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Reflections on the Anglo Irish Agreement

Last month saw the twenty fifth anniversary of the Anglo Irish Agreement. Brain Walker had a far from unionist friendly analysis (unsurprisingly) of it over on Slugger. The same month in 1985 as the agreement was signed, the UUP and DUP mobilised one of the largest mass protests Belfast has ever seen against the Agreement; memorably including Dr. Paisley’s iconic Never, never, never, never” speech. The News Letter has reflections from a number of different people on that day of protest and Jim Allister has his thoughts on his website.

The long term effect on unionists in general is probably difficult to gauge and no doubt differs between different unionists.

by Turgon

For many of those (like myself) who were teenagers at the time, the Anglo Irish Agreement and the subsequent protests marked the first significant political event in our conciousness. I was not there at the rally and my ultra liberal parents were moderately in favour of the concept but kept an eye on several neighbours’ houses for them since they were away at the protest. I remember thinking in the way a teenager does that it was unfair that this decision had been reached without the agreement of us as unionists. My wife remembers her utterly non political parents taking her to the event and all the speeches.

Of course that protest came to naught as did the Day of Action; the by-elections; the Hands across the province; the boycotting of government representatives by the councils. The agreement stayed as did the Maryfield secretariat until after the Belfast Agreement and even now it is a moot point to what extent the old agreement has gone away.

The effect on the great majority of unionists was to destroy their faith in Thatcher and the Conservative government. Despite the fact that the most hard line on IRA terrorism (and most successful in defeating it) of all British secretaries of state was Labour’s Roy Mason, many seemed to hope that the Thatcher government would introduce tougher measures against the IRA. Thatcher had been seen by unionists as holding the line during the hunger strikes, though the reality now seems much more complex than the perception then was. Thatcher was the woman who fought and won the Falklands war (again revisionist analysis would suggest that Thatcher was most anxious regarding that, had to be strengthened by Michael Foot and had been less decisive than Jim Callaghan a few years earlier who probably successfully prevented the islands’ invasion).

The Agreement, however, demolished Thatcher in the eyes of many unionists, though there still seems to be a lingering wish to feel that she was somehow tricked into the agreement by the perfidious behaviour of the Irish or indeed the Foreign Office. The fact that historically Conservative leaders, even supposed unionist heroes, have always seemed less than sound on the union seems forgotten. Ted Heath’s government prorogued Stormont in 1972 and then introduced Sunningdale in 1973 but he is always regarded as a wet and not a proper Tory by unionists. Churchill of course had proposed giving Northern Ireland to the Irish Free State during the war but again that seems excused by the pressures of the time or some such.

The effect on the leaders of political unionism was essentially to harden the positions they already held. Jim Molyneaux the leader of the then dominant UUP continued with his semi integrationalist semi devolutionist strategy. Some (myself included) have recently proffered a somewhat revisionist analysis of Molyneaux as a successful leader who managed to whittle away the DUP’s support and gain almost complete dominance for the UUP. However, over the Anglo Irish Agreement Molyneaux was completely in the dark until the deal was signed. Although maybe less memorable than Paisley’s comments his speech on the day of the Belfast protest was no less caustic towards Thatcher and the Tories than Paisley’s. In spite of this defeat Molyneaux seemed inclined to try to persist with the strategy of staying close to the Conservative government, a strategy he promoted to a greater extent with John Major. Despite Molyneaux’s assertions in public (and even more so in party circles) that he had the PM’s ear, in 1995 the government came out with British Irish joint deceleration. Whilst that was just after Molyneaux had retired as leader it was fairly clear that he had had less influence in shaping government thinking than he had claimed he was having.

As such the strategy of getting closer to the British government to ensure that they never again “sold Ulster out” seemed fairly ineffective.

Ian Paisley and the DUP seemed to see the Agreement as confirming them in their opinion that unionism needed a devolved government to prevent Perfidious Albion selling out yet more to the demands of nationalism / republicanism. That feeling, of the need to have a devolved government, may well have induced Paisley to accept the St Andrews Agreement when the DUP finally became top party. The fact that that agreement was far from perfect may have seemed to Paisley a price that had to be paid to gain devolution.

Again, however, that line of reasoning has significant flaws. Firstly the old devolved government at Stormont was ended arbitrarily by the British government and despite unionists and republicans protestations to the contrary it is a simple fact that an act of parliament could undo the current devolved assembly in a trice. Hence, the bulwark of the current devolved agreement would seem a less than complete one. In addition of course the St Andrew’s Agreement was far from the frame shift from the Belfast Agreement which the DUP demanded prior to entering the negotiations. Paisley may have been swayed by the prospect of power but was also swayed by the threat of the Anglo Irish Agreement mark 2 with which Blair threatened him.

There is another reading of the Anglo Irish Agreement which seems not to be commonly put forward but may be worth an airing: this is not a definitive analysis and is as flawed as any other.

The reaction by unionism under Molyneaux and Paisley was in some ways extremely measured. There was the brief dalliance with Ulster Resistance but in reality both parties (especially the UUP) avoided violent confrontation. The rally in Belfast was marred by some violence but the overwhelming majority of that vast crowd was completely peaceful. The later Day of Action brought the province to a virtual standstill and briefly turned off the electricity. However, the unionist leadership was not willing to have a repeat of the UWC strike that helped end the Sunningdale Agreement. This unwillingness was despite what was widely regarded by unionists as a completely undemocratic agreement imposed on the people of Northern Ireland without their consent. The by elections further proved that the Anglo Irish Agreement was not the will of the majority of the population. The covenant between government and governed which is often suggested as the basis of much of unionism’s analysis of politics had been unilaterally broken by the Tories.

In some situations in some countries the elected representatives of such a group might have felt justified in declaring UDI: the unionist leadership were unwilling to take anything more than symbolic steps. Even Rev Hugh Ross (who a person now very senior within the greater unionist establishment dragged me along to hear in a draughty orange hall in North Antrim) only advocated a negotiated Independent Ulster. Neither Jim Molyneaux nor Ian Paisley was prepared to play Ian Smith and whilst there may not have been the stomach for a Rhodesia style independence move in Northern Ireland it is notable that the unionist leadership set its face against widespread civic disorder.

Anyone who doubts that the unionist leadership, had they wanted, could have created a much greater problem need only look at Drumcree. Had Molyneaux called people onto the streets to stop the agreement it would have been extraordinarily difficult for the government and security forces to maintain control and it is more than possible that many within the security forces would have regarded the pronouncements of the Secretary of State as lacking democratic credibility as compared to those of Molyneaux, the democratically elected leader of unionism. Such a scenario of course could easily have opened up a terrifying vista of civic conflict. Northern Ireland has much to thank Jim Molyneaux for and his limited response to the Anglo Irish Agreement may be one of his greatest and most unsung legacies.

The unionist leadership for whatever reason (probably thankfully) showed little inclination to cause serious trouble on the streets let alone have Jim stand on the steps of Stormont and announce “Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood…” Despite this measured response the British government, seem to have felt that they had pushed the unionist population about as far as they could. In addition despite the massive annoyance caused to unionists the British government conspicuously failed to gain the level of security cooperation it had hoped to from the RoI government: a level of cooperation Stormont had enjoyed and more during the old border campaign.

Hence, for the Thatcher government the Agreement was probably also a failure: it antagonised unionists; at least temporarily energised the IRA and failed to gain additional support from the RoI government in combating terrorism on which the RoI remained committed but only up to a point. In light of both the unionist anger and the failure of the Agreement, the later Downing Street Deceleration and the like had less in the way of substantive concessions eroding the unionist position. In addition when the Belfast Agreement was negotiated Blair made a huge effort (largely through dishonesty) to ensure that enough of the unionist population supported the agreement to claim (probably inaccurately) that most unionists had supported it. The principle of consent may have been formally accepted on a number of occasions but it was tested almost to breaking point by the Anglo Irish Agreement. That fact was almost certainly not lost on the government and has very likely informed much of what has gone subsequently. By that analysis Dr. Paisley probably took Blair’s threats of an Anglo Irish Agreement mark 2 much too seriously.

A further lesson from the Agreement is that of unionist unity in the face of adversity. Much may be talked currently about unionist unity but it is relatively unlikely as the threat is not perceived by the majority of unionists to be massive. However, a significant external threat brought the UUP and DUP together as one, along with the vast majority of civic and non political unionism. I well remember some Catholics who supported the union talking on the radio about the fact that they had attended that vast rally: not many I am sure but far from none. Real adversity can unite a remarkable number of unionism’s disparate strands. That is not to say that we should seek unity now but it is a consideration which should not be lost on unionist leaders. The agreement may in some ways have been a defeat for unionism. However, by its dignified yet outraged response unionism may have gained more than it thought at the time.

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10 Responses

  1. Framer says:

    This excellent article reminds us of some old realities and disputes within unionism.

    Thatcher was plainly tricked but allowed herself to be tricked which reveals a shallowness on her part which as Turgon points out also occurred around the Falklands. She had allowed the FO basically to offer Argentina joint sovereignty and then withdrawn the offer and our naval presence. The result was inevitable just as her failure to stand up to Iraq before it invaded Kuwait.

    Extradition, long promised by Dublin, of course never happened but Thatcher again was advised of its imminence and believed in it.

    That devolution is no bulwark against diktats from Westminster is as true today as it ever was but unionists cannot be weaned off devolution and never will be. If that can be explained then appropriate polices might follow.

    By the way one has also has to ask what is the point of engaging with bitterly extreme nationalists on various blog sites like Slugger? Is it time consuming, diversionary and valueless?

    • Turgon says:

      Framer,
      Thank you for those kind words.

      On the issue of Slugger I had intended posting this on Slugger but decided that it would simply result in nonsense and I wanted to develop the analysis. Constructive remarks critical or otherwise are much more likely here so I put it here first – I may put it on Slugger later.

      In terms of engaging on Slugger – off topic I know- but I think the reason to be on Slugger is to confront republicans and fight it out verbally with them; destroying their analysis and discomforting them. On slugger engagement is not the aim: intellectual combat is a more appropriate way of looking at it. I know I am biased but I think unionists usually win on that score.

      • Framer says:

        I would not say unionists usually win Turgon. There are fewer of them on Slugger and they are not as persistent as extreme nationalists. This is especially true when discussing past violence.

        Unionists may present better and calmer arguments and be assisted by some moderates but we do not necessarily win and probably have the most minimal effect on our opponents’ views.

        If you can enrage them it may be useful but remember MOPEs are incessant. Irish nationalism has rarely come off worse in any argument with the wider world and knows screeching ultimately overwhelms.

        I believe much more effort should be put into Wikipedia which is permanent and non-ephemeral.

        Republicans have the higher ground in most Irish articles and again the persistence, but incremental achievements can be made.

  2. oneill says:

    “The Agreement, however, demolished Thatcher in the eyes of many unionists, though there still seems to be a lingering wish to feel that she was somehow tricked into the agreement by the perfidious behaviour of the Irish or indeed the Foreign Office.”

    Another factor worth mentioning re Thatcher’s apparent easy surrender was the murder of Airey Neave by Republicans 6 years previously and also the deliberate sidelining of her PPS, Ian Gow, in the period before the AIA. If either man, both fine Unionists, had been allowed to play the role they should have been, the perhaps history may have played out differently.

    25 years on and even before the recent “Eiremageddon”, it’s a moot point whether the Unionist cause is in a stronger or weaker position today than at the time of the agreement. I think probably the former as there is now a realisation that regardless of whatever role the ROI may play on the periphery of our affairs, there is no appetite either side of the border for the results which “Unity” may bring.

    Re Slugger and the online battle generally. It’s a fact that’s often forgotten that the readership of blogs like Slugger is much, much higher than the number of people who bother to comment, something like 35,000 I think Mick once said.

    So, “convincing” or “engaging” Republicans is not why Unionists should get involved- making sure the message is got out there to as many “uncommitteds” and “neutrals” as possible is much more important. Put up a post, correct any factual errors or downright lies which follow but generally give your opponents the space to make themselves look like idiots when they rant and rave at your opinion. They also generally forget which audience is the target market.

    Wiki is a an area which could be tackled much more methodically by Unionists, time and manpower are the two obvious limitations but selective “strikes” could have an effect.

  3. Turgon says:

    o’neill,
    Thank you for that. I always wonder what effect Neave would have had on Thatcher in government. She left relatively few of her ministers in one post for a prolonged period but he might well have had resulted in a more unionist effect. I suspect she knew and cared relatively little on the detail of Northern Ireland; in stark contrast to Neave.

    There are a number of people who were murdered and one always thinks what if they had survived: Edgar Graham, Roy Bradford. On a slightly different issue Norman Tebitt’s contribution might have been different had his wife not been paralysed (not that I am a hard right Tory by any means). There are also those who died far too young like Harold McCusker. I suppose we will never know.

  4. slug says:

    “. In spite of this defeat Molyneaux seemed inclined to try to persist with the strategy of staying close to the Conservative government, a strategy he promoted to a greater extent with John Major. Despite Molyneaux’s assertions in public (and even more so in party circles) that he had the PM’s ear, in 1995 the government came out with British Irish joint deceleration. Whilst that was just after Molyneaux had retired as leader it was fairly clear that he had had less influence in shaping government thinking than he had claimed he was having.”

    I would query this.

    I think of John Major as someone who would always think about the unionist position in any negotiations that took place. The events 1993-1997 seemed to bring due respect to the unionist position. The Triple Lock, the reponse to the ceasefire breakdown, the holding of Elections to the NI Forum, were all things that seemed to put republican demands in a unionist context.

    The “Framework Documents” were almost a complete irrelevancy. I think they were a sign of how pushy Dublin Foreign Office was still was at that time and they were the final hurrah for them. But it bore little relationship to what was agreed.

  5. […] Open Unionism, in a post entitled “Reflections on the Anglo-Irish Agreement,” Turgon articulates the mainstream unionist view of the agreement. He recalls the sense of […]

  6. […] Open Unionism, in a post entitled “Reflections on the Anglo-Irish Agreement,” Turgon articulates the mainstream unionist view of the agreement. He recalls the sense of […]

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