Declassified files: Top civil servant thought Anglo-Irish Agreement was ‘flawed and one-sided’

Sir Ken Bloomfield with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s
Sir Ken Bloomfield with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s

One of Northern Ireland’s most distinguished public servants left a valedictory memo on his final day which sharply criticised the centrepiece of government policy in Northern Ireland which he had dutifully been operating for more than five years – the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Sir Ken Bloomfield’s long career included civil service senior positions in the dying days of the old Stormont Parliament and permanent secretary to the administration which first attempted to make power-sharing work in Northern Ireland after the Sunningdale Agreement.

Previously declassified files showed that Sir Ken – who has been made head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 1984 – repeatedly expressed profound reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the period leading up to the accord being signed, describing it as “fundamentally flawed” and one-sided.

Although the agreement survived, it did not promote inter-communal harmony in Northern Ireland, with furious unionist opposition to the deal leading to a campaign of civil disobedience, a break-off of relations with the government and frequently spilling over into illegality and violence.

Throughout that period, the machinery of the Northern Ireland Civil Service continued to operate the agreement, frequently dealing with Dublin officials and supporting the work of the regular intergovernmental conferences so hated by unionists because they gave the Irish government a say in how Northern Ireland was run.

But in a April 12 1991 confidential valedictory memo sent to senior colleagues, the British Ambassador in Dublin and an official in the Foreign Office, Sir Ken restated his view that the agreement “has been from the outset seriously flawed in a number of fundamental respects.

“In saying this I do not underestimate the benefits which the signing of the agreement conferred in terms of wider Anglo-Irish relations and the perception of the Irish situation in the wider world, particularly in the United States.

“There is, however, something which should to my mind always be kept clearly in view. This is the reality that the strain in Anglo-Irish relations, and the repercussions of that strain beyond these islands, exist because of the division between communities in Northern Ireland.

“Anything which does not serve to reduce that division is not likely in the long-term to contribute to peace, stability or reconciliation.”

Sir Ken’s valedictory memo is in a folder containing miscellaneous communications involving the head of the civil service which appears – as is not uncommon among files declassified under the 20 Year Rule – to have at one point been intended for destruction, with the words ‘send to pulp 1991’ written on the cover.

In the memo, Sir Ken said that it was “perhaps understandable that sentiment both in London and Dublin veers from time to time in the direction of ‘knocking their heads together’ in terms of trying to produce an ideal, unboycottable model which will not have to depend on the tediously obtained consent of prickly and contentious parties.

“However, the stance adopted by the Irish government in the agreement – that it is particularly the advocate for the nationalist community – is the antithesis of that which will begin to reconcile the unionist community to the rest of Ireland.”

Sir Ken also criticised the decision to not only keep him out of the discussions when the agreement was being put together in top secrecy – which he said “I can to some extent appreciate” – but said it was “striking ... that on not one occasion since then has any attempt been made to engage me in the periodic exchanges which take place between very senior British and Irish officials – and this in spite of the fact that I have known the leading figure on the Irish side, Dermot Nally, longer than anyone else involved, and that alongside this I have had regular involvement in the work of the Intergovernmental Conference itself.”

Sir Ken went on to say that “the curse of Northern Ireland has been the concentration on symbolism and ultimate constitutional destination alongside the comparity neglect of substantive issues.

“It must surely be obvious by now that early consent from the majority in Northern Ireland to the unity of Ireland is not foreseeable, and I believe government of any complexion would be making a fearful and very costly mistake if it were to assume that the dying of the post-agreement hubbub represented any kind of tacit consent to the inevitability of such unity.

“I make the assumption, then, that whether with revived local political structures or without them the United Kingdom government will continue to carry an ultimate responsibility for the good government of Northern ireland into the foreseeable future.

“I hope that a steadily increasing effort will be concentrated upon the real [underlined] problems confronting members of the minority here which are not that a ‘foreign flag’ flies over them, but rather that they still suffer in too many respects from apparent disadvantage.”

Reflecting on his more than 38 years in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Ken said: “I leave with a continuing conviction that, while the importance of the private sector and of wealth-creation must always be acknowledged, the public service continues to offer a career worthy of the best efforts of any individual”.

He said that “in spite of all the changes it has endured and the dispiriting circumstances in which it has had to operate over the past two decades ... it remains one of the principal forces working for stability in this community”.

“Nevertheless I leave with a real sense of sadness. I have lost too many friends and seen the wreckage of too many familiar places to be content with the state of affairs in which violence has persisted for over 20 years and is continuing.

“Alongside this I, as a native Ulsterman, take little satisfaction from a situation in which locally elected politicians play so small a part in the government and administration of our own community.

“Lest it be inferred that this is simply an implicit criticism of the failure of local politicians to agree, I want to make it clear that I see the way of the local politicians as hard.

“Someone who helped to draft the resignation statements of all the last three prime ministers of Northern Ireland is not likely to underestimate the difficulties which democratic leaders face in hard and confused times.”