Belfast Telegraph

British Government knew Anglo-Irish Agreement would stir up a storm

Memos reveal warnings about Agreement that sparked 'Ulster Says No' campaign

By Adrian Rutherford

The British Government signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement 30 years ago despite being told it could create more problems than it might solve, after desperate officials concluded that any deal was better than none.

The warnings are contained in previously classified papers from the days before the signing of the landmark accord in 1985.

The Agreement was the single most important development in Anglo-Irish relations since 1920, granting the Republic a formal role in Northern Ireland for the first time since partition.

But it sparked fury amongst unionists, who accused Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of treachery.

Newly-released files shed fresh light on the tense negotiations behind the scenes as the British and Irish governments edged closer to a deal.

The once-secret documents are published for the first time today under the 30-year rule.

Every year since 1976 official papers held by the Public Record Office in Northern Ireland have been opened. Today marks the release of 1985 files.

One memo, prepared for Secretary of State Tom King ahead of a key Cabinet meeting in London on October 31, advised that the "balance of advantage" lay in proceeding with a deal, but said the margin was "a relatively fine one".

The meeting came a fortnight before the Agreement was eventually signed on November 15, 1985.

Officials advised that failure would be a worse option.

One civil servant wrote: "To abandon an agreement now would return us to the dangerously negative situation from which we sought to escape when we opened negotiations with the Irish. Because we would have to admit public failure and would attract much opprobrium from Dublin, the Northern Ireland minority and overseas, we would be even worse off than before."

The memo also warned failure could hand a boost to Sinn Fein and the IRA. It stated: "Not to proceed with the Agreement would deprive us of any credible policy in Northern Ireland."

However, the note warned there was "a fine balance" to an agreement. "It may not deliver enough to nationalists to satisfy them. It may nevertheless offend many unionists deeply; and by institutionalising the Irish Government's role as spokesman for and protector of the minority, it risks reinforcing division rather than encouraging reconciliation," it added.

In the weeks leading up to the agreement there had been repeated warnings about the consequences.

A briefing paper for a meeting between Mrs Thatcher and Mr King on October 29 discussed the potential for disruption.

"On the unionist side there will be a great deal of rhetoric and probably large scale street protests; there will be withdrawal from local government and possibly even from European or Westminster parliamentary seats to force a referendum," it said.

In a letter to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, dated October 4 1985, Mrs Thatcher stresses the importance in how the agreement is presented to the unionist community.

"You will understand why we are anxious, as you will also be, to do all we can to make it possible for them to acquiesce in it – we cannot expect more – and to avoid provoking the sort of violent reaction which would wreck the chances of achieving what both you and I are hoping to achieve," she wrote.

Serious reservations had also been expressed by Mr King, who served as Secretary of State here between 1985 and 1989.

In a note to the Prime Minister on September 27, he warned: "I have to say, with some reluctance, that the Agreement as it now stands strikes me as offering considerably more to the Irish than it does to us. It will certainly be so perceived by the unionists."

The then head of the Civil Service, Ken Bloomfield, also warned the Agreement as it stood in its final drafts was "fundamentally flawed, by reason of its ambiguity, its one-sidedness, and above all the grave risk that it will serve to destabilise rather than to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland".

Background

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 gave the Republic a formal say in Northern Ireland for the first time. Catholics felt it made little difference while Protestants were bitterly resentful of its existence. By the mid-1990s the two communities were as polarised as ever. However, it strengthened ties between London and Dublin, paving the way for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and eventual peace.

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