The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: A Memoir by David Goodall, Frank Sheridan (ed), Four Courts Press, €18, 244 pp, ISBN: 978-0901510877
Sir David Goodall’s recently published memoir on the making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement confirms rather than modifies the outline narrative already known to us from various other sources, including Garret FitzGerald’s autobiography and several academic studies. Charles Moore’s Mount Rushmore-scale biography of Lady Thatcher devotes a chapter to it which recounts the main developments, and which indeed draws heavily on Goodall’s memoir, to which he had access.
The singular interest of Goodall’s book is the insight and texture it gives to the long process which culminated in the Agreement. He is diffident about his own role and probably underrates his own influence. He quotes at the outset Virginia Woolf’s salutary dictum “that in reporting conversations our own sayings stand out like lighthouses” and clearly heeds her warning. Nevertheless, the memoir amounts to something like a self-portrait, and it is one of an impressive and engaging personality.
The poet Czesław Miłosz devotes several fascinating passages to national animosities in his book Native Realm, which should be on the bookshelf of anyone dealing with Anglo-Irish relations. One of his conclusions is that what the Russians hate about the Poles, and the Poles about the Russians, is what they hate about themselves. Anyone reading English commentary on Ireland, or vice versa ,will find no shortage of local illustrations of this observation. Goodall is remarkable in his immunity from this syndrome and in his capacity to treat both sides in the negotiation of the Agreement with scrupulous and even-handed respect. This may be partly due to the fact that his ancestors in Ireland belonged both to the colonial and the rebellious currents of Irish history, although it must be allowed that such mixed heritage can sometimes engender the most virulent instances of Miłosz’s law.
Goodall’s lucid account is entirely free of the camouflaged hindsight and sly advertisements to posterity which mar so much memoir-writing. It is refreshing too that the author, a devout Catholic in private life, never resorts to the little hints and retro postures of less secure English co-religionists, destined to make clear their faith is inherited from fastidious recusants and not from any connoisseur of mealy potatoes. Moore considers that Lady Thatcher was suspicious of Goodall because of his faith. She certainly shared the traditional English view of Catholicism as a rum business – I remember interludes at one summit enlivened by her speculations as to whether Mugabe was a Jesuit – but the account of indulgent teasing of “her favourite clergyman” in this volume seems to me the more accurate picture.
Goodall’s memoir is naturally dominated by the potent presence of Lady Thatcher, a goddess both exacting and capricious. Her phenomenal energy and acute forensic intelligence made her formidable to her subordinates. She was a brilliant communicator, and an adept of the soundbite before the term was invented. Her demeanour after the Brighton bomb gave proof of magnificent courage, which was manifest in many other aspects of her career also. It is impossible to know whether her capricious side, which included a rather odious impulse to bully, was her way of subverting or weaponising to her advantage the offensive trope of the irrational female or was simply an expression of her character. Those around her in this memoir often seem like an extended bomb-disposal team, sweating over intricate clumps of hair-trigger wiring.
To confound expectations of hagiography in his authorised biography Moore donned the Olympian mask of an austerely objective historian. Goodall, while greatly admiring of Lady Thatcher’s remarkable qualities, does not feel the same need to suppress his capacity for mordant observation of her odd ways. There are passages where she seems to be channelling Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, the surrealism all the more comic in that the foil is not the wide-eyed Alice but the savvy and worldly-wise mandarin. The point where she considers redrawing the border and opines that the Irish take easily to population transfers ever since they were so conditioned by Cromwell is one where Irish readers will probably laugh – lest they weep.
Sir Charles Powell puts it well in a separate essay in this volume when he says that for Goodall the negotiation was more than statecraft; it was a mission.
Goodall’s starting point was the urgent need to address the scandal of the Irish conflict, which as he reminded Lady Thatcher, meant “that the only place where British soldiers’ lives were being lost in anger was the UK itself”. To his immense credit he refused to lapse into the easy fatalism of regarding the conflict as inevitable and insoluble, and his book takes on some of the gripping features of the story of a quest, recounted in an elegant and unshowy prose.
Goodall prepared himself for his mission by testing and quickly dismissing the suspicions with which his Irish opposite number, Michael Lillis, was viewed in Belfast and London (reflecting the inveterate British habit of demonising, almost on a precautionary basis, Irish officials whose intelligence or independence might betoken resistance to their policies). He satisfied himself that Lillis was an accurate messenger of taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s views and formed the opinion of him as an “essentially honest man as well as an extremely intelligent and persuasive one”. He considers the mutual confidence which grew between them over two years of intensive interaction to have been a factor in the eventual success of the negotiations, as it surely was.
The conflicts which ravaged Ireland a century ago ended not with a peace settlement but with a series of stand-offs, which with the help of patterns of denial on all sides and tacit agreements to differ on issues of legitimacy, added up to a tolerable modus vivendi. Any British compunction about the division of Ireland and the creation of patterns of permanent domination and permanent disenfranchisement in the part of the island under British rule was drowned out in the relief that the “Irish question” had been banished from the British agenda. By the mid-eighties the stand-off had frayed so badly that a major overhaul was clearly necessary to recalibrate relationships. Lady Thatcher’s path to power was based on reflecting and flattering the ingrained reflexes of her Tory base, not by confusing them with awkward complexities. There was a near universal conviction that she was the leader least likely to effect that recalibration.
How these dismal expectations were confounded lends an element of narrative suspense to Goodall’s narrative greatly enhanced by his often evocative literary style. Understandably he views the other protagonists according to whether they help or hinder his quest. Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, and Sir Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, are sterling and ever resourceful allies. His high regard for Sir Jack Hermon would I think be endorsed by Irish officials who had dealings with the chief constable. Goodall’s near contempt for the Northern Ireland Office is clear, although his high regard for individuals such as Sir Philip Woodfield suggests he was influenced by the very pedestrian leadership he encountered in the NIO at that time rather than a generic prejudice. The hapless Tom King incorporates the Peter Principle in Goodall’s account as bumptiously as he did in later stages of his incumbency in the NIO and fails to win Lady Thatcher’s esteem. Goodall abounds in his praise of Garret Fitzgerald’s intelligence and persistence. His admiration of the quartet of officials which formed the core of the Irish negotiating team (Dermot Nally, Sean Donlon and Noel Dorr, as well as Michael Lillis )finds handsome expression at several points, presumably all the more sincerely in that he saw his memoir as a document for the historical archive rather than for publication.
On the substance of the negotiation it is not clear whether Goodall himself formulated the “basic equation” (institutionalised consultation in return for enhanced recognition of the Union) or whether it emerged from a collective mapping of what both sides could sustain and deliver. It seems to have prevailed with great consistency until enshrined in the Agreement, buttressed from the Irish point of view by elements such as the Belfast secretariat and a comprehensive agenda which, even if consultative, covered the areas which the nationalist community found most oppressive or discriminatory.(With the benefit of hindsight, the worry that consultative might amount to meaningless was not borne out.)
Lady Thatcher’s achievement in agreeing a major gearshift in Anglo-Irish relations was matched in importance by her refusal to resile from it in the face of unionist fury. Short of retaining the whole island within the UK, the partition arrangement gave the unionists everything they could wish for ‑ or was quickly tweaked by them to that effect. The unintended consequence, which revealed itself only slowly, was that every adaptation required to meet changing circumstances amounted to a degradation of the original unionist endowment. Opposing change was therefore a perfectly logical policy for unionists, but it appeared to the outside world as a dour and reactionary obduracy and disqualified them in English eyes from serving as reliable local managers.
Thatcher’s predecessors had allowed unionists to sweep the Sunningdale compromise from the table, greatly encouraging them in the belief that their veto on constitutional change in fact extended to all unwelcome political change. For all their differences of style, both Molyneux and Paisley relied on the politics of immobilism, all the more complacently in the knowledge that a unionist of Lady Thatcher’s fervour was in charge. Now she, of all people, had made brutally clear that unionism was not a freehold title but a leasehold governed by British terms. The deepest impact of the Agreement was arguably the psychological one on both Northern communities.
In an ideal world Goodall’s book should be issued as a supplement with every purchase of Moore’s magnum opus. The biographer’s treatment of Lady Thatcher’s Irish involvement is where his mask of dispassionate objectivity becomes most visibly unmoored, revealing instead the frowns and grimaces of the disappointed votary. He seeks relief from his dissonances in the ancient trope of the virtuous empress betrayed by wicked or unworthy counsellors. Lord Armstrong frequently appears trailing his Homeric epithet of silky, when not actually behaving silkily. He and Goodall, “just as green as Armstrong but less ruthless” had their obviously highly susceptible heads turned by the flattering access granted to them in Dublin. The insidious Irish “were more fertile than London in coming up with ideas”, pushing them inconsiderately before Lady Thatcher had bent her mind on the words that the Irish would have to concede on the Union. He reflects grimly that “some of the cleverest men in the realm had real difficulty in understanding that they faced a Prime Minister who truly did not share their beliefs on the virtues of internationalism and consensus or their instinctive aversion to asserting the claims of Britishness”.
One infers that their grasp of the Führerprinzip left much to be desired. Moore’s explanation for Lady Thatcher’s acquiescence in the Agreement is even more startling: “The subject did not matter to her enough that she was prepared to fight to what would certainly have been a bitter end.” The tribute to the moral seriousness of Goodall and those who shared his conviction that they had an obligation to address a failure of statecraft on their watch is as eloquent as it is unintended.
Why did Lady Thatcher confound the dismal expectations of her Irish policy to the extent she did? Her pragmatism and keen sense of realpolitik was a dark secret she preferred to keep veiled from the faithful but it was an important ingredient in her success. She was rightly dismissive of the various “Sunningdale minus” devolution schemes devised by James Prior and others as unlikely to get anywhere. She was militaristic, but capable of compassion. She had no sympathy for Irish nationalism but seems to have accepted, at least privately,that nationalists had grievances the unionists were unlikely to remedy. It may be that the wicked counsellors of Moore’s narrative awakened some of the better angels in her character.
She herself famously told Lord McAlpine that the Americans made her do it.
Irish policy-makers and Anglo-Irish relations generally have long suffered from a hard-wired English tendency to view Irish matters through a dismissive or comic lens. Fortunately, there is an antidote. When an American label is superimposed on the Irish one, the English attitude becomes magically transformed into one of close and generally respectful attention.
Moore is dismissive of the US influence in this case, on the grounds that the records show that Reagan made only fugitive allusions to Irish-American concerns. It is possible that Mrs Thatcher had a better grasp of the president’s style and that she felt his light touch did not guarantee that the Tyrone steeples would never cast their dreary blight on the world-altering agendas she wished to pursue with him. If that was a factor, there is a case for an extra campaign medal, so to speak, for two of the Irish negotiating team. Both Sean Donlon and Michael Lillis, in their earlier Washington incumbencies, had been influential in dismantling the indulgent convention, zealously guarded by the State Department, that Northern Ireland was an internal matter for their British ally and was not within the purview of US government policy.
Nineteen Eighty-Five is receding into the realm of history. Many key protagonists of the Agreement have departed this life, although others are still fortunately with us and enriching the debate. All of the subsequent advances in Anglo-Irish understanding have built on its foundations and are to a greater or lesser extent applications of the “basic equation” or development of its corollaries.
The consolidation of Anglo-Irish harmony is still a work in progress, although it must now proceed with two difficult dimensions which were absent from the obstacle race faced by the negotiators in 1985. The first is obviously Brexit, whose potential for mischief is only beginning. The second is the ironic fact that, for the first time in a century, Northern Ireland elections are ceasing to be merely plebiscites within the confines of the respective communal silos. They are acquiring the normal electoral capacity to produce general and unpredictable change, a feature which had been so painstakingly purged from the blueprint one hundred years ago. Future negotiators will be obliged to play their chess games in the glare of publicity.
The writing of history is also a work in progress. In spite of Moore’s herculean effort, Lady Thatcher is not yet universally viewed through his proffered lens of dulia or hyperdulia. There are heretics that see her as the prime minister of her age but not necessarily for the ages. She is not to be held responsible for her epigones, but the particularly polemical cast of her intelligence made her complicit in the quite startlingly belligerent press coverage of many of Britain’s foreign relations. Even her handbag, usually a symbol of female nurturing, became weaponised into a bludgeon, wielded with gratifying frequency and impact on presumptuous foreigners. The toxins still linger and may perhaps metastise in the body politic she dominated.
The only comparable female ascendancy in modern European politics is that of Mrs Merkel.
Ever since Plutarch, historians have relished his genre of parallel lives, illuminating one great person by contrast with a comparable one. This case will abound in paradox. The English grocer’s daughter is the epitome of Sturm und Drang, while Mrs Merkel has practised the laconic understatement thought to be a British specialty. One enjoyed the political equivalent of blitzkrieg and did not readily give quarter. The other clung to the Hippocratic principle in her politics and preferred the imperceptible asphyxiation of her enemies. Both were hampered by countries which were “too big for Europe, and too small for the world”, even if the German misfit was statistical and the British subjective. Mrs Merkel knew from her history the truth of Yeats’s lines that hearts fed on fantasy grow brutal from the fare. There is no evidence that Lady Thatcher read much Yeats.
It would be unfair to read too much into their duration in office or the manner of their departure from power, although leaving to clouds of regret at a time of one’s choosing seems a warmer testimonial than a brutal defenestration. It is premature also to judge their respective legacies, but it is not a given that the eagle staring gimlet-eyed from the empyrean will outshine the hen scrabbling humbly but productively in the garden.
David Goodall’s memoir is also deliberately modest in scope and ambition, documenting a single episode of Lady Thatcher’s career, but it seems already guaranteed its certain place in the bibliography of Anglo-Irish diplomacy.
Seán OHuiginn retired from the Irish diplomatic service in 2009. His later foreign postings included service as Ireland’s ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Rome. He also served in various capacities in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, including as head of the department’s Anglo-Irish division between 1991 and 1997.