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The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: an insider’s account

Martin Mansergh on the posthumous memoir from British diplomat David Goodall who worked on the historic deal that paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement

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Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 with NI Secretary Tom King (centre) and Tánaiste Dick Spring (left)

Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 with NI Secretary Tom King (centre) and Tánaiste Dick Spring (left)

The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall

The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall

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Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 with NI Secretary Tom King (centre) and Tánaiste Dick Spring (left)

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, predecessor of the Good Friday Agreement, remains important. It formalised, as British diplomat Robin Renwick wrote, a degree of joint responsibility of the British and Irish governments for Northern Ireland, which continues to this day. Because it affected the political dynamic, the Anglo-Irish Agreement made democratic politics for nationalists more credible, and was seized on by John Hume as a springboard into the peace process.

This memoir, edited by Frank Sheridan, provides valuable British testimony as to how the agreement came into being. Diplomat David Goodall was a member of the British civil service team that negotiated the deal signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald in Hillsborough in November 1985.

During the lead-in, Goodall worked first on secondment as deputy secretary in the Cabinet Office, and then from mid-1984 as deputy under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, working to the secretary of state Geoffrey Howe.

Goodall kept a detailed diary, which he worked up into a memoir, deposited in the library at Churchill College, Cambridge. Highlights were used by Charles Moore in his monumental biography of Thatcher. The National University of Ireland has published the full memoir, with permission of Goodall’s widow Morwenna, and with a foreword by NUI Chancellor Dr Maurice Manning.

There are also contributions from leading Irish negotiator Michael Lillis; former British ambassador to Washington Robin Renwick; Thatcher’s diplomatic adviser Charles Powell; and political journalist Stephen Collins.

As chairman of the British-Irish Association, Goodall became well known to most people working on Northern Ireland. He was good-humoured, thoughtful and courteous, but focused. Though British, he had mixed religious Wexford ancestry.

Goodall describes the negativity in the North’s civil service (and much of official Britain) in the early 1980s: “The Republic was of minimal interest, systems being different and standards seen as lower.” It was “clearly thought of as the poor, small second-class state to the south”.

While senior officials like cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong were more sympathetic, even Goodall thought that “the long-term aim should be to bring the whole island of Ireland freely back into some closer relationship with England, Scotland and Wales”. However, it was wishful thinking that any of Ireland’s negotiators thought that “a much closer relationship, analogous in some ways to Home Rule, was a desirable possibility in the long run”.

Taoisigh were expected to make urgent progress on Northern Ireland. FitzGerald’s objective was to end nationalist ‘alienation’. Ending alienation required securing a fair hearing for nationalists, introducing reforms that would create a more level playing field, and providing a viable basis for nationalist governmental engagement. In exploratory conversations between Lillis and Goodall, the possibility of constitutional change to Articles 2 and 3 was held out, in exchange for cross-border policing and courts, and what could be presented as close to joint authority, as derived from the New Ireland Forum Report.

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Thatcher had only a limited interest in Ireland, with a positive distaste going back to Irish wartime neutrality. She sought tougher security co-operation and to yield nothing on sovereignty, except that she would have happily been rid of parts of south Armagh. Much of Goodall’s account is about how British officials manoeuvred to hold on to her grudging acquiescence in their efforts. She could be impossible. What she said was often not fit to be recorded.

Howe, to whom she was habitually rude, would send notes to Goodall at meetings, asking plaintively: “Are we winning?” That said, she eventually signed up, despite rearguard efforts by Northern Ireland secretary Tom King and his English officials, and she stood over an agreement for which she had little enthusiasm, against waves of unionist protest. She admitted later that it helped her with Ronald Reagan.

The Irish side obtained the right to make an input into British decision-making through dedicated institutions, including an actively led secretariat in Maryfield. Constitutional change had to await the Good Friday Agreement. Joint authority, overriding the unionist veto, even if it had been politically feasible, would have placed intolerable strain on British-Irish relations. It also risked ceding ownership of Irish unity to the republican movement. Any peace settlement had to be inclusive, both of unionists and republicans (once committed to non-violence), even if the alternative, direct rule plus the Anglo-Irish Agreement, was a seductive model.

Casting Charles Haughey as bogeyman probably strengthened the Irish negotiating hand. Stephen Collins makes no reference to his role in the genesis of the peace process. Curiously, Goodall, no fan of Sinn Féin’s subsequent political inclusion, concludes with Howe’s myopic observation that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was probably as much as could be done “for this generation”.

Politics: The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall
Published by the National University of Ireland, 244 pages, hardcover €31.50

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The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall

The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall

The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall


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