Declassified files: Thatcher thought she could ‘solve the Irish problem’ with accord

Dr Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle in November 1985
Dr Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle in November 1985

Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in part because she wanted to go down in history as the person who solved both the Rhodesian and the Irish ‘problems’ – an idea suggested to her by Charles Haughey, according to a secret file from 30 years ago.

A file declassified today at the Public Record Office in Belfast contains an assessment by the most senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office of the then Prime Minister’s motivation in pressing ahead with the agreement.

Sir Robert Andrew’s views are contained in a document dated September 6 1985 – three days after Douglas Hurd was replaced as Secretary of State by Tom King.

Sir Robert’s 10-page memo, marked ‘secret and personal’, was sent to the Secretary of State, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Ken Bloomfield, and four other senior officials.

In the memo, Sir Robert set out the background to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a looming accord which was just weeks away from being signed when Mr King took over as Secretary of State.

It provides a uniquely candid contemporaneous view of the reasons why a staunchly unionist Prime Minister signed an agreement with Dublin which caused fury to unionists in Northern Ireland.

Sir Robert said that two years previously “the Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Prior) concluded that the present state of affairs in Northern Ireland, with continuing terrorist attacks and a deteriorating economic situation which required heavy subsidies from Great Britain, could not be allowed to continue and that a major effort should be made to resolve the problem.

“The Irish government under Dr FitzGerald were worried about the alienation of the minority in the North and the rise of Sinn Fein and were ready to co-operate in seeking solutions ... secret talks were begun by a small team of officials headed on our side by [Cabinet Secretary] Sir Robert Armstrong and on the Irish by Mr Nally, their Cabinet Secretary.

“The initial basis of discussion was that the Irish might abandon Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, which lay claim to the territory of the North, in return for being given some say in the control of the security forces in the North…”

Sir Robert’s detailed memo then turned to Mrs Thatcher’s close personal involvement in the process.

“The Prime Minister is attracted by the idea of going down in history as the person who solved both the Rhodesian and the Irish problems (an idea suggested to her by Mr Haughey); but she does not want to be accused by the unionists (with whom her sympathies instinctively lie) of a sell-out to Dublin.

“The FCO want an agreement for its own sake as a means of improving Anglo-Irish relations and because a failure to reach agreement would cause serious problems in our relations with the USA and lead to increased support for NORAID.

“The NIO want an Agreement if it seems likely to lead to reconciliation and greater political stability in Northern Ireland and thus to provide the hope of an eventual reduction in terrorism.

“We are very conscious that we [word underlined] shall have to implement whatever Agreement is signed and to deal with the reaction it provokes in Northern Ireland.

“This gives us a rather different perspective from that of the Cabinet Office and FCO and has led to some differences about how far we should go in making concessions to the Irish.

“The Cabinet Office and FCO tend to be more sympathetic than we are to the Irish point of view; the Prime Minister tends to side with the NIO.”

Sir Robert outlined three objectives which the accord would have to satisfy if it was to be successful.

Firstly, he said that it would have to have “a sufficiently favourable impact on the minority community to end (or at least reduce) their ‘alienation’ from the apparatus of the state” by supporting devolved government and the security forces.

Secondly, he said that the accord would have to “not provoke such a strong reaction from the unionists that the Province becomes unmanageable; we shall not create political stability by substituting the alienation of the majority for that of the minority”.

Thirdly, Sir Robert argued that the deal must be “workable”, meaning that “it must not involve such a degree of Irish interference in the affairs of the North that the machinery of government becomes unworkable (the Irish are notorious for exaggerating minor incidents into major issues)”.

Sir Robert said that Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald “had a genuine desire to make an historic contribution to resolving the Irish problem”.

But he warned: “From our point I consider that the Agreement as it now stands has serious shortcomings. I believe it is one-sided, giving the Irish a foot in the door in Northern Ireland which could eventually have profound consequences, in return for very little apart from a promise of enhanced security co-operation which I doubt the Irish are capable of delivering.”

Sir Robert warned that unionist hostility would be significant, while he questioned the belief that nationalist alienation would be ended by the accord.

“I doubt whether the man in the street in West Belfast is going to change his attitude to the security forces...”

However, he went on: “On the other hand, the consequences of not [underlined] having an agreement would be extremely serious.

“The main plank of our present policy would have collapsed and the collapse would be a body blow for the SDLP, who have placed all their faith in the Anglo-Irish talks.

“It would be a gift for Sinn Fein who would regard it as proof that political means produce nothing and that violence is the only answer.

“Unionists on the other hand would be triumphal and in no mood for concessions to the minority.”

He said that “I believe we are now too far committed to draw back”.

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