Belfast Telegraph

The long and winding road that led to peace

Official papers from 1980 reveal that it was a watershed year in Anglo-Irish relations. It paved the way for the peace process, argues David McKittrick

Some optimists dared to hope that 1980 would mark a positive turning point in the Troubles, since it was a year when the IRA suffered a major reverse with an unsuccessful hunger strike within the Maze prison.

A Government political initiative aimed at excluding extremist elements and building a settlement based on the more moderate and centrist parties came to nothing.

But the fact that the death toll fell to 86 - the lowest in 10 years - created the hope that the security forces were slowly prevailing over both violent republican and loyalist groups. It was, therefore, a year of comparative calm.

But it turned out to be the calm before the storm of 1981, when the death of 10 republicans on hunger strike produced convulsions which galvanised both the IRA and Sinn Fein and brought even deeper community divisions.

In political terms, the first half of 1980 featured a conference on devolution staged by the then Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, on the orders of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

This never looked like going anywhere, principally because of the disapproving attitudes of the Irish government and what were then the two largest Northern Ireland parties, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

UUP leader James Molyneaux privately opposed devolution, preferring instead to aim for integration with Britain. John Hume's SDLP, meanwhile, objected to London's insistence that any new arrangement would not include an Irish dimension.

But once these talks fizzled out, an unlikely new initiative emerged, with Mrs Thatcher getting together with Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who famously charmed her with the personal gift of an elegant Georgian teapot.

Mrs Thatcher was interested in a closer Anglo-Irish relationship, partly in the hope of closer cross-border security co-operation. But she was enraged when Haughey suggested, absurdly, that a process had begun which could eventually lead towards Irish unity.

One of those who witnessed the next Thatcher-Haughey meeting said of it: "She couldn't speak coherently, she was in such a rage."

This meant that, in the space of one year - 1980 - the rival ideas of an internal Northern Ireland settlement, or a new north-south arrangement, were both dealt major blows.

These twin setbacks emphasised that, in spite of the decline in violence, a political vacuum existed. And, as so often, the vacuum was partly filled by the activities of violent groups.

On the loyalist side, the Ulster Defence Association expanded its activities from random attacks on Catholics to killing a number of prominent nationalist and republican figures.

Most of these were prominent in campaigns supporting IRA and INLA inmates of the Maze prison at Long Kesh. They had for several years been waging protests against official efforts to treat them the same as non-paramilitary prisoners.

As it became clear that their activities were receiving little support beyond the republican community, in 1980 republicans escalated their activities with a hunger strike intended to force Mrs Thatcher into conceding their demands.

Ironically - given the gains that republicans were to make from the 1981 hunger strike - Gerry Adams has since recorded that he wrote to the prisoners to say that the republican leadership 'are tactically, strategically, physically and morally opposed to a hunger strike'.

But it went ahead, only to end in confusion and essentially defeat for the republicans when the prisoners called it off without winning concessions from Mrs Thatcher. She was determined not to bend, viewing the prison confrontation as one 'between good and evil, democracy and terrorism'.

The IRA leader who directed the 1980 hunger strike, Bobby Sands, is said to have reported after it ended: "We got nothing." Its collapse may have persuaded Mrs Thatcher that IRA prisoners would ultimately back away when faced with almost certain death.

But Sands and nine others went to their deaths the following year, giving the IRA fresh martyrs and fresh impetus. The IRA and Sinn Fein received surges of support. Garret FitzGerald, who had succeeded Haughey as Taoiseach, was alarmed by this, and persuaded Mrs Thatcher that a joint London-Dublin approach was needed to keep the men of violence at bay.

He offered not a teapot, but detailed negotiations, and Mrs Thatcher, convinced of his sincerity, signed up for the far-reaching Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

The IRA made efforts to step up its violence, but its leaders were simultaneously intrigued by the sight of London being prepared to face down loyalist protests against nationalist involvement in government.

London, meanwhile, made further attempts to put together a centrist settlement which would exclude republicans, while also searching for a security solution, but these made little progress. Secret exploratory talks with republicans went on for years, but eventually crystallised into the compromises on which today's peace process is based.

In the end it was an Anglo-Irish approach, coupled with the inclusion of Sinn Fein, which prevailed.

Bobby Sands almost certainly never thought, as he went to his death, that the conflict would conclude with republicans in a Northern Ireland government. He would surely have been amazed at the sight of Sinn Fein ministers grappling with issues such as a water crisis.

But then Mrs Thatcher, who had vowed that "the government will never concede political status to the hunger strikers'', could never have envisaged that the hunger strike would have been part of the long and winding road which led to today's settlement.


From Belfast Telegraph