension to our argument and anticipate these major issues involved for Dublin.

Several conversations about the same ideas that ensued in the following weeks confirmed that this was the case. An authorised reaction from the British side inquired for example whether the Irish Government might be prepared to act to “remove” the constitutional claim on the territory of Northern Ireland in the event that our ideas were in some fashion adopted. On the same personal basis as previously, I said that I believed the answer would be yes, if the arrangements envisaged on the ground were politically defensible. To be fair, it was clear to me that my interlocutor was very reasonably assuming that I was speaking with guidance from the Taoiseach, even if my remarks were without formal attribution to our Government. We were also learning, as Dr Fitzgerald narrates, that Mrs Thatcher was beginning to consider whether it might be more dangerous to do nothing than to attempt an initiative with himself.

When the Taoiseach and the prime minister met at Chequers on November 7th, 1983 it was clear that Mrs Thatcher had begun to consider ways to cooperate with Dublin to launch a serious project on Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach confirmed to her that the ideas I had informally conveyed had his personal approval. She said she wished the informal discussions between officials to be discontinued so as to be able to defend herself against the accusation that secret negotiations were going forward. Having said this she also implied some approval of the initiative we had taken.

The account in Dr FitzGerald’s memoirs of the Forum and the negotiations that continued intensively for two years after this meeting until the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement on November 15th, 1985 is essential reading ‑ absorbing, at times heart-stopping, intermittently hilarious ‑ for anyone interested in Anglo-Irish history or negotiation or the personalities involved, most notably Mrs Thatcher. His account is structured in a separate section of All in a Life, in Chapters 14 to 17 inclusive, so that it can be read ‑ and could have been published separately ‑ as an autonomous narrative. Similarly his Chapters 8, 9 and 10 on the establishment and betrayal (he, as ever, more politely, calls it “collapse”) of the Sunningdale power-sharing government of Northern Ireland stand as a unique and complete account by its most articulate protagonist.

Before coming to the Agreement itself, there is one episode which flowed directly from these earlier informal conversations which merits a brief “footnote” from me, as conscience suggests that I may have provoked it as well as some attendant misunderstandings.

On March 1st, 1984 the British negotiators, led by Sir Robert Armstrong, presented to the Irish side a remarkable proposal ‑ remarkable coming from the emissaries of prime minister Thatcher ‑ on behalf of their government. They proposed that a “security band” be established along the Border to be overseen and jointly policed under a joint security commission. Ideas like this, they said, could be viewed as building blocks for future political arrangements and that the “security band” might also apply in West Belfast for example. A law commission, with the possibility of an all-Ireland court, was envisaged. Reform of the voting laws of Northern Ireland and repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act would be on the agenda. As counterpart, a guarantee by Dublin of the status of Northern Ireland, including possible action on Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution, would be needed.

Some weeks later our team, on the instructions of the Taoiseach, Mr Spring and Mr Barry, provided a somewhat dismissive reaction in London, arguing that a security band straddling the Border would be counter-productive, inciting further terrorism, and that both sides should begin a negotiation based on an agreed set of principles. Behind this approach were the “Principles” in the excellent “Present Realities and Future Requirements” section of the Forum Report which was emerging at this time and was very much in the minds of our ministers. With the convenient perspective of hindsight and spurred by keen shafts of embarrassment incited again recently by an encounter with two of the former British negotiators, I today believe that we may have missed an opportunity at that time. Instead of trying to engage the British side in a consideration of first principles ‑ never (as events confirmed) the vernacular in which “pragmatic” British ministers and officials are most at home (and apparently an entirely foreign language to Mrs Thatcher) – we should perhaps have boldly and firmly fought for our needs based on the ground of their proposal. We should perhaps have insisted that the approach should be that we should do only what was strictly necessary to make the authority system – police, army, courts – acceptable to those who were alienated from it, but that we should not do anything that would exacerbate alienation or further destabilise the situation in the North or in the South. So the “security band” should be where it was required, that is in nationalist centres in Northern Ireland, and not where it would create chaos and new alienation, such as in perfectly stable communities in the South. And in the next round we would insist that the structure of the role of Dublin’s presence be such that it would promote a sense of confidence in the system on the part of the minority community, that is that Dublin’s agents be seen to be institutionally and constitutionally subject to Irish political control. “You need our help. Our help will be effective only if our presence is unequivocally an Irish governmental presence.” We should on the other hand fully accept the need to avoid the mistakes of the British: our presence, unlike that of the British army (as seen by Nationalists), should not be seen by Unionists as that of an army of occupation and thus we on our side should be open to finding solutions, including if necessary constitutional solutions, which would avoid such extreme provocation.

This approach would have produced a quite different type of negotiation and probably a different type of Agreement from the tortuous but eventually successful process that took another two years to complete. Or not, as the case might be: this is mere speculation. I mention these considerations here partly because the British proposals of March 1st, 1984 were clearly at least to some extent inspired by the earlier informal exchanges between officials of which I had been a protagonist. And I can only begin to imagine the toilsome process involved internally in London in formulating a first step proposal for a negotiation on behalf of Mrs Thatcher (of all British leaders) to Dublin which could be read (as I interpreted it – or perhaps overinterpreted it ‑ privately) as a British government inviting Irish security forces into nationalist areas in Northern Ireland!

So much for water under troubled bridges, as I have decided to call this episode. The negotiations that ensued produced, after many vicissitudes, a very remarkable Anglo Irish Agreement, in many ways even more surprising than the British proposal of March 1st, 1984.

It is worth recalling that the Agreement set up a mechanism for the central involvement of Dublin in the processes of government of Northern Ireland. Article 2 (a) set up an Intergovernmental Conference at ministerial level “concerned with Northern Ireland and with relations between the two parts of Ireland, to deal on a regular basis with:(i) political matters; (ii) security and related matters; (iii) legal matters including the administration of justice; (iv) the promotion of cross border co operation”. Article 2(b) laid down how the process would work: “The United Kingdom Government accept that the Irish Government will put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland within the field of activity of the Conference insofar as these matters are not the responsibility of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland. In the interest of peace and stability determined efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences …”

Article 2 (c) also made it clear – on British insistence – that this was not joint sovereignty: “There is no derogation from the sovereignty of either the Irish Government or the United Kingdom Government, and each retains responsibility for the decisions and administration of Government within its own jurisdiction”. In fact this qualification effectively anticipated and rebutted a charge later used as the grounds for the Opposition in the Dáil to oppose the Agreement as purportedly involving a helpless Dublin Government in assuming responsibility for British decision-making. A working crib agreed by the two sides for use with the press by the two heads of government established that the process involved “consultation but more than consultation”.

On the achievement of agreed devolution in Northern Ireland (a policy now formally shared under the Agreement between Dublin and London), the Irish Government was acknowledged under Article 2(c) as the advocate of the Northern minority’s interest under the regime of “determined efforts to resolve differences”: “Both Governments recognise that devolution can be achieved only with the co operation of constitutional representatives within Northern Ireland of both traditions there. The Conference shall be a framework within which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals on the modalities of bringing about devolution in Northern Ireland, in so far as they relate to the interests of the minority community.” The other side of this coin was the implication that the British would represent the Unionist community’s interests in this process as they were perceived in London.

The exchanges between British and Irish officials on controversial events and sensitive policy issues which subsequently took place both in the ministerial conference, and on a daily (and often a nightly) basis at the Agreement’s secretariat’s embattled and somewhat primitive premises in Maryfield, Belfast (known to its denizens on both sides as the “Bunker”), where a small team of Dublin officials (Daithi Ó Ceallaigh and myself included) lived in the first years following the Agreement, were betimes tense. It sometimes became necessary to call in formal terms for “determined efforts to resolve differences” from our British colleagues and sometimes it was useful to be able to remind them that their obligation ‑ as well as ours – to join in these efforts was, in the terms of an international treaty registered at the United Nations, “in the interest of peace and stability”, the two ingredients starkly most lacking in the life of Northern Ireland. This arrangement was and remains without parallel in conflict resolution structures between states for the government of territory which is “disputed” between them.

Dr FitzGerald and John Hume had successfully pressed for the inclusion of a “joint authority” model in the conclusions of the report of the New Ireland Forum , knowing that their preferred model of “joint sovereignty” would not be considered by the British side: basically an Anglo Irish Ministerial Joint Authority would concern itself with the issues (i) to (iv) as listed in Article 2 (a) of the Anglo Irish Agreement (see above), but would have no role in the areas which were core prerogatives of the sovereign government, most notably external defence, finance and foreign policy. It became clear that the Irish Government could not, as a fundamental political matter, assume responsibility for any decisions, particularly internal security matters in Northern Ireland, for which it could not have eventual sovereign responsibility, even though it might have the maximum influence otherwise possible in the formation of those decisions under the intrusive mechanisms of the Agreement. In fact the Agreement in its mechanisms and formulations came as close as one could imagine in practical political terms to achieving a form of Joint Authority, between the sovereign British Government and the “intrusive” role of the Irish Government, in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Given the British prime minister’s trenchant dismissal of joint authority (“that’s out!”), as well as a shared desire to avoid provoking Unionist hysteria, it went almost without saying that Dublin ministers did not make such a large claim for the institutional machinery of the Agreement at that time.

As will be recalled, unionist reaction to the Agreement was convulsively negative: unionist legal opinion held that the process was indeed one of only thinly disguised joint sovereignty or, as described by some of their scholars, a “condominium” or “Anglo Irish Joint Protectorate” (for example Hugh Roberts’s Northern Ireland and the Algerian Analogy). So extreme and violent was their reaction that the Irish Government, at the urgent request of British ministers, forbore from stressing publicly the substantial political gains in the Agreement from a long-term nationalist point of view, a mistake in the opinion of Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP. In retrospect it has sometimes seemed to me that he was right. On the other hand, some even in the South felt that the Agreement had gone too far in undermining the interests and rights of the Unionist community: Senator (later President of Ireland, later head of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights) Mary Robinson resigned on these grounds from the Labour Party, the second party in Dr FitzGerald’s coalition Government.

The mechanisms of the Agreement were instrumental in improving the circumstances of life of the minority community in a multiplicity of ways during its first fifteen months of operation. Examples were: repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act, strengthening of the law on incitement to hatred, improved rules for fair employment, vastly improved representation of the minority on public bodies, demolition and replacement of three notorious ghetto “developments”: Divis, Unity and Rossville Flats, better rules for the routing of controversial parades, establishment of a Police Complaints Commission, full investigation and reporting and discussion of sensitive incidents, improvements in habeas corpus rules and procedures, some (not enough) improvement in the rate of RUC accompaniment of the UDR, a new code of conduct for the RUC, substantial improvements in prisons policy and on issues such as compassionate leave, shifting of the onus of proof to the prosecution in bail applications, tighter rules on admissibility of evidence (particularly “coerced evidence”), measures to reduce delay and expedite trials; strengthening of the law on incitement to hatred and improved rules for fair employment.

Within a decade the changes in legislation, regulation and in practice that resulted from Irish advocacy in these areas through the mechanisms of the Anglo Irish Agreement (as well as from the excellent work of professional and voluntary agencies), helped to transform Northern Ireland by eliminating many of the deep-seated grievances of the nationalist population which had been key factors in the alienation of the minority.

Perhaps nothing more dramatically illustrated the importance of the Agreement for the mass of nationalists than the fury of the unionist reaction on the one hand (which after so many years of Orange triumphalism they naturally found to be gratifying), and on the other, the discipline and determination shown by the RUC, the British army and, at a remove, Mrs Thatcher’s government in not being intimidated by that fury. Nothing in their experience as a disadvantaged community could match these two phenomena.

Paradoxically it was precisely the intensity of the hysterical unionist fury that obscured for many the “real” achievements of the processes of the Agreement such as the illustrative list above. The British authorities were understandably opposed to publicising these measures as outcomes of the Irish Government’s advocacy under the Agreement for fear of further provoking the Unionists and, as Dr FitzGerald later acknowledged (FitzGerald, All in a Life, p 575), Dublin went along with this approach perhaps excessively. I believe he was correct in this assessment.

The two sets of negotiators had with great care agreed that following the signature of the Agreement, the British authorities would announce in the debate in the Commons that a period of reduction of the level of violence would have significant influence in the regular process of review of prison sentences in the case of those sentenced on terrorist crimes. This device was inspired by Fr Denis Faul’s passionate conviction that, even in extreme circumstances such as the most dramatic hunger strikes, the influence of families was critical with the leadership of the Provisional IRA. In the event, and reflecting the degree of British government distress at the enormity of the unionist public reaction to the Agreement, nothing was said in the debate and only a virtually unnoticed and ambiguous brief statement was made by minister Nick Scott in the graveyard hour of a later overnight debate. This was most regrettable.

The daily pageant of unionist resistance to the “diktat”, as they called the Agreement, also constrained our ability on the Irish side to press for immediate implementation of a sensitive but central part of the agenda laid down in it, namely a profound review and reform of policing. There was some progress made in areas of police reform in the early days of the Agreement, but events on the ground made it difficult to demand more at that point. The RUC, courageously led through this episode by Sir John Hermon, was itself being seen nightly on television being vilified and physically attacked “by their own people” as it carried out the undoubtedly unwelcome role which fate ‑ and Mrs Thatcher – had imposed on it of defending the Anglo Irish Agreement on the streets.

The change of government in Dublin in March 1987 was at this stage something of a relief to the British, who, still unhappy at the depth of unionist revulsion, expected that Fianna Fáil, having opposed the approval of the Agreement in Dáil Eireann and repeatedly derided its aspirations, would not work its mechanisms in government as central instruments of its policy on Northern Ireland. This was certainly the hope of Tom King, secretary of state since the Agreement was inaugurated: a man of considerable charm who showed much kindness to the Irish officials resident in the “Bunker” and much courage in the face of several physical attacks on him by loyalists as well as assassination attempts by the Provisonal IRA, he clearly thoroughly disliked the hurt and dismay the Agreement caused the unionist people and felt it was unfair on them. In fact Mr Haughey’s administration operated the Agreement in a workmanlike way and did not, as he had earlier threatened, attempt to renegotiate it. But the combination of British horror, notably that of the prime minister herself, at being seen as the betrayers of “decent Unionists” and a lack of enthusiasm in Dublin did not augur well for the achievement of the rich promise foreseen by its negotiators.

Nevertheless, the Agreement was a significant historic event in itself, changing irreversibly the relationships between the two communities in Northern Ireland with the two governments and also the relationship between the two governments. The unique mechanisms of the Agreement had begun to function and to rebalance the internal inequities of Northern Ireland and it was, in my view, profoundly regrettable that this initial momentum was lost. The Anglo Irish Agreement was an extraordinary feat of diplomacy by Dr FitzGerald in circumstances which could hardly have been more challenging. It created profound and enduring effects which were useful, in fact indispensable, to subsequent negotiators.

For constitutional nationalists North and South the perception that unionists had a veto over any substantial British government proposal for political matters even within Northern Ireland had been, since the Wilson government capitulated to the loyalist workers’ strike against the Sunningdale Agreement eight years previously, an enormous and depressing stumbling block to any kind of political progress. The existence of the “veto” had been for years exploited politically by the Provisional IRA as proof that only their violence and not the political efforts of the SDLP and Dublin could wring concessions from Britain: this proposition was widely believed in even by thousands of Northern nationalists who themselves passionately opposed the use of violence. The power of this “veto” was also profoundly relied upon by both moderate and hard-line unionists as it reinforced their conviction that no significant concessions need ever be made to the other tribe. Belief in the reality of the “veto” permeated policy in the Northern Ireland Office and was reflected in the wholly inadequate “initiatives” of every secretary of state from Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason to Jim Prior’s “rolling devolution” local government project.

The Anglo Irish Agreement demolished this Unionist “veto” once and for all and created a different landscape. Unionist trust in the most palpably “loyal” of British prime ministers, and thus in any possible Conservative or Labour alternative, was at an end.

In the perspective of twenty-five years, it is beyond question that this perceived “betrayal” of the unionists by Mrs Thatcher ‑ their very talisman ‑ created over time a gradual but profound reappraisal in the first place by the UUP and finally by Dr Paisley’s DUP. Without it, and of course without the decision of the IRA to cease violence in response to the indefatigable campaign of John Hume, in combination with the efforts of Taoiseach Albert Reynolds working with John Major, the remarkable and historic achievement of Messrs Ahern and Blair on Good Friday, April 10th, 1998 would have been unthinkable.

(A separate but unavoidable footnote: Mr Mallon’s lapidary characterisation of the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for Slow Learners” takes nothing from the importance and enormity of that achievement by the two governments, but with each passing day it gathers ever more depth of implacable anguish: why did so many have to die, why did such utter misery have to be endured by so many thousands of individuals and families during thirty years of horror, when finally not a single one of the “war aims” of the Provisional IRA was achieved and when in 1998 they were to settle for the1973 Sunningdale terms plus the entrenchment of partition in the changes in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution?)

Mrs Thatcher in later times may have decided that she disliked the Anglo Irish Agreement, but she deserves much credit for the benefits her decisions created for the next cycle of negotiation. The Agreement was carried in the House of Commons by the largest margin of any vote in the twentieth century, but Mrs Thatcher was attacked in the debate by two allies she revered, Ian Gow, who resigned from the government (he was murdered on July 30th, 1990 by the Provisional IRA because of he was “a close personal associate” of Mrs Thatcher’s on her Northern Ireland policy!), and Enoch Powell, who accused her of “treason” and promised her “public contempt”. This dramatic paradox of history can only be compared with President Nixon’s betrayal of his own party’s heartfelt opposition to any recognition of communist China, which led on to one of the greatest successes of modern diplomacy.

Dr FitzGerald too had to overcome his profound unhappiness at having to leave the unionists (including members of his extended family) out of the consultation process that led to the Agreement. All I can say today is that most unionists were at that time so immured in their veto-proofed immunity from any other reality that they would have wrecked the negotiation process had they been included in it.

Constitutional nationalists were, largely because of the hysterical reaction of unionists, heartened and reengaged. What was most enduringly significant and impressive, but has been insufficiently acknowledged, was that Mrs Thatcher, a unionist by passionate conviction and no friend to Irish nationalism, unlike her Labour Party predecessor, the self-proclaimed supporter of Irish unity Harold Wilson, did not flinch in the face of fiery loyalist intransigence (as she had not flinched from continuing the by then intensive Anglo Irish negotiations with Dr Fitzgerald in the aftermath of IRA bombs in her Brighton hotel on October 12th, 1984 which killed several of her closest supporters and friends and would almost certainly have killed her but for an uncovenanted stroke of good luck.

The Provisional IRA were taken aback. In public they were dismissive, but a “Kremlinologist” re-reading of An Phoblacht editorials from early 1986 discloses intermittent subtle acknowledgements that politics had changed. Some of us had the opportunity to gauge this process of decongealing among their leaders, none more than the extraordinarily determined John Hume.

In a truly tragic development the opposition in Dublin, to the delight of the Provisionals, sought to damage the success of the Agreement from the constitutionalist nationalist perspective by opposing it in the Dáil, but this in turn was somewhat reversed by the unprecedented public outrage against them of the SDLP. Hitherto that party had always striven, as a strategic matter, to exclude from the normal parliamentary wars of Dublin the issues of Northern Ireland. Their reaction was trenchantly reinforced by the acid reception given in Washington to Mr Haughey’s emissary on this subject by US House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Edward Kennedy and their powerful lobby of President Reagan’s White House. When Mr Haughey returned to power in 1987 he did not , as he had promised, attempt to renegotiate the Anglo Irish Agreement but rather worked its processes with at least a minimum of application.

Mrs Thatcher demonstrated effectively at the joint press conference at Hillsborough on November 15th, 1985 and in the subsequent debate on the Agreement in the House of Commons that she fully understood the mechanisms of the Agreement whereby the “carrot” of removing the Irish Governments role (the “stick”) in respect of certain issues should logically be attractive to unionists, if those issues were devolved to a cross-community assembly and a power-sharing executive. In those circumstances the role of the Irish Government would be “out”, as she so characteristically put it. The achievement of power-sharing devolution was also a strategic priority for Dr FitzGerald. He would have been happy to sacrifice the Irish Government’s new role in making “determined efforts to resolve differences” with the British government on those issues had this produced a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

It is regrettable that almost two decades had to pass before this message was digested fully by unionist leaders. It was remarkable that Dr Paisley cited precisely Mrs Thatcher’s argument of November 1985 to his own followers as the grounds for his “reluctantly” acceding to the St Andrews Agreement, the basis of the present political structure of power-sharing government in Belfast between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Peter Hain, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland at that time, for his part employed the same logic with bludgeon force in the run up to the St Andrews Agreement, overtly threatening that the alternative to power-sharing would be a system of joint authority with Dublin. His threat was articulated in the words and (by then) diluted mechanisms of the ’85 Anglo Irish Agreement, insofar as they were preserved in the Good Friday texts. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland thus gave an interpretation to those mechanisms which Dublin would dearly have liked, but could scarcely have dared, to attach publicly to the original substantially stronger terms back in ’85, because of alarm in London (and indeed in Dublin too) at the violent reaction at that time on the Unionist side.

In short, this particular device survived and eventually proved as effective as it was originally intended to be by Dr FitzGerald and Mrs Thatcher in securing cross-community government in 2007 – and by two parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, which back in ’85 could not by anyone’s wildest imaginings have been thought susceptible to its “sticks and carrots”. A further paradox is that, in a yet wider sense, the “carrots and sticks” provided by the very existence of the Anglo Irish Agreement proved effective in securing the Good Friday Agreement. Thus the Anglo Irish Agreement itself, the hated “diktat”, was formally abrogated by the Good Friday Agreement as a key concession to Mr Trimble. Had the Agreement not existed it would have been difficult to invent as effective a “carrot” to secure unionist acceptance. Despite this, the words and mechanisms of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 were enshrined (with diluted powers for the role of the Irish Government in Northern Ireland), but with the minimum of textual amendment, in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
“Erected to the Memory of Mrs. Dermot O’Brien”

O commemorate me where there is water
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of Summer, Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagorously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges
And look! A barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero courageous
Tomb ‑ just a canal bank seat for the Passer by.

Patrick Kavanagh

Reprinted from Collected Poems edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004), by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of Katherine Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.

  1. David Goodall: An Agreement Worth Remembering

A quarter of a century after it was signed at Hillsborough Castle, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 is almost forgotten, overshadowed by the landmark developments in the handling of the Northern Ireland question which have happened since: the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; the piecemeal ceasefires by the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries; and lastly the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, which seemed to signal an end to terrorist violence and at least a provisional willingness on the part of republicans and unionists to cooperate in running a territory which remains a part of the United Kingdom.

The 1985 Agreement, although it was acclaimed at the time by all political parties in Britain except the Ulster Unionists, today tends to be seen as at best a small step forward, significant in improving relations between the British and Irish governments, but failing in other respects to bring a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland much closer. Arguably, however, none of the developments which eventually followed it would have taken place without it. So what were the participants in the negotiations hoping to achieve and how far were they successful? And why did Margaret Thatcher, as is evident from her account in The Downing Street Years, take a negative view of what was regarded at the time as one of the important achievements of her premiership?

Both the principal authors of the Agreement ‑ one may properly call them the protagonists ‑ have published their accounts of the negotiations, Dr Garret FitzGerald in All in a Life and Lady Thatcher in The Downing Street Years. Geoffrey Howe, another important participant, has devoted a chapter to them in Conflict of Loyalty, and they are covered also, although only briefly, in Douglas Hurd’s Memoirs. The face to face meetings between the Taoiseach and the prime minister in the margins of EC summits and at Anglo-Irish summits at Chequers were key moments in the process, and in its later stages Geoffrey Howe played a crucially constructive role on the British side. But although the decisive bargains were struck, and the outcome shaped, by the political leaders, the detailed negotiations were carried on by a very small group of Irish and British civil servants, meeting frequently and intensively over a period of more than two years.

Of these, the outstanding figures, without whom the Agreement would never have been reached, were Sir Robert Armstrong and Dermot Nally. Both were highly skilled negotiators and draftsmen with first-hand experience of Sunningdale behind them; both had inexhaustible patience and a sense of humour; both liked and trusted one another; and both had the confidence of their principals. If Robert Armstrong had not had Mrs Thatcher’s confidence the negotiations would never have got off the ground and would certainly have been broken off before the finish.1

Of the published ministerial accounts, Garret Fitzgerald’s is by far the fullest and most detailed, describing with notable frankness each twist and turn in the negotiations and the calculations made by the Irish side as they proceeded. It is also commendably fair and, as far as my own knowledge goes (I was not present at the various tête-à-tête meetings between the two prime ministers), broadly accurate, although a British participant will detect here and there a judicious understatement. No one on the British side has produced – or could produce ‑ anything comparable. Margaret Thatcher’s account is a good deal less detailed, as well as reflecting the distaste she apparently came to feel for the whole business. The best account from the British side is Geoffrey Howe’s. Although relatively compressed, it provides a corrective to the grudging tone of the Irish chapter in The Downing Street Years, fairly reflecting the positive element in the British approach as well as the critical importance of his own contribution.

Mrs Thatcher’s views on the Northern Ireland problem and on the negotiations are given with characteristically forthright clarity in The Downing Street Years. But the tone of voice and the vehemence tend to overlay the basic rationale for her attitude. So it may be worth trying to describe it, shorn of the vehemence, from the vantage point of someone who worked for her throughout the two-year period of the negotiations.

On Northern Ireland itself, she was, of course, a self-proclaimed unionist, and for much the same reasons as had led her to take Britain to war to recover the Falkland Islands: because she believed that the North was British territory, a clear majority of whose population had through many generations regarded themselves as British and demonstrably wished to remain so. She was allergic to the concept of “alienation”, which I think she regarded as Marxist, but she recognised that the nationalist minority had had legitimate grievances and had suffered serious discrimination. By 1982, however, she thought that the most serious grievances had been attended to and (like the Irish Catholic bishops at the time of the Fenians) that such grievances as remained could not justify armed rebellion, let alone a campaign of systematic murder. The same system of democratic, parliamentary government was in operation in the North as in the rest of the United Kingdom, giving equal rights to members of both communities. As for the consideration that the minority was relatively too small ever to bring about a change of jurisdiction by the normal democratic process of one man one vote, she saw this as a situation which minorities everywhere had to accept. To argue otherwise was to defend Sikh terrorist-backed separatism in India or Hitler’s intervention in Czechoslovakia on the ostensible behalf of the large German community in the Sudetenland (which had been incorporated into the new state of Czechoslovakia against the wishes of the Sudeten Germans). Both these analogies surfaced from time to time in her conversations with Dr FitzGerald as well as with her own collaborators.

At the same time, Mrs Thatcher hated loss of life. The losses incurred in the Falklands campaign had caused her personal anguish. Consistent with this, she had a hatred of terrorism and a conviction that terrorists were murderers who should never be rewarded for their terrorism: hence her intransigence over the hunger strikes. (The canard that she authorised the sinking of the Belgrano in order to make armed conflict inevitable would have been totally out of character.) The aspect of the Northern Ireland troubles which most concerned her was the drain they caused on lives – lives for which the British government was responsible. Given that the declared aim of all parties in the South, as reflected in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution2, was the same as that of the IRA, namely the incorporation of the North into the “national territory” of a united Ireland, she believed that successive Irish governments were less than wholehearted in combating IRA terrorism, insufficiently vigorous in preventing terrorists from using Southern territory as a safe haven, and disposed to put obstacles in the way of cross-Border cooperation between British and Irish security forces. (High-level liaison between the RUC and the Garda Síochána was limited and the Irish Government did not permit operational contact between the Irish and British military authorities.)

Her lack of sympathy for Irish nationalism had been fuelled by the long IRA terrorist campaign, still at its height in 1983; by the assassination of Airey Neave, a personal friend and mentor; and by the mutually embittering tensions of the hunger strikes. Then the anti-British stance adopted by the Haughey government during the Falklands crisis had come not just as an affront, but as a stab in the back at a time when she was under great personal strain and needing the support of all her European allies – support which had been forthcoming even from President Mitterrand, who had telephoned her himself to assure her of his understanding of what the British were having to do. Instead (as it seemed in London), Mr Haughey had chosen to act once again on the principle that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity.

To spell out Mrs Thatcher’s attitude in this way is not to ignore all the countervailing considerations, historical and contemporary, which led others of us on the British side, including Geoffrey Howe, to recognise that peace would only be restored in the North through some degree of compromise with Irish and nationalist demands. But it is necessary in order to understand why Mrs Thatcher herself found this recognition hard to accept; why her attitude to the negotiations and the eventual Agreement fluctuated in the way it did; and also, I suspect, why Enoch Powell’s accusation of “treachery” after the Agreement was signed touched a raw nerve.

The adamant refusal of Northern unionists to contemplate any settlement which included an “Irish dimension” (believing that this was bound to be a step down the slippery slope to a united Ireland), matched by the SDLP’s refusal to operate any settlement which did not include an Irish dimension, had, by the end of 1982, left the British government temporarily bereft of new ideas for tackling the Northern Ireland problem. The alternatives before it seemed to be: integrating Northern Ireland fully into the United Kingdom’s administrative structure – to treat it as being (as Mrs Thatcher had once said) as British as Finchley; finding some way of meeting the main concerns of the constitutional nationalists (the SDLP) while at the same time confirming the union; or simply carrying on with direct rule with a view to defeating the terrorists militarily and in the hope of being able eventually to restore some form of devolved government. All three courses had their advocates, but politically only the third appeared for the moment to be feasible.

Since I became heavily involved, in a subordinate capacity in the subsequent negotiations with the Irish Government, I should perhaps say something here about my personal position and view of the Irish question. Early in May 1982, I was transferred from the British embassy in Bonn to the Cabinet Office, on temporary secondment from the diplomatic service, as deputy secretary to Robert Armstrong for foreign and defence matters. I had until then had no professional involvement with Ireland or Anglo-Irish inter-governmental relations. My interest in Ireland derived from my exploration of the history of the Goodall family. Originally from Yorkshire, this family had been in Co Wexford since at least the end of the sixteenth century; but my grandfather had moved to England in the 1880s and married an Englishwoman and my own branch of the family thought of itself as wholly English3. I had taken little interest in twentieth century Irish politics and virtually none in dealings between the British and Irish governments since partition. But my researches into family history and the contacts I had made in the process had given me some feeling for what it was like to be an Anglo-Irish Protestant and what it was like to be a Catholic nationalist.

So I did not think of Ireland as a “foreign” country. Rather it seemed to me that the relationship between our two islands was a historic mess, and one for which the British bore much (but not all) of the responsibility. The result was a legacy of alienation, mistrust and even hatred in a country whose natural relationship to Britain in terms of culture, propinquity and interbreeding was one of close cousinship. I had no sympathy with the idea that the unionists of the North should be pushed or eased into a united Ireland against their will; in so far as I had a coherent opinion on the matter, I thought that the long term aim should be to bring the island of Ireland as a whole, within the framework of the European Community, freely back into some closer relationship with England, Scotland and Wales – a relationship which could not be defined in advance and which would have to evolve over time as animosities cooled and the border between North and South became gradually less significant.

For the first few months of my time at the Cabinet Office, I was mainly concerned with the Falklands conflict and its aftermath. At the end of 1982, however, I found myself talking to Mrs Thatcher after a dinner at No 10, and the conversation turned to Ireland. This led me to draw attention to what I suggested was the often overlooked and scandalous fact that the only place in the world where British soldiers’ lives were then being lost in anger was in the United Kingdom itself, that is in Northern Ireland. Mrs Thatcher readily took this point; and although there was no mistaking her lack of sympathy for Irish nationalism, I was struck by the seriousness of her interest in Northern Ireland and the extent of her background reading on the subject. I reminded her of General de Gaulle’s handling of the Algerian problem, and she turned the analogy over in her mind. Our conversation ended with her saying reflectively “If we get back next time” (looking ahead to the forthcoming general election in 1983) “I think I would like to do something about Ireland.” In the event, before she had had time to formulate what that “something” might be, the Irish took the initiative.

In early 1983, Dr Garret FitzGerald replaced Mr Haughey as Taoiseach, and in June Mrs Thatcher won her comfortable election victory in Britain. Although in The Downing Street Years she professes to have found Mr Haughey easier to deal with than Dr FitzGerald, at the time (as Geoffrey Howe makes clear4) she had a high regard for Garret FitzGerald’s honesty of purpose and indeed (so it seemed to me) even a degree of personal affection for him. Although she found him unduly loquacious and tended to call him “Gareth” (“She seems to think I’m Welsh,” he observed ruefully), he was a man (like Gorbachev) she “could do business with”; had this not been the case, the negotiations would almost certainly have been broken off before they had got properly under way.

As he has told us, Garret Fitzgerald had entered politics fired with a determination to bring about a reconciliation between the two parts of Ireland; and with governments in place in Dublin and London looking likely to be secure in office for the next two or three years, he saw an opportunity of achieving his ambition. For good or ill, this chimed in with Mrs Thatcher’s somewhat differently motivated feeling that it was time “to do something about Ireland”. It also meant that, as is apparent from a comparison of the four ministerial accounts I have mentioned, Garret FitzGerald and his negotiating team had a clearer view at the start of what they were aiming for than did the British participants, whose negotiating position was developed in response to Irish proposals. All that was common to both sides was the desire for an agreement of some kind which would hopefully make the situation in the North better and at least not make it worse.

So as soon as the British election was over, Dermot Nally was despatched to London to propose to Robert Armstrong the reactivation of the “Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council” – a grandiose name for regular meetings between the two heads of government, to be serviced by a joint “Steering Committee” of officials from both sides. This entity had been agreed upon between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Haughey in 1981 during their brief political honeymoon, but aborted by their subsequent falling out over the Falklands. As we sat round the table with Dermot Nally and his colleagues in the Cabinet Secretary’s large and elegant office discussing the Irish proposal, the sound of martial music and military commands were wafted into the room from Horse Guards Parade, where guardsmen in scarlet could be seen rehearsing for a Beating of Retreat. It was almost exactly a year since a detachment of the Household Cavalry, assembling for a similar event on the Horse Guards, had been blown up in an IRA bomb attack. This latest attempt at Anglo-Irish reconciliation thus opened, not altogether inappropriately, against a background of “England’s cruel red” in its peaceful mode.

It was agreed that the Steering Committee – in effect the two Cabinet Secretaries, Dermot Nally and Robert Armstrong ‑ should be mandated simply to identify practical areas for closer Anglo-Irish cooperation and report to a summit meeting of the two heads of government in the autumn. The detailed work was to be done by a coordinating committee of officials from the interested departments within the two governments. The Irish team was to be headed by Michael Lillis, responsible for Anglo-Irish affairs at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs; and I was to lead the British team by virtue of the Cabinet Office’s co-ordinating role within Whitehall. At that time, however, we were not aware that the Irish were contemplating any new initiative beyond an intensification of high-level political and official contacts.

So it was a complete surprise when, at the first meeting of our co-ordinating committee in September 1983 in Dublin, Michael Lillis invited me to take a quiet walk with him along the Grand Canal and proceeded to sketch out the possibility of radically new arrangements for Northern Ireland. He made it clear that these were not yet the ideas of the Irish Government, but indicated that they were the lines on which the Taoiseach was thinking.

No two interlocutors approaching a subject from differing points of view ever carry away exactly the same understanding of what was said. With that qualification, my understanding from Michael of what the Taoiseach was tentatively envisaging was unequivocal Irish acceptance of the Union, if necessary including amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, and a revived Northern Ireland parliament, in return for an Irish political presence in the North together with the participation of Irish police and security forces in operations there and of Irish judges in terrorist trials. This stemmed from a recognition that unification was not a realistic goal for the foreseeable future; and that unless the Catholic minority in the North could be brought to identify themselves with the institutions of law and order there (from which they were profoundly and increasingly alienated), Sinn Féin would replace the SDLP as the legitimate representative of the nationalist community, with disastrous consequences for the island of Ireland as a whole. The Taoiseach accordingly believed that outright acceptance of the Union would be a price worth paying for measures which, by addressing Northern nationalists’ concerns, would end their alienation from the institutions of the state in the North and demonstrate that constitutional – that is non-violent ‑ nationalism could achieve more for nationalists than Sinn Féin and the IRA.

Having had no previous dealings with Michael Lillis, and being a newcomer to the Anglo-Irish political scene, I was uncertain what to make of these (to me) astonishingly far-reaching ideas and not sure how far they were to be taken seriously. I also had some difficulty in believing that I had been chosen as the channel for conveying to London a major new initiative by the Taoiseach. But Michael Lillis, while leaving me in no doubt that he was by background and conviction a strong and emotional Irish nationalist with his fair share of historic resentments about the British role in Ireland, impressed me as being honest, intelligent and capable of being both imaginative and objective. While I thought that any idea of Irish troops or police operating in the North would be a non-starter in London, it seemed to me that unequivocal Irish acceptance of the Union, confirmed by the amendment of Articles 2 and 3, might be a step of sufficient symbolic and political importance to justify the introduction of an “Irish dimension” of some kind into the Northern Ireland administration. So I duly reported my understanding of what Michael Lillis had said.

This report engaged Mrs Thatcher’s interest. But it was received in Whitehall with scepticism, and subsequent exploratory encounters at various levels were needed to establish that these were in fact the Taoiseach’s ideas. When it seemed that they really were, it was thought that on the one hand they went well beyond what the Taoiseach would ever be able to deliver, and on the other that they were incompatible with the maintenance of British sovereignty over the North. Eventually however a consensus was reached that, at the forthcoming November summit, the prime minister should be recommended simply to explore the Taoiseach’s thinking further, while making it crystal clear that British sovereignty over the North was non-negotiable; and this is essentially what she did.

It was at this meeting at Chequers on November 7th, 1983 that the Taoiseach made his case to the prime minister for what became known among the negotiators as “the basic equation”: outright Irish endorsement of the Union and closer security cooperation in return for an Irish role in the government and administration of justice in the North. Since joint sovereignty was firmly ruled out, Garret FitzGerald made his pitch for “joint authority”. Mrs Thatcher thought this was equally unacceptable, a distinction without a difference. But the Taoiseach had persuaded her that there was at least enough common ground between them to justify taking matters further; and immediately after the Irish left, she convened a meeting of the British participants round the fire, at the end of which officials were commissioned to produce counterproposals for presentation to the Irish in the new year (1984).

The main stages in the negotiations which followed are succinctly summarised by Garret FitzGerald in All in a Life5. Essentially they comprised a long series of probing operations in which the two sides jointly tested the relative weight which each of the two elements in “the basic equation” could be made to bear and discussed ways of putting the results into mutually acceptable language. In return for endorsing the Union, the Irish wanted to maximise the political role to be accorded to the Irish Government in the North and limit the emphasis on security. The British wanted to restrict the Irish role as far as possible to the security field, while wanting Irish endorsement of the Union to be as formal and explicit as possible. The Irish (encouraged by the SDLP) wanted measures which would demonstrate to the minority community that, although the Union had to be accepted, the institutions of the state were becoming Irish as well as British; the British wanted a visible and effective Irish commitment to joint anti-terrorist operations.

The official negotiators fairly quickly came to understand the political constraints on what each other’s government would find tolerable. Ministers on either side were – understandably – slower to do so or, having done so, to adjust their expectations accordingly. The British were reluctant to accept that an Irish Government could not commit itself to joint counterterrorist operations without being given some share of real political responsibility for what was being done. (Mrs Thatcher regarded this “bargaining about security” almost as a form of blackmail.) Dr FitzGerald was equally reluctant to see that British acceptance of “joint authority” with the Irish over the North would ipso facto amount to a dilution of British sovereignty and be seen by the majority community as a large a step down the road to a united Ireland. The Irish could not see why, if Irish police or security forces were to operate along the northern side of the Border, this could only be on a reciprocal basis, with British forces being allowed to operate along the southern side. The British found it difficult to acknowledge that, to be politically saleable in the South – or to achieve its agreed aim of ending the alienation of the minority community from the institutions of the state ‑ any agreement involving endorsement of the Union had to address continuing nationalist concerns about the conduct of the security forces, the impartiality of the courts and the need for some identifiable Irish presence and influence in the North.

The hint of a repeal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution was very important at the start in catching Mrs Thatcher’s interest in a possible agreement (although the Irish did not put it fully on the table until a later stage in the negotiations) but its attractiveness from the British point of view declined as it became apparent that the political price expected for it in terms of Irish involvement in the North – “joint authority” ‑ was too high.

One other important component of the negotiating package (and of the eventual Agreement) was the proviso that the Irish Government’s role in the administration of the North would lapse to the extent that it could be assumed by “a devolved administration” – in other words an administration in which unionists and nationalists were sharing power6. This important and welcome proviso was offered by the Irish early on, and one of the hiccups which punctuated the negotiations occurred when they were mistakenly given the impression that the British were making any Irish involvement in the North conditional on the prior establishment of a power-sharing administration – something which, given the attitude of the main political parties in the North at that time, looked unachievable in the foreseeable future.

The negotiations had other ups and downs but attracted relatively little public attention in Britain until the “Brighton Bomb” on October 12th, 1984, when the Provisional IRA narrowly failed to assassinate Mrs Thatcher, together with most of the British Cabinet and their wives, at the annual Conservative Party Conference. Nothing could have illustrated more vividly the reality of the antagonism we hoped an agreement would help to defuse than the singular brutality of the language with which the IRA claimed responsibility: “Today we were unlucky but remember we only have to be lucky once.” In the light of her ingrained suspicions about Irish sympathy for the terrorists and her doubts about the direction the negotiations were taking, Mrs Thatcher would have been only human if she had responded by withdrawing from the negotiating process; and I half expected her to do so. But I had underestimated both her courage and her determination. In the event, she appeared outwardly unruffled, and the negotiations were allowed to continue.

The next Anglo-Irish summit meeting, however, which followed only five weeks later on November 18th, 1984 (at Chequers instead of in Dublin), culminated in the celebrated “Out, out, out” episode, when Mrs Thatcher, in answer to a question at her press conference, forcefully dismissed all three “models” for the future of Northern Ireland put forward in the Forum Report7, thereby gravely – but quite unintentionally – creating serious difficulties for Garret FitzGerald at home and precipitating a crisis in the negotiations.

At the time, this looked like a disaster which threatened to derail the negotiations altogether. In the light of hindsight, however, it probably saved them, by forcing each side to realise the limits of what was politically feasible for the other. When the official negotiators re-convened, somewhat chastened, early in January 1985, the “basic equation” had been effectively clarified: no amendment of Articles 2 and 3, but a formal acceptance by the Irish Government of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom (unless and until its people should freely choose otherwise), as a basis from which the Irish Government could have an institutionalised influence on British decision-making there without any diminution of British sovereignty.

Once this lowering of expectations had been mutually digested, there still remained important issues to be resolved, including the range of subjects on which the Irish were to have the right to bring their influence to bear, the nature of the Irish presence in the North, the way in which Northern Ireland’s status as a part of the United Kingdom was to be recognised and, of course, the wording in which all this was to be expressed. How to reconcile the Irish requirement for something more than a right to be “consulted” (and therefore, by implication, to be disregarded) with the British requirement to leave no doubt that this was all that was on offer taxed all Robert Armstrong’s and Dermot Nally’s drafting and bargaining skills, not only with one another but also with their respective principals, and was problematic almost up to the last moment8. So the negotiations went on at an intensifying pace – and with more than one cliff-hanging moment – until the beginning of November 1985. But by the middle of the year the essence of what was to be agreed had been tacitly accepted by both sides and the prospect of possible failure to reach agreement effectively discounted.

The Agreement which finally emerged represented “the most significant and carefully prepared development in the relationship between Britain and Ireland since the partition settlement of the 1920s”9. But like all freely negotiated agreements between parties with conflicting objectives, it was a compromise in which neither side achieved all it had tried for. The Irish did not get joint authority, but the “consultative” structures established under the Agreement, and the range of subjects covered constituted in practice a significant degree of joint responsibility. From that joint responsibility developed the mutual confidence between the two governments and successive prime ministers of both countries without which it is doubtful whether the subsequent agreements, leading to the Good Friday Agreement, could ever have come about.

The British got only a conditional Irish endorsement of the Union, but in the context of the Agreement as a whole and of the institutionalised consultation between the two governments which it initiated, it was clear that the Irish Government no longer contested the legitimacy of British sovereignty over the North, and any idea that an Irish Government might seek to coerce the North into a united Ireland against the wishes of the unionist community was laid to rest. Cooperation between the RUC and the Garda Síochána at senior levels became closer.

In the short term, the measures taken to reconcile the nationalist community to the institutions of the state in the North had only limited impact. The leaders of the SDLP warmly welcomed the Agreement, but made no move to try to open a dialogue with the unionists. For a time, the level of violence actually increased. But in the elections which followed the Sinn Féin vote dropped significantly and the SDLP vote increased. None of this was lost on the Sinn Féin leadership

An undoubted flaw in the whole process was the exclusion of the unionists, who were party neither to the Agreement itself nor to the negotiations leading up to it (unlike the SDLP, who were in the Irish Government’s confidence throughout and whose leaders were regularly consulted by Dublin.) The inescapable reason for this was the sustained and implacable opposition of both unionist parties to any form of “Irish dimension” in the North or to any discussion with Dublin about such a possibility. The state of feeling in Northern Ireland, and the attitude of the unionist leaders, meant that there was simply no prospect at that time of a constructive negotiation between the two governments involving all the main political parties there; and if the unionists had been brought in from the start there would have been no negotiation and no Agreement.

As it was, the unionists reacted to the Agreement with outrage and refused either to be comforted by the provision that there was “no derogation from sovereignty of … the United Kingdom government” or to take advantage of the opening created for the establishment of a devolved, power-sharing administration in which the Irish Government would then have no say10.

The anger and resentment of the unionist community was understandable, if mistaken; and the fierceness of their reaction blunted any positive impact the Agreement might have had in the short term on inter-community relations. But the fact that it was concluded solely between the two governments, and that none of the political parties was a party to it, turned out to be its strength. The Sunningdale Agreement had collapsed mainly because it had depended on the unionists’ willingness to operate it, and the unionist leaders had walked away from it under pressure from their own people. The 1985 Agreement could only have collapsed if one or other government had walked away from it, and neither of them did. As a result, it remained in force long enough to change the political chemistry in the North and oblige all the political parties – even in the end Sinn Féin – reluctantly and privately to realise that it would not go away unless and until they could jointly agree on a mutually acceptable alternative.

Looking back on the negotiations at a distance of nearly twenty-five years, I am struck by how important a part was played in producing a positive result, first by mutual trust between the negotiators and then by the two governments sticking to what had been agreed, even though neither was satisfied with it. As it happened, shortly after the Agreement was signed I was posted to India, where I found that the long running dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir had striking similarities with the Northern Ireland problem. Both disputes had deep historical roots and arose from the partition of a territory (the island of Ireland and the Indian sub-continent) which was previously under a single jurisdiction. Both sets of troubles arose from antipathy between two communities who defined themselves by their religious allegiance (in Kashmir, Hindu and Muslim). Both involved one of those communities (the Muslims in Kashmir) being left on the side of the border with which they did not identify in religious and cultural terms, separated from those with whom they did; and in both cases the country across the border effectively laid claim to the territory concerned.

Given these similarities, the Kashmir dispute seemed to cry out for a peaceful settlement on lines similar to those adumbrated in the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement and filled out in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. I found many people in both India and Pakistan interested in such a possibility and keen to understand how it was being realised in negotiations between Dublin and London. But what was missing, and is sadly still missing in the sub-continent, were the key ingredients of mutual trust, together with stable governments on either side willing – and able ‑ to ride out the ensuing turbulence. The 1985 Agreement and its successors exemplify the fact that Britain and Ireland in recent years have been fortunate in both respects.

  1. Michael Lillis has described most of the other participants. But from the British side there are two to be added: Robert Andrew, then Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office in London, who joined the British team half-way through. As the head of the department responsible for maintaining law and order in the North, he had the necessary but not always grateful task of ensuring that the realities of the situation on the ground were not overlooked in moments of negotiating euphoria – a task he discharged with determination and good humour. Then for the final stage of the negotiations the British team was joined by my successor but one at the Cabinet Office, Christopher Mallaby (afterwards ambassador at Bonn and Paris).
  2. These articles read: “(2). The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland. (3). Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area of extent and operation as the laws of Saorstat Eireann and the like extra-territorial effect.” They have since been amended, following the Good Friday Agreement.
  3. Garret FitzGerald (All in a Life, p 474) kindly says that a forebear of mine “had been a member of the Irish Parliament who in the middle of the eighteenth century had been actively involved in one of the earliest challenges … to the Dublin Castle establishment”. The truth is rather less flattering. The Wexford Goodalls at their most prosperous were never more than what Sir Jonah Barrington called “half-mounted gentry”, and none of them sat in the Irish Parliament. But in 1754 one John Goodall voted for the anti-Castle candidate in a parliamentary by-election for the county of Wexford and his vote was disqualified on the ground that he was married to a “popish wife”. He protested that his wife had formally recanted before their marriage and had a certificate of conformity to prove it. When accused of having been married to her before that, he made the memorable reply that “there was a ceremony or a sort of a ceremony, but he did not look upon it as a marriage as there was no consummation in consequence of it, nor even a ceremony of marriage, as he was drinking all the time.” (Journals of the House of Commons (Ireland), Vol IX, p 407 and David Goodall: “All The Cooking That Could Be Used” inThe Past, No 12, 1978).
  4. Geoffrey Howe:Conflict of Loyalty, p 427
  5. pp 460-462.
  6. Articles 2(b), 4(b) and (c), 5(c).
  7. A unitary state for the whole of Ireland, a federal state embracing North and South or “joint authority” over the North. The Forum Report had never loomed as large in the British government’s thinking as it did, for obvious reasons, in that of Dr FitzGerald’s government, and it was regarded in London as of only peripheral importance. Mrs Thatcher had already made it clear to Dr FitzGerald privately that the models it proposed were unacceptable to the British. But, as on other occasions, it was the vehemence with which she gave her views as much as their substance that caused offence.
  8. See Article 2(b) of the Agreement. The word “determined” here, in the phrase that “in the interests of peace and security determined efforts shall be made … to resolve any differences” was eventually chosen after “every effort” was thought too strong by one side and not strong enough by the other.
  9. Professors Tom Hadden and Kevin Boyle:The Anglo-Irish Agreement: Commentary, Text and Official Review, Sweet and Maxwell Ltd, London, 1989, p 1
  10. Article 2(b)

Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), Ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, was published last Autumn.

Sir David Goodall, a retired British diplomat, was British High Commissioner to India from 1987 to 1991. A former Chairman of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, Britain’s largest disability charity, and of the British-Irish Association, he is a Visiting Professor at Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies and a Fellow of the Irish Genealogical Research Society. A regular contributor to the The Tablet, he has published two books: Remembering India (1997) and Ryedale Pilgrimage (2000).



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