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.
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.