1985 State Papers: Anglo-Irish deal paved the way for an eventual peace
The agreement was a foot in the door for the Republic and a much-needed wake-up call for unionists, writes John Downing
Published 31/12/2015 | 02:30
David Hanson died at 10.20am on November 15, 1985. Three hours later, Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough, little more than 40 miles away.
The 25-year-old unmarried man, who lived in Lisburn and had a long life ahead of him, was killed by a 300-pound IRA bomb detonated on high ground, close to Crossmaglen in south Armagh. It was just a mile from the border with Monaghan.
The timing meant that the death of the RUC man got far more publicity than the atrocities which afflicted all sides, as the horrific and recurring spiral of violence continued in the North, with frequent fall-out and growing pressure in the Republic and in Britain.
But the horror that was "the North" had also dulled many people's senses and their innate survival instincts often diverted their attention to things more palatable. By extension, many Irish people did not take too much notice of the Anglo Irish Agreement. At the time, few people believed it would change things.
The 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which brought non-stop murder and maiming, had reached a point in 1985 where the London news organisations told reporters who called in about incidents in which someone had been wounded to "send us a paragraph if he dies".
This almost involuntary distancing continues. We still euphemistically call that nightmare "The Troubles".
So what was the Anglo Irish Agreement that we now hear some much detail about 30 years on? Was it any good then and has been it any use since?
And how does it line up in terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement?
The grim statistics tell us that the year 1985 led to a total of 58 murders. All of those killings were, always and everywhere, murders.
By now, the widely accepted global view is that no human being - whatever their age, station, or authority conferred upon them - has the right to extinguish another human life. Interestingly, this view was endorsed 50 years ago by none other than the War of Independence IRA freedom fighter Dan Breen, who publicly agreed that all killings, on all sides, including the ones he did himself, were "murder".
But let us not digress too far in these thoughts.
The year 1985 was in the "middle of the middle" for horror and murder in Ireland's more recent Troubles. If you go back to 1972, almost 500 people were slaughtered; in 1976 the murder toll was 308 people. We could go on comparing years - but that's not the point.
The reality is that 1985 was ultimately significant because of the attempt to stop the horror. And it is interesting to note who was there at the talks table - and who was not. Present were the Dublin and London Governments and the SDLP and Alliance Parties.
Absent were the Provisional IRA and their brothers and sisters in Sinn Féin, who in the following year of 1986, would end a 64-year charade and deign to acknowledge that the Dáil and Seanad were real democratic institutions worthy of their participation. But they were still on the slow incomplete march to ballots only, no armalites.
Absent also were the whole the plethora of Ulster unionist parties and political groups. Their absence harked back to the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, which set up a short-lived Belfast power-sharing administration, and which also attempted to promote more consultation between Dublin and Belfast via a 'Council of Ireland', which echoed the 1920s and the start of partition.
That did not work in the 1920s - and it did not work in the mid-1970s.
Mainstream unionists had, however, taken a risk on that one, only for the process to be ousted by violent unionist street action in 1974. By November 1985, all strands of unionism were fretfully watching from the sidelines and getting ready to say 'No' to what would emerge.
But what did emerge was clever and effective - even though its effects took quite some time to deliver real results on the streets. The deal itself contained 12 clauses in all.
There were two significant and enduring points. Firstly, the Anglo Irish Agreement was registered at the United Nations, giving it international recognition - of itself taking "the North" beyond the realms of Britain's "internal affairs".
Secondly, it conceded for the first time ever, a role for the Dublin Government in the affairs of the six counties of Ulster that had been lost to the United Kingdom in 1920.
There was to be an Inter-Governmental Conference, headed by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary and Dublin's Minister for Foreign Affairs. It would promote relatively non-contentious things like cross-border co-operation. But it also dealt with security, which took in policing, police complaints, and prisoner complaints.
Bear in mind that this was four years after the 10 republican prisoners died on hunger strike in the North - another horror which convulsed the nation in all corners of the island.
What was really good, then and now, was that it delivered a wake-up call to northern unionists.
Yes, it acknowledged that a majority in Northern Ireland would have to back any change to its status within the United Kingdom.
This had, in theory, been disputed by nationalists North and South, who argued that the six-county North was an artificial construct which respected neither historical nor geographic divisions.
That realpolitik by the Republic was a long overdue acknowledgement to unionism.
But by the end of November 1985, the Oireachtas had approved it. More importantly, so too had Britain's House of Commons, by a vote of 473 to 47 MPs, which was surely a clue about the view from the "other island".
Unionists' recurring anxiety - that they were not always significant to London's workings - was once more at play.
More worryingly, the unionists' friends appeared to be Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fáil, hardly the most reliable supporter, since he was perennially against Garret FitzGerald's government of the day.
There was also idealistic support from a then-marginal figure, but future president, Mary Robinson, who was genuinely solicitous of unionists' rights.
There was not much other support. Margaret Thatcher had taken a very pragmatic view. Some republicans would subsequently claim that the IRA bomb at her Conservative Party conference in October 1984 drove results here.
Others would reflect that the IRA's "all-or-nothing" approach to these issues, always and everywhere, would of itself yield nothing. It was a lesson Sinn Féin yet had to learn from John Hume and the SDLP.
John Hume's long-time deputy, Séamus Mallon, would later dub this entire syndrome "Sunningdale for slow learners." It was the astute conclusion that there were many opportunities to use dialogue to resolve the North's problems without resorting to killing and violent destruction.
The most interesting and persistent thing to emerge from the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which really only became apparent over the ensuing years, was the creation of a Dublin government administration secretariat in Belfast. It was originally based in a besieged building, dubbed the "Maryfield Bunker", on the fringes of Belfast.
In another straw in the wind of so-called "normalisation", it was re-located to a more salubrious address in Belfast and then became the focus of over-spending on offices, furniture and fittings. This was a small move towards "normal politics".
The bigger outcome was that it all went ahead in spite of unionist opposition and that of its mirage-image in Sinn Féin.
Above all else, it was a huge stepping stone to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In fact, that could not have happened without the significant staging post that was the Anglo Irish Agreement.
An unremarked flaw in the process was the use of terms. This was happily and helpfully remedied in the 1998 deal, which used the terms "British" and "Irish" - rather than "Anglo-Irish" - thus including our Welsh and Scottish neighbours to help emphasise solutions based on the group of islands in the northwest of Europe.
Everything about all of this has taken so many years and so many lives. Four hundred years before Christopher Columbus was questing discoveries, we were immersed in conflict. Perhaps it is progress to record that a 1985 deal led to relatively positive results.
It is all poor comfort to the family of David Hanson and so many others. But these events of November 1985 were hugely significant.