Distant deal paved way to pack up Troubles
Media coverage of State papers from 1985 this week provided a window into the way we were 30 years ago.
Politics is lived very much in the present but can quickly turn to history even in a short time. The papers released were also a throwback to the days of ludicrously regressive contraceptive laws, moving statues and the sorry saga of the Kerry babies case. Archive photos brought back grainy images of the bad old days of Catholic Ireland, bad hairstyles and unfortunate moustaches.
It was also a year when Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' produced 58 murders, a tragic state of affairs which had sadly become normalised on both islands. The previous year, the IRA had bombed the Tory party conference in Brighton, killing five of the British prime minister's close colleagues and injuring many more. The situation in the North looked bleak.
But behind the scenes, and shrouded in secrecy, work had intensified at official and political level during that year to draw together the parameters of a new Anglo Irish Agreement relating to the North.
The previous year, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had endured the humiliation of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's "Out, out, out" dismissal of the three options proposed in the New Ireland Forum Report.
But now, after feverish diplomacy and for the first time, the Republic was in November 1985 conceded a formal consultative role in the affairs of the six counties through the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and an Irish secretariat at Maryfield. The British government accepted that there could be a united Ireland but only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, while the Irish government accepted continued partition as long as the people of the North wished to remain in the UK. The principle of consent was fundamental to the deal; there was also to be enhanced cross-border cooperation on legal, security and political issues as they arose.
Garrett FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher, guided ably by their senior diplomats - memorably described as a "galaxy of skills" by British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe - had crafted the agreement, which was registered as an international treaty at the United Nations. The accord was to prove controversial, particularly because it excluded unionists in its making which caused furore in Northern Ireland. It also provoked negative reaction from Fianna Fáil in the Republic by the opposition of Charles J Haughey, who unhelpfully played the green card by holding on to the united Ireland mantra. Mary Harney parted company with Fianna Fáil because of its rejection of the agreement to join Des O'Malley in the fledgling new party the Progressive Democrats. O'Malley himself had been expelled for "conduct unbecoming" by refusing to vote against liberalising the availability of contraceptives.
The background to this new departure as represented in the Anglo Irish Agreement can be traced back to principles honed over many years by nationalist leader John Hume and his colleagues in the SDLP. According to Hume, the three essential principles to a solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland were a rejection of violence, that Irish unity could only be achieved with the consent of the majority, and that nationalism was a legitimate political ideology and aspiration for the minority in Northern Ireland, which could be advanced by political means in a power-sharing government.
Hume, over many years, had preached his theory with such repetition and conviction that the term 'Hume speak' was attributed to his approach. Hume used his position as an MP and MEP to influence opinion makers in Brussels, the House of Commons and the US Senate. His non-violent dogma was at variance of course with the armed strategy of Sinn Féin/IRA, who continued to wage what they deemed a war against the occupying British presence in Northern Ireland. Thatcher was a notoriously bellicose British nationalist who had taken a very hard line with the IRA hunger strikes only four years earlier, and regarded Northern Ireland "as British as Finchley".
So, the agreement was a political surprise and viewed as a fundamental shift in British policy. Margaret Thatcher, at the time and subsequently, felt the pressure was all on the British side and feared she was conceding too much given the white heat of unionist opposition. For the Irish side, it was clearly a significant advance to win a formal role in the affairs of Northern Ireland taking precedence over the unionist veto which had scuppered earlier hopes of a new beginning for Northern nationalists.
The SDLP and the Alliance were fully on board and supportive, with Seamus Mallon in particular reported to be emotional and enthusiastic. He pledged to support the pact, despite the fact that Fianna Fáil had despatched Brian Lenihan to Washington to advocate against it, oddly aligning his party with other rejectionists like republicans and unionists. Lenihan reportedly got short shrift; Hume had got to the Americans first. Irish America followed through with financial support via the Ireland Funds. The agreement, according to former Ambassador Sean O'Huiginn, was an important staging post in Hume's project to "retro-fit" the 1920s arrangements and to provide a "more sustainable compromise between nationalism and unionism".
As predicted, unionists reacted with outrage, prompting the infamous "Never, never, never" speech by Paisley at Belfast City Hall. But like it or not, the two governments had laid down a serious marker.
From then on, the intergovernmental relationship would take precedence over the feud between two communities in Northern Ireland. The accord turned out to be unboycotable despite the best efforts of enraged unionists.
That British-Irish unity of purpose was perhaps the agreement's most enduring feature. Intergovernmental systems and protocols and a shared project of building peace had been established, which would grow steadily through successive administrations. The Anglo Irish Agreement was the beginning of the end of the old quarrel between the two countries.
More than anything, the comprehensive settlement reached in 1998 ending the conflict in Northern Ireland and putting in place the framework for the peace we now enjoy was the product of two governments of one mind.
Peace came dropping slowly, with many setbacks on the way. It took 30 years for all the diverse players to shift from previously fixed positions with incompatible ideologies to a longed-for compromise between nationalism and unionism. Too many lives were needlessly lost in the interim; that is the heavy toll of our recent history. Those who gave so much to build peace such as Hume, Mallon and Garret FitzGerald, through negotiation rather than violence, are too often overlooked as the true patriots of the modern age.