The British government has invited the Irish government to share in the burden of administering the troubled province of Northern Ireland. This is the unique invitation spelled out in an agreement signed on November 15, 1985, by the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald. If put into practice, this Anglo-Irish agreement will be the most important development in relations between the two countries since 1922, when the south of Ireland received independent dominion status as the Irish Free State while Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom.
The agreement represents a dramatic shift in Prime Minister Thatcher’s position. During her first several years in office, she attached the highest importance to maintaining British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. In her first meeting with FitzGerald after he became prime minister in 1981, she remarked that she regarded the north as being "as British as Finchley," referring to her own constituency in the south of England. FitzGerald responded that Britain did not have thousands of troops stationed in Finchley, nor did it have a secretary of state in the cabinet for Finchley’s affairs. One Irish official dubbed Mrs. Thatcher "the last true unionist."
The British prime minister was never more unswerving in her attitude nor more popular with Protestant unionists than during the hunger strike of prisoners belonging to the Irish Republican Army in the spring and summer of 1981. In retrospect, however, it can be seen that her hard-line management of that crisis set in motion a train of events that resulted in the November 1985 agreement.
Containing only 13 articles, the agreement is brief and bland. The vital clause states:
There is hereby established . . . an Intergovernmental Conference . . . concerned with Northern Ireland and with relations between the two parts of Ireland, to deal, as set out in this Agreement, on a regular basis with (1) political matters; (2) security and related matters; (3) legal matters including the administration of justice; (4) the promotion of cross-border cooperation.
Other articles make clear that cross-border cooperation is meant to be
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