Unionists see Anglo–Irish Agreement parallels with Brexit row

The massive unionist rally at Belfast City Hall against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Pic: Pacemaker.
The massive unionist rally at Belfast City Hall against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Pic: Pacemaker.

The circumstances around the Brexit deal that was almost completed this week bore some similarities to the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985, it has been claimed.

Several unionists believe there are some parallels with the manner in which London and Dublin almost concluded a deal on Monday, apparently without unionist knowledge, which some believe would have undermined the union.

The situation had some parallels to the Anglo–Irish Agreement (AIA) in 1985, they say, in that then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave Dublin a say in Northern Ireland for the first time, without the knowledge of unionists.

UUP peer Lord Empey said one clear parallel was that in 1985 news of the AIA was broken to unionists by the media; likewise unionism was alerted to details of a pending deal on Monday by RTE, and only shortly afterwards did the DUP receive the text of the deal itself via the London government. The DUP then moved to block the deal.

“An obvious difference of course is Mrs Thatcher had a commons majority and it did not matter what unionists did [in 1985],” he said. “That is not the case today.”

Former UUP MLA David McNarry took part in the “buoyant” 1985 protest against the AIA in Belfast.

“Had it not been for the leaking by Dublin that the deal had been done behind the DUP’s backs [this week] it would have been very much like the Anglo Irish Agreement – where officials in 1985 did the deal behind unionist backs,” he said.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said a key difference now is that unionism has much more influence, with the Tories formally dependent on the DUP for a commons majority.

Many Tory MPs supported the DUP position in the commons on Tuesday as well as Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and some elements of Labour, he said.

“The Irish government deliberately hindered the DUP from seeing their last draft of the deal by only releasing it to London on Monday morning,” Sir Jeffrey said.

But former SDLP Stormont minister Brid Rodgers said there was no comparison.

“The DUP is in coalition with the Tories so therefore you would assume they were in the loop,” she said.

Secondly, the Brexit negotiations were with the EU, UK and Ireland – not London and Dublin.

Furthermore the Brexit deal does not affect Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, she added.

But historian Dr Connal Parr said there are appropriate parallels “for the simple reason that, at an early point in the day, London and Dublin had agreed a deal which went over the heads of unionists”.

The major difference is that the DUP have a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Tories, meaning that unlike 1985 they are unable to face unionism down.

Politics lecturer Dr Cillian McGrattan said Arlene Foster may have perceived a warning from the AIA after news broke about the pending deal on Monday.

“The late UUP MP Harold McCusker’s question of Margaret Thatcher resonates with the responses by DUP spokespersons then”, he said.

“‘Is not the reality of this agreement,’ McCusker asked, that unionists ‘will now be Irish-British hybrids...?’”