NI’s top civil servants warned against ‘fatally flawed’ Anglo-Irish Agreement

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield with Margaret Thatcher.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield with Margaret Thatcher.

Government files declassified under the 20-year-rule show that the then head of the Civil Service — and the NIO’s top official — repeatedly expressed profound reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the period leading up to the accord being signed.

Sir Ken Bloomfield was one of the very few people in Northern Ireland aware of what was happening between the two Governments and, unlike the vast majority of those involved in the negotiations, he was from the Province and therefore understood some of the potential ramifications.

Several internal memos show that what Sir Ken wrote in his book ‘A Tragedy of Errors: The Government and Misgovernment of Northern Ireland’ about his view of the agreement was in line with his internally-stated views at the time.

In the book, Sir Ken said that it was his opinion that “the entire process was deeply flawed. Although it was perfectly clear to everyone that the Irish Government at every stage would be careful to keep in step with John Hume and the SDLP, the British Government accepted no matching obligation to keep unionist parties in touch.”

One ‘secret and personal’ internal memo from Sir Ken sent on 25 September said: “I would urge most strongly [underlined] that, in view of the prospect of early and definitive decisions by ministers, the Secretary of State should have an opportunity of hearing the views of Northern Ireland Permanent Secretaries at first hand before any definitive further meeting with ministerial colleagues takes place...I believe this group of colleagues - with their diverse background and experience - to be capable of providing the Secretary of State with an impression of possible reaction which he is unlikely to obtain so completely or directly from any other source.”

Sir Ken said that the NIO’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Robert Andrew, had been “good enough to afford me an opportunity from time to time as negotiations proceeded to express views on various matters”.

But he added: “I am not satisfied that those views - with many of which I know PUS himself to be in agreement - have had any substantial influence upon the conduct of the negotiations on the British side. Nor have I had an opportunity to discuss the matter in any detail either with the Secretary of State or his predecessor.”

Writing bluntly, Sir Ken went on: “I would wish it to be clear that I share the view expressed by a number of colleagues that the Agreement as drafted is 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.”

On the same day, Sir Robert, the NIO’s permanent secretary, wrote to the Secretary of State. The note, which was also marked ‘secret and personal’, said: “As you are aware from my submission of 6 September, I have considerable reservations about the Agreement as it is now drafted.

“These were reinforced by my discussion with the Permanent Secretaries of the Northern Ireland departments...”

Just over a month later, Sir Ken sent another ‘secret and personal’ note to Sir Robert.

Mr Bloomfield expressed concern about a paper to be submitted to Cabinet which described the proposed agreement as “unquestionably in the national interest” and which suggested that unionists would likely come round to the idea after initially reacting with fury.

He said: “That is not my view of the situation. Although we are likely to go through a bumpy period in the months immediately following any agreement, I am confident that we can see our way through these difficulties with resolution.

“My doubts about the agreement (which have been tempered but not allayed by some recent progress in amending and clarifying sensitive points) are of quite another kind.

“They are first, that the agreement will not deliver enough to the nationalists by way of radical change in the things they make a fuss about to secure (for example) their tacit support at least for the forces of law and order, but will nevertheless deeply alienate the unionists.

“Second, and fundamentally, that the institutionalisation of an Irish Government role as protector of minority interests is likely, in the longer term to reinforce division rather than to facilitate reconciliation.”

Sir Ken, who was one of the senior civil service veterans of the failed Sunningdale government in 1974, went on in his withering assessment of the proposed accord: “Even from an Irish point of view, such an agreement sits very oddly alongside the classic aspiration to unite ‘Catholic, Protestant and dissenter’.

“We are in a position to let ministers know how the draft agreement strikes the British and Irish Governments who will be parties to it, and how the SDLP, who have been kept fully briefed by the Irish, may react. References to possible unionist reactions are more hypothetical.

“At this stage the only group of people with deep roots in Northern Ireland who have been able to see the text are myself and my senior colleagues.

“I do not think that the Cabinet should commit itself finally to an agreement without being aware that that group has expressed very serious reservations about the effect of such an agreement.”

As he concluded the measured missive, Sir Ken delivered a blunt message to both Whitehall civil servants and ministers who had overseen the negotiations.

He said: “It is extraordinary, in my view, that we should have got to this stage in crucial negotiations about the future of Northern Ireland without those in the Cabinet and Foreign Offices who have been driving the negotiations forward knowing, or seeking to find out, what the views of senior colleagues in Northern Ireland are.”

He added: “I understand very well the arguments for some sort of accommodation with the Irish, and the momentum which the current negotiations have achieved by this late stage.

“But I would be failing in my duty to represent my views frankly if I were not to reiterate, before irreversible decisions are taken, that I do not accept that the agreement as currently drafted is likely, over the long-run, to make things better rather than worse.”