Belfast Telegraph

A terrible beauty was born out of agreement

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough accord. Destruction and death followed, but it was a vital step to peace, argues David McKittrick

It was an unforgettable sight: tens of thousands of Protestants streaming towards Belfast City Hall to express their shock and anger that Margaret Thatcher had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Garret FitzGerald.

When a grim-faced Ian Paisley rose to proclaim that he would "never, never, never" tolerate Dublin interference, he was cheered by 100,000 people, all in complete agreement with him.

Their sense of abandonment was palpable, for Westminster had changed partners, putting relations with Dublin before relations with unionism.

Unionists objected not just to the actual text, but also to what one Protestant clergyman referred to as "all the stuff in there between the lines".

Words such as treachery, betrayal and sell-out echoed around Belfast. The months and years that followed saw attempts at a unionist fightback, but although the campaign was determined, it was not well organised and was ultimately unsuccessful.

Normal politics ground to a halt. Unionist MPs - most of them voluntarily serving prison sentences for refusing to pay taxes - refused to speak to British ministers. There were many demonstrations and boycotts in an anti-Agreement campaign which lasted for years. Some of it went far beyond the political: there were many Protestant riots and a rise in loyalist assassinations of Catholics.

Groups such as the UDA also systematically targeted the police, attacking more than 500 police homes and forcing 150 officers to move house. Secretary of State Tom King was physically attacked, while a one-day general strike was marked by widespread intimidation.

Peter Robinson predicted confrontations with the security forces, demanding: "What is Mrs Thatcher going to do after she has shot the first thousand unionists in the streets of Belfast?"

Through all the protests the Agreement remained in place, Margaret Thatcher demonstrating that the lady was not for turning. Though taken back by the reaction, she stuck to the theory underpinning the accord - that London and Dublin had a common goal, which was stability.

Yet the Agreement produced not greater stability, but greater trouble.

In its wake came death, destruction and greatly increased polarisation: it was a hugely destabilising event in the Troubles.

Why did Mrs Thatcher do it? It was partly because the republican hunger-strikes of 1981 had sent a new surge of energy and support into the IRA and Sinn Fein, alarming both governments.

She was, of course, primarily security-oriented. According to one of her ministers: "It was this point that always drove Margaret most strongly - security, success against the men of violence, was her main preoccupation."

Garret FitzGerald, by contrast, took a more political point of view, worrying that Sinn Fein's combination of "the Armalite and the ballot-box" could de-stabilise both parts of Ireland.

He pressed the need to address nationalist "alienation", so much that Mrs Thatcher would cry, "I do wish you would stop using that dreadful word, Garret."

The Agreement was welcomed by constitutional nationalists, led by John Hume, who felt it recognised their Irishness while spelling out to unionists that they could not exercise a veto over British policy.

But while the focus was almost entirely on the unionist reaction, the accord can be viewed as crucial in setting the scene for the peace process that would later develop.

The republican movement publicly denounced it as an anti-insurgency initiative. Under the surface, however, Sinn Fein and the IRA mulled over the deeper meaning of what was clearly a major departure in British policy.

The IRA's campaign of violence went on, but so too did internal debates. For one thing, the accord undermined the antiquated IRA assertion that it was fighting an anti-colonial war: suddenly the supposed imperialist power had acted in a way which was difficult to portray in an imperialist light.

Even as the IRA escalated its violence in the late-1980s, Sinn Fein put out feelers and began to talk of peace. At least part of this was because the Agreement suggested even a British prime minister as tough as Mrs Thatcher could show flexibility.

In the years that followed, London and Dublin had many disputes, but the underlying sense that they remained in pursuit of the common goal of stability survived.

In 1985, the idea of the peace process seemed unthinkable and the idea of today's new culture of compromise seemed off the radar screen.

Back then, the very word 'agreement' seemed outside the realm of practical politics.

The Agreement itself initially increased divisions and to start with produced commotion in politics and on the streets. Yet in the end it proved durable, providing a solid platform for the progress that followed in its wake: it was the first of the big agreements.

A total of 250 people died in the three years after it was signed. Today Sinn Fein no longer talks about seizing power with Armalites and today the Rev Ian Paisley pays regular visits to the south, which is clearly no longer never-never land for him.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a bold move which produced much disruption and turmoil, but looking back over the course of the Troubles, it may be seen as a vital step on the long road to peace.

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