Anglo-Irish deal was ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment for unionists

Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux address the crowd at the Anti-Anglo Irish rally in Belfast in 1985
Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux address the crowd at the Anti-Anglo Irish rally in Belfast in 1985

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) was a turning point.

Looking back, it may even have been the turning point.

In October 1972, a discussion paper – The Future of Northern Ireland – had made it fairly clear that the British government wouldn’t endorse a solution if it didn’t embrace ‘power-sharing and an Irish dimension’.

But unionists, who still hadn’t recovered from the toppling of their parliament a few months earlier, were having none of it. They wrecked the Sunningdale Agreement in May 1974 and refused to cut a deal with the SDLP in the Convention the following year.

During that 1972-84 period the IRA still believed that they had time and resources on their side: and I think they believed that the British were open to a negotiated withdrawal, sooner rather than later, with the Irish keen to help them build a new, united state.

The AIA disabused them of that notion, of course, since it confirmed that the principle of consent was being propped up by both London and Dublin.

It wasn’t that their aspirations were being killed off: but they were being asked to accept that there would be no voluntary or forced British withdrawal, that Dublin wasn’t hungry for unity and that the best SF/IRA could hope for was a very, very long wait for the electoral numbers to stack up in their favour.

Meanwhile, the Assembly elected in October 1982 (as part of the government’s efforts to encourage talks between the parties) was dead in the water: the SDLP and Sinn Fein (their first Stormont election) didn’t take their seats and the unionist parties twiddled their thumbs and demanded majority rule.

At that point unionists believed that nothing could/would be done without their imprimatur, giving them the ultimate veto over the political process. But London/Dublin were no longer prepared to tolerate a veto that stymied any progress at all. They decided to give unionists a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment.

What the British and Irish governments wanted was: 1) a solution they could both stand over and 2) a solution that would be embraced by all of the political parties, the paramilitary groups and a thumping majority of the electorate.

Sinn Fein had already, in late 1981, begun the ‘ballot paper/Armalite’ strategy, so it made sense for both governments to encourage them down that path. And unionists, or so they hoped, in exchange for the winding down of the IRA and involvement of SF in electoral methods alone, would agree to power-sharing arrangements and full-throated devolution.

It might have helped if unionists had been briefed and warmed up about all of this. Yet there seems to have been a fear that they would have tried to destroy the process from the outset, so the decision was taken to sideline them.

Oddly, given the ‘insider track knowledge and contacts’ that UUP leader Jim Molyneaux used to boast about, it is astonishing that no-one briefed him about anything at all.

Indeed, when leaks about an agreement began to appear in the summer of 1985, Molyneaux and Paisley dismissed them as nonsense.

Which sums up the influence of unionism that key moment.

And that’s why the AIA came as a huge shock to unionism: that’s why they believed they had been betrayed: that’s why most of them never read it: and that’s why so few of them bothered to question Molyneaux, Paisley and others about why they had got it so wrong.

Yes, the British and Irish governments should have been more honest with them from the outset, but the UUP and DUPclearly had their eye off the ball for most of the time.

The AIA was a British/Irish deal with a very specific purpose. It was a message to nationalism and republicanism that unity – which couldn’t be guaranteed – would be dependent on consent and the absence of violence.

It was a message to unionists that devolution was dependent on power-sharing and the Irish dimension. It was a message to both communities that if they couldn’t reach an agreement of their own then London and Dublin would make one for them.

And it was a message to unionists and nationalists that they wouldn’t be able to play off the governments against each other any more. It would take over a decade before these messages were fully understood and the process could move on.

Was the AIA success? Well, it did pave the way to the Good Friday Agreement and the conflict stalemate we have now – although more needs to be done. More importantly, it also paved the way to the best political/diplomatic relationship London and Dublin have had for centuries.


AIA: Chris McGimpsey - we fought it in the courts

AIA: Ben Lowry - Unionists share some culpability for it
AIA: Colin McCusker - direct rule would mean return to diktat
AIA: Reg Empey - NI can now determines its own position

OBITUARY: Geoffrey Howe, broker of Anglo-Irish deal

Letter on AIA: Unionists can use their brains

Letter on AIA: There has been no change