The NIO feared that vehement and united unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement could lead to a push for an independent Northern Ireland, a declassified memo to the Prime Minister has revealed.
A five-page secret memo to Margaret Thatcher from Secretary of State Tom King warned that although many Ulster Unionists would be unlikely to support such a move, anger at the agreement was such that they may not behave “rationally”.
In the January 11 1986 document, which is released at the Public Record Office in Belfast, Mr King told the Prime Minister that the unionist MPs who had resigned their seats and were standing for re-election on a ticket of opposition to the Agreement were likely to be returned “and presumably with larger majorities”.
He said: “Dr Paisley will then be likely to say, either at Westminster or in a message to you, that the people of Ulster have spoken and that the Agreement must be abrogated. The logic of his position when this demand is rejected points to withdrawal from the Union; and although an independent Ulster would make no sense in economic or any other terms, we cannot entirely rule out some sort of attempt to establish a provisional government.
“I cannot think that the leadership of the UUP, or more moderate unionists generally, would follow him down this road; but we need to be prepared for every eventuality since people who feel themselves isolated and pushed into a corner do not necessarily react rationally.”
Elsewhere, the memo sets out how unionist protests were still at the “lower end” of what the Government had expected.
In a bleak assessment of the political landscape, Mr King said: “Although the Anglo-Irish Agreement was welcomed almost everywhere else, it has been received with great hostility by the unionist majority in Northern Ireland.
“In a real sense many see it as a sell-out to Dublin and a deliberate movement towards a United Ireland....
“We expected a bad reaction, and indeed, we forecast a range of unionist responses, extending from rhetoric and demonstrations to civil disobedience, industrial action and possibly paramilitary violence. So far we are only at the lower end of the range.”
Mr King went on: “Nevertheless, the situation is worrying. Not only has unionist denunciation of the Agreement been extremely vehement, it has also been almost unanimous, extending right across the majority community. There has been little sign so far of a moderate unionist element emerging, which would be ready to judge the Agreement on rational rather than emotional terms.”
Mr King said that while the reaction of unionist politicians was “predictable”, he was concerned that the “moderate and responsible ‘Belfast Telegraph’ continues to be extremely critical of the Agreement”, while the SDLP had been “disappointingly cautious”.
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