Anglo Irish Agreement signed
The ever changing dynamics of Northern Ireland’s Troubles grew ever more precarious in the 80s. The Provisional IRA had long since taken their bombing campaign to the British mainland, creating a new climate of fear, leading to heightened security measures, new legislation, and moreover a greater need for the bloodshed to end.
Back in the province, the Loyalists were industrious in their own campaign of terror, and on 14th March 1984, very nearly assassinated Gerry Adams . A more spectacular event that momentarily distracted them from their day-to-day business of sectarian murder. The only way this could possibly end was through dialogue. Politics, however, were buried under the rubble of another bombed-out bar, or forgotten after a slew of
Margaret Thatcher ’s Conservative government were slow to comprehend the subtleties of the Northern Ireland problem. With her stout dismissal of ‘the blanket’ protests in the Maze Prison, and the deaths of 10 IRA hungerstrikers in 1981 , Thatcher had played her hand. She would not blink in the face of the IRA’s campaign. But rather than seeking an end to the conflict through more constructive channels like negotiation, the government sought containment. Republican militarism was criminalised, rather than politicised. The RUC were expanded, and the covert ‘twilight war’ was just about to begin. With MI5 tapping telephones, paramilitaries being used as informers, containment was working. At least, the statistics suggested so.
Sinn Féin’s role as the political arm of the Provisional IRA was more expansive. Certainly, the death of Bobby Sands , leader of the hungerstrikers, had helped politicise the movement, having been elected to parliament after winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. Sinn Féin were eating into the SDLP’s majority share of the nationalist vote; and that was of great concern to both the Irish Taoiseach, Dr Garrett Fitzgerald, and the British government.
The New Ireland Forum was launched to try and navigate a way through the crisis. But, with the Unionists choosing not to participate and engage the forum, there were obvious doubts over what could be achieved. Their mistrust of the Irish government a telling factor. The NIF’s conclusions highlighted the need for some sort of constitutional debate.
Unfortunately, one of the most rigid parties in discussions was Thatcher – she rejected all of the options, citing that it was an erosion of British sovereignty. Her ‘Out, out, out’ speech decried the forum’s conclusion and chilled Anglo-Irish relations. If Thatcher was not going to be charmed by the Irish, the logic from Dublin was she’d listen to Washington. Sean Donlon, Irish Ambassador to Washington, had contacts in the States that could put some pressure on the British government. Reagan, hitherto one of Thatcher’s closest allies, chose to bring up the importance of both cross-party dialogue and the Republic of Ireland’s influence to help resolve Northern Ireland’s many ills.
Unlikely as it was after Thatcher’s initial reaction, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. Much to the unionist’s disgust. Ian Paisley ’s response was typically histrionic, bringing the maximum of brimstone to the narrowest of rhetoric. Throughout the unionist movement, the prime minister was heavily criticised. They (wrongly) assumed that this was a dilution of British sovereignty, opening the door for a united Ireland and victory for the republicans. In theory, the agreement was the perfect compromise: both loyalists and republicans were disappointed.
The loyalist’s grip was the agreement’s insistence that Northern Ireland will remain British for as long as the majority of its people desired so – this, they argued, allowed for the possibility of a British withdrawal. But, as the IRA and Sinn Féin well knew, this gesture from the British undermined the whole ethos of their campaign, that the question of a united Ireland was not one that the British government would determine; that would be, and always was, the people of Northern Ireland’s decision. Politics would have to replace the bomb at some stage.
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