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 comprehensive, covering "security, economic, social and cultural matters."

Never before has Britain formally acknowledged that Ireland has a legal role to play in governing the north. Although it is far short of an acceptance of the principle of a united Ireland, the agreement contradicts cherished beliefs of the unionist majority in Northern Ireland: the belief that the north is exclusively British territory, that its affairs are purely an internal British concern, and that the Republic of Ireland, although a neighbor, is to be regarded as in all respects a foreign country.

No one expected the unionist community or its leaders to like the agreement, but an effort was made to allay unionist fears insofar as words could do so. The two governments promised that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could only be changed with the consent of a majority of the people there, and they acknowledged that the present wish of a majority is for no change. On the other hand, no effort was made to involve the unionists in the negotiations. It was accepted that they would adamantly oppose any role in Northern Ireland for the Dublin government, no matter how that role might be defined.

Unionist political leaders greeted the agreement with a storm of bitter denunciation, characterizing it as a "betrayal" by the British government and prophesying violence. The Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, predicted that the aftermath of the agreement would be "too horrible to contemplate" and warned the Dublin government that "the total wrath of the Unionist population will fall upon your heads."

On December 11, 1985, when the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference was held, Peter Barry, the Irish foreign minister who has been appointed his government’s permanent ministerial representative to the conference, went to Stormont Castle, the Northern Ireland seat of government outside Belfast, accompanied by two other Irish cabinet ministers, to meet with Tom King, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The Irish delegation arrived by helicopter. For the occasion, Stormont, where security is always tight, was turned into a fortress with 1,500 police officers on duty.

As the conference got under way, Paisley and Harold McCusker, the deputy leader of the rival Official Unionist Party, handed a joint letter of protest to King. Its language is typical of unionist rhetoric:

In the name of the Unionist majority whose rights you have trampled in the gutter, we repudiate you. The sordid exercise in which you are involved is the very antithesis of democracy. Today you debase yourself to the level of equal to the imposter Barry, the lowest form of political existence, who has no jurisdiction in this realm, parasite that he is, who has been carried to your table on the backs of the murdering IRA [Irish Republican Army].

The intemperate language of the politicians, the threats of violence from Protestant gunmen who have an abundance of weapons, and the sullen mood of the whole unionist community from university intellectuals to unemployed laborers do not bode well for the reconciliation of the two communities in the north, which is the ideal that the agreement seeks to attain. As the two governments worked to put the agreement into operation, there was no reason to doubt the words of Barry White, a deputy editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a respected observer of the northern scene, who had written a few months earlier: "Northern Ireland’s Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists have never been further apart."


Northern Ireland is a difficult problem for the outside world to understand because it arises from religious antagonisms within the Christian community. In an age when the agnostic spirit prevails elsewhere, a conflict between Presbyterians and Anglicans on the one side and Roman Catholics on the other seems an incomprehensible throwback to the seventeenth century. It is made all the more incomprehensible when leading Irish church leaders and politicians periodically insist that the dispute is not religious in nature. In reality, although the problem has significant political and economic dimensions, it would dwindle away if it were not for the religious antagonisms.

The present phase dates from the outbreak of sectarian violence in 1968-69, when the British army was called in to restore order. Sixteen years later the troops are still there, although in diminished numbers, and the politics of the province present a sorry record of frustration and fragmentation.

The disorders first occurred because a young generation of college-educated Catholics decided to emulate the nonviolent movement of American blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and to challenge the inequities in Northern Ireland’s society by passive resistance. This civil rights movement evoked brutal suppression by the police and inflamed the smoldering hostility of the Protestant majority. The wiser leaders of the then-unified Unionist Party, including Captain Terence O’Neill, Northern Ireland prime minister when the tumult began, and Major Robin Chichester-Clark, his cousin and successor, recognized that major reforms were necessary if the Catholic minority were to be calmed and reconciled to the political order. Between 1969 and 1971 they pushed through legislation granting the major demands of the civil rights movement.

The gerrymandered municipal government of Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, was reformed, and the Catholic majority there finally took control. Another act removed the allocation of public housing from the local councils, which in Protestant towns had been flagrantly discriminatory, and centralized it in a new provincial housing authority. The police reserve force, the "B-Specials," was abolished and new commanders brought in from mainland Britain to reform the recruitment and training of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the provincial police force. Discrimination in private employment was made illegal and a commission was established to act upon complaints.

Most of the leaders of the civil rights movement meanwhile coalesced with older nationalist political factions to form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). It dropped the traditional abstentionist policy of Catholic nationalists and sought to participate in the governing of Northern Ireland. Its nominal leader was Gerry Fitt, the member of Parliament for West Belfast, but its moving spirits were two younger men, John Hume and Austin Curry.

If moderate men on both sides had remained in command of events, the Northern Ireland problem might now be history. As it was, the army occupation, the slowness of the reforms and latent religious and cultural antagonisms interacted and produced a revolution and a counterrevolution, neither of which could be consummated. The result is today’s bitter sectarian stalemate from which no easy exit is evident.

The Irish Republican Army makes a disputed claim to be heir to the rebels who won independence for most of Ireland during the uprising of 1916-22. The IRA has long been outlawed both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. In 1968-69, it was moribund. The violent police reaction to the civil rights demonstrations and the heavy-handedness of the subsequent British army occupation served to rejuvenate the organization. It engages in violent attacks against the army and the police and in random terrorism against the civilian population. Its objective is a unified Ireland purged of British influence.

The IRA stands for a nationalist revolution that failed. It cannot oust the British nor successfully intimidate the Protestant unionist majority. Yet its sources of strength in the Catholic nationalist community are deep and wide enough that it cannot readily be extirpated. A leaked 1979 report from the intelligence corps of the British army reached the conclusion that the IRA violence can be contained by military and police work but cannot be defeated except by some political strategy.

The IRA has been reorganized several times and undergone successive changes of leadership as earlier members have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. It is now thought to number about 2,500 men with some 500 on active duty at any given moment.

The resurgence of the IRA aroused a counterrevolution by working-class Protestants to reassert their former unchallenged supremacy. In the mid-1970s, this counterrevolution expressed itself in various paramilitary organizations such as the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Vanguard. These murderous gangs, ill disciplined and loosely structured, killed several hundred Catholic civilians in tit-for-tat sectarian attacks between 1973 and 1976. Since that time, these random killings have almost completely disappeared, but the Protestant community remains heavily armed and could return to violence.

These Protestant militants stand for a counterrevolution that also failed. They could not crush the IRA by military force. Nor could they dictate the shape of British government policy. What did occur was the fracturing of the Unionist Party monolith into two parties, the traditional party now known as the Official Unionists and the somewhat more militant Democratic Unionists led by the Reverend Paisley.

A power-sharing executive was the last throw of the dice by the traditional unionist leaders to govern the province through an accommodation with the moderate Catholics represented by the SDLP. A coalition cabinet of Protestants and Catholics headed by Brian Faulkner, a wealthy businessman and longtime unionist politician, and including Fitt, Hume and Curry, took office on January 1, 1974. The politicians worked well together but the Protestant gangs, whipped up by Paisley and other hard-line politicians, organized a general strike in May 1974 that paralyzed the province. When the British Labour government of Harold Wilson misread the situation and failed to suppress the strike by firm, timely measures, the power-sharing executive resigned. The British resumed "direct rule" by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, a cabinet minister assisted by junior ministers and civil servants. Except for their members of Parliament in Westminster and representatives on the almost powerless district councils, the people of Northern Ireland have no direct share in governing themselves.

Beginning with the IRA hunger strike by prisoners in 1981, the IRA’s political front—the Sinn Fein party—dropped its previous abstentionist policy and began to contest elections. When it wins, it follows a two-track policy: continuing to abstain from the House of Commons in Westminster, but taking its seats in local district councils in Northern Ireland.

Squarely in the center of Northern Ireland’s political spectrum is the Alliance Party which, as its name suggests, seeks to transcend the sectarian divide. It has Catholic leaders but draws its strength from both Protestant and Catholic voters. It has not been able to expand its base beyond the middle-class neighborhoods of Belfast and the nearby suburbs. In the elections for local councils in May 1985, its vote fell to seven percent and it lost several seats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Official Unionists (OUP) continued to hold a small edge in popular support over Paisley’s Democratic Unionists. In the May 1985 elections, the former received 30 percent of the vote and the latter 25 percent. Paisley, however, is the dominant unionist personality, overshadowing the colorless, cautious leader of the Official Unionists, James Molyneaux. The competition between the two parties causes them to march in lockstep rather than offer rival ideas. The politicians who control the OUP today are hard-liners. Fifteen years ago, they fought the reforms put through by O’Neill and Chichester-Clark, and they rode the wave of popular distrust of Faulkner’s power-sharing experiment. They hark back to the status quo as it was prior to 1968. Unable to restore it, they are likewise unwilling to meet the Catholics halfway. They remember what they themselves did to Faulkner’s plan and fear that new unionist extremists might do the same to them. The outcome is a politics of no movement and ritualistic incantation of old slogans.


James Prior, who served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland in Mrs. Thatcher’s government from the summer of 1981 to the summer of 1984, made a most energetic and determined effort to break the political impasse, the most ambitious initiative since the power-sharing executive fell a decade earlier.

Prior began in the spring of 1982 with legislation resurrecting a Northern Ireland Assembly. (None had existed since the Assembly that produced the power-sharing executive was dissolved in 1974.) Unlike the previous Assembly, Prior’s was not preceded or accompanied by any understanding among the rival politicians to share power. Lacking such cooperation, Prior provided for an initial delegation of limited legislative powers (as distinguished from executive powers) to the Assembly. Its members could elect committees to hold inquiries and summon civil servants for examination. Prior made it clear that the chairmen of these committees might rapidly evolve into cabinet ministers directing specific departments of government if the Assembly functioned normally and if the political leaders demonstrated the minimum goodwill and cooperation needed to make any cabinet system work.

At first, only Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and the small Alliance Party agreed to cooperate. The OUP hesitated. Its nominal policy is that devolved regional institutions cannot work and that the north should be fully "integrated" into the British system as if it were no different in political character from Suffolk or Somerset. However, not wishing to leave the Assembly stage entirely to Paisley, the OUP eventually decided its elected representatives would join in.

On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein announced it would boycott the Assembly. That had been expected. But the SDLP announced it would also boycott, which had not been expected, and this abstention was crucial.

Timing was critical in the decision of the moderate Catholic nationalists to abstain from the Assembly. Nine years earlier in the maneuvering leading up to the 1974 Assembly, the SDLP had been foremost in pushing for an active devolved government. Then it had been content to see the north’s problems in a purely British context. The reunification of Ireland seemed an idle dream, as it had for most of the preceding 50 years. The intervening years in the political wilderness, however, had wrought a shift in outlook. Fitt had resigned the leadership and abandoned the party. Paddy Devlin, another Belfast labor-union activist and politician, had also quit. With them went much of the Belfast working-class influence that looked to London and to the ideals of the British Labour Party. They had been interested in the SDLP only so long as they could see it as a vehicle for defending the interests of the Belfast working class within the context of British Northern Ireland.

When Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill led a delegation of members of the U.S. House of Representatives to Dublin and Belfast in the spring of 1979, he met with Fitt. "Do you think you’ll see a united Ireland in your lifetime?" O’Neill asked. "Sure," Fitt replied jauntily, "—if I live to be 125!"

With Fitt gone, the balance of power within the SDLP shifted toward the more nationalist sections of the province in the west and along the border. Hume, the new party leader, was sensitive to this "greener" mood. He was also responding to the changed atmosphere within the Catholic nationalist community after Bobby Sands and nine other IRA prisoners had died on hunger strikes in 1981. Their ordeal renewed the faded legend of the IRA and reawakened old memories and old bitterness among Catholics, including many who did not normally sympathize with gunmen. Prime Minister Thatcher, by refusing any of the graceful compromises that were offered to her by the Irish Catholic bishops and other intermediaries early in the strike, may be seen by history to have made a major strategic error. The hunger strike was the greatest political and propaganda coup for the IRA in the last decade.

Finally, the SDLP had a symbiotic relationship with the government of the day in Dublin. Fianna Fáil, founded by Éamon De Valéra, has generally been the Republic’s largest party and ostensibly the most nationalist. The opposing coalition of the Fine Gael and Labour Parties takes a sober, less romantic view of the possibilities of national reunification. Prior’s management of the legislation reestablishing the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the subsequent Assembly election campaign, coincided with a brief term in office for an Irish Fianna Fáil government headed by Charles Haughey. It also coincided with the Falklands War. Haughey outraged the British government and British public opinion when he withdrew Ireland’s support for European Community sanctions against Argentina and adopted a neutral stance toward Britain and Argentina. Haughey was an outspoken critic of Prior’s Assembly initiative. His position was that Northern Ireland is a "failed political entity" and that only direct talks between Dublin and London leading to the ultimate reunification of the island can resolve the Northern Ireland problem.

If Prime Minister FitzGerald had been in office during this period, it is likely, although not certain, that Hume and the SDLP would have followed FitzGerald’s private view that the new Assembly was worth a try. As it was, moderate nationalist candidates campaigned on the theme that if elected, they would not take their seats unless one of two conditions were met: either a guaranteed power-sharing arrangement with the unionist parties would be worked out, or there would have to be some institutional recognition by Britain of the Republic of Ireland’s role in the governance of the north. Since neither condition was met, the SDLP joined Sinn Fein in boycotting the Assembly. With neither of the nationalist parties participating, the Assembly could not achieve real weight and significance.

Hume turned his attention to the Republic, where he undertook a gigantic effort to organize public opinion and put pressure upon Britain to respond to nationalist demands. His argument was that since the partition of Ireland in 1920, the nationalists from north and south had not set forth their ideas of what a united Ireland would look like and what changes, constitutional, legal, political and economic, would have to take place if unification were to occur. How could lasting peace and stability be achieved in a new Ireland through the democratic process? By what new structures and processes might this objective be achieved?

After a winter of delicate interparty negotiations, the leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP met on April 14, 1983, to organize an extended public inquiry called the New Ireland Forum. The four parties together represent over 90 percent of the nationalist population of Ireland, and almost three-quarters of the the island’s total population.

At first, the New Ireland Forum was greeted with considerable skepticism as being a specious public relations exercise, bound to fail. However, the major politicians involved took it seriously and were faithful in their attendance, and soon the enterprise gained in respect. The forum opened in Dublin at the end of May and during the next 11 months held 13 public sessions and 28 private sessions, received more than 300 written submissions, and heard testimony from 31 individuals and groups. Although the Alliance Party and the two unionist parties declined to participate, representative figures from different walks of life in Northern Ireland did go to Dublin and offer testimony. The forum also commissioned special reports on the cost of violence since 1969, the economic consequences of the division of Ireland since 1920, the possible economic scenarios if Ireland were reunited and the legal systems, north and south.

When the New Ireland Forum completed its work, it published in May 1984 a cogent and calm, if forcefully worded, report setting forth its basic premise in these words:

The immediate outlook for the north is extremely dangerous unless an acceptable political solution is achieved. The long-term damage to society worsens each day that passes without political progress. . . . There are at present no political institutions to which a majority of the people of the nationalist and unionist traditions can give their common allegiance or even acquiesce in. The fundamental social bonds which hold people together in a normal community, already tenuous in the abnormal conditions of Northern Ireland, have been very largely sundered by the events and experiences of the past fifteen terrible years. . . . The immense challenge facing the political leaders in Britain and Ireland is to create the conditions for a new Ireland and a new society acceptable to all its people.

The New Ireland Forum report defined three possible models for a "new" Ireland: a unitary state governed from Dublin; a federation or confederation of the two parts of Ireland; and some form of joint authority in which Britain and Ireland shared in the governance of the north. Finally, to keep the door open for any possible British or unionist response, the report stated: "The Parties in the Forum also remain open to discuss other views which may contribute to political development."

Since all four political parties participating in the New Ireland Forum share as their nominal goal a united Ireland, the report described a unitary state as "the ideal framework" for a new Ireland. At the news conference to present the report, Haughey declared that this was the only solution acceptable to Fianna Fáil. This was an effort to take back for domestic partisan reasons much of the open-ended, conciliatory language about other solutions that the report contained. The other signatories tended to discount Haughey’s words since it was impossible to know how seriously he would act upon them if Britain offered something less than a unified Ireland.

Having immersed themselves for nearly a year in the intricacies of Northern Ireland’s problems, the leading members of the Irish government and of Fianna Fáil had unconsciously persuaded themselves that since they called for "a major reassessment" by Britain, such a reassessment was sure to be forthcoming. But as frequently happens in Anglo-Irish relations, what seems central and urgent in Dublin seems peripheral and much less urgent in London. The British political establishment, except at moments of the most acute crisis, tends to relegate Irish questions to a second or third order of importance. Whether British leaders are wise to distance themselves from the problem in this way is at least questionable.


When a British answer first came, it was considerably less than Dublin had hoped for. Prior, delivering his swan song as Northern Ireland secretary before leaving the cabinet to go into business, opened a debate on the issue in the House of Commons on July 2, 1984. Prime Minister Thatcher sat beside him to indicate the importance she attached to his remarks, but as usual most members of Parliament chose a debate on Northern Ireland as the time to go answer their mail or have a drink with a constituent. Fewer than 80 members were present as the debate began. Once Prior had concluded his statement and the prime minister left, the number quickly dwindled to the usual hard core of Northern Ireland members and the few English members who interest themselves in the matter.

In his statement, Prior did not close any doors irrevocably. By dwelling upon the essential need for the consent of the unionist majority to any constitutional changes, however, he signaled that none of the three constitutional models sketched out by the New Ireland Forum report was a likely starter. Whether there could be some enhanced forms of cooperation between Dublin and London that would fall short of formal joint sovereignty was left suitably vague.

In Dublin, politicians and civil servants nevertheless remained warily optimistic throughout the summer that major reforms in the way Northern Ireland was run would be worked out between the two governments. Although Mrs. Thatcher had assigned a team of senior civil servants headed by Sir Robert Armstrong, the secretary of the British cabinet office, to hold talks with Dublin, there was a considerable discrepancy between the attitudes prevailing in the two capitals.

The central issues concerned the work of the police, the army, the courts and the prisons. Preserving public order and enforcing the law impartially are fundamental tasks of any free government. In Northern Ireland most of the Catholic nationalist population has long been alienated from these institutions of government. The police and the army have wide powers of arrest without obtaining a prior warrant. In cases involving the possession of firearms or explosives, the burden of proof is on the defendant (to establish his innocence) and not on the Crown. Since 1973, juries have been abolished in serious criminal cases because intimidation of jurors has made it almost impossible to obtain convictions. Cases are instead heard by a single judge. Since it is difficult to obtain witnesses or documentary evidence of criminal conspiracies, the government has increasingly relied upon defendants who become witnesses for the Crown. These witnesses, known in British slang as "supergrasses," are naturally suspect, no matter how plausible their testimony, since they have strong motives to cooperate with the prosecutor.

After the B-Specials were abolished as the auxiliary police force, the British government felt the need of a supplementary reserve to assist the police and the army in patrolling roads, manning checkpoints, and performing other routine duties. The Ulster Defence Regiment was formed, intended to be a nonsectarian unit. As appropriate symbolism, the first two recruits were a Roman Catholic and a Protestant. But because the IRA either murdered or intimidated Catholics who joined, there are now only about 175 Catholic members in a regiment of 3,700 part-time and 2,700 full-time members. The Ulster Defence Regiment is the largest regiment in the British army, recruited in Northern Ireland and only on service there. Gradually, and perhaps inevitably, the Ulster Defence Regiment has come to be seen by the Protestant community as "our" regiment and to be deeply distrusted by Catholics.

When the Anglo-Irish talks began in the summer of 1984, the Irish government pressed for the abolition of the Ulster Defence Regiment. It raised the possibility that in the nationalist areas of West Belfast and Derry where members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary cannot safely patrol, the policing might either be taken over by the Garda Siochana (the Republic’s police force) or by a new force recruited on both sides of the border and officered jointly by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda.

In place of one-judge courts, Dublin proposed that the model of the Republic be followed and the number of judges be increased to three, with one of these judges being a member of the Republic’s judiciary. (As in the north, IRA-related cases are tried in the Republic without a jury.)

Dublin also proposed the appointment of a new Police Authority. Created in 1970, the Police Authority is supposed to be the watchdog of police abuses. It receives public complaints and has the power to refer cases involving alleged police misconduct to an independent tribunal. In the nationalist community this watchdog is considered blind and toothless. The SDLP adopted a discussion paper on justice at its annual conference in January 1985 that asserted: "The Police Authority is nothing more than an official smokescreen, aimed at suggesting that [the Royal Ulster Constabulary] are controlled and are accountable, while in fact remaining mute on the . . . daily oppressive practices of the RUC."

If the Irish Republic were to become involved in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland, it wanted to have a share in authority and the power to shape decisions, not merely to tender advice. The Thatcher government, like its predecessors since the present violence first erupted, is eager to keep and to improve cooperation with the Republic in security matters. Without such cooperation, the Republic could become one vast "safe house" for the IRA, and Northern Ireland might become ungovernable. Yet while recognizing that the two governments share a common interest in the defeat of terrorism, Prime Minister Thatcher at the outset gave a higher priority to the maintenance of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.


The depth of Mrs. Thatcher’s convictions about the north became apparent during a meeting of the two prime ministers in London on November 18-19, 1984. She was adamant that the Ulster Defence Regiment should not be disbanded, as she was not prepared to increase the number of regular British soldiers to previous levels to make up for the weakening of law-enforcement capability such an action would entail. In part, this reflected her belief that the road to peace in the north lay in the "Ulsterization" of its administration and in less overt British control. It ran counter to FitzGerald’s argument that unless Catholic confidence and cooperation could be enlisted, Ulsterization would remain an unpleasant synonym for Protestant hegemony.

Mrs. Thatcher was opposed to the introduction of the Garda Siochana into the policing of Northern Ireland or to the Irish government’s having any power over the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the Police Authority. Similarly, she saw constitutional obstacles, not necessarily insurmountable, to having southern Irish judges sit in courts in the north. Having rejected in whole or in part the Irish proposals, Mrs. Thatcher nevertheless agreed that cabinet ministers and senior officials should continue to explore possible ways in which the two governments could ameliorate the situation in Northern Ireland. The communiqué issued after the talks was low-key. Borrowing the language of the New Ireland Forum report, it stated that "the identities of both the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland should be recognized and respected, and reflected in the structures and processes of Northern Ireland in ways acceptable to both communities." There was no indication as to how those "structures and processes" might be changed.

At her news conference, the British prime minister said no decisions had been reached but that she and FitzGerald would meet again. "I do not wish to raise expectations that everything will be solved next time. I do not think it will be. But I hope we will be able to get a little further," she said.

Had she stopped there, it would have been in a familiar diplomatic tradition in which difficult issues are left vague and open-ended. Instead, she proceeded to volunteer a withering attack on all three constitutional models put forth by the New Ireland Forum: "I have made it quite clear, and so did Mr. Prior, when he was secretary of state, that a unified Ireland was one thing that was out. A second solution was a confederation system: that was out. A third solution was joint authority: that is out." Since Mrs. Thatcher delivered these remarks with her customary vehemence, she managed, as The Irish Press of Dublin remarked editorially, to make "out" sound like a four-letter word.

At his separate news conference, Prime Minister FitzGerald clung to the language and to the tenuously hopeful tone of the communiqué. He described the discussions as "extensive and constructive." He refused to be drawn into any public disagreement with the British prime minister. But her remarks evoked a firestorm of criticism in Ireland. Hume, for example, characterized her language as provoking "deep and justifiable anger and offense." Back in Dublin, at a closed meeting of his party’s parliamentary members, FitzGerald described her remarks as "gratuitously offensive," a phrase that quickly found its way into the newspapers.

This was the low point. Negotiations resumed, and as the talks proceeded with modest progress, the date for the next formal meeting of the two prime ministers was postponed, first from late winter to late spring, then to early autumn, and finally to November.

The turning point came in June 1985 when Prime Ministers FitzGerald and Thatcher met informally in Milan at a European Community conference. During a lengthy conversation, Mrs. Thatcher dropped her skeptical and detached approach to the negotiation and appeared for the first time to appreciate FitzGerald’s sense of the urgency and importance of doing something constructive about the north before Sinn Fein made irreversible gains and displaced the SDLP as the political spokesman for a majority of northern Catholics.

Prime Minister Thatcher had earlier appointed a cabinet committee including Sir Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, and Viscount Whitelaw, leader of the House of Lords, to work with Douglas Hurd, the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, in supervising the negotiations. However, as is normal in British and Irish government, the substantial negotiations were actually conducted by senior civil servants headed, for the British, by Cabinet Secretary Armstrong and for the Irish by Dermot Nally, secretary to the office of the prime minister, and Sean Donlon, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

After the Milan talk had removed any lingering doubt that Mrs. Thatcher was prepared to act, the negotiations moved swiftly ahead. By the end of July, the civil servants had prepared the outlines of an agreement, and it only remained for the respective cabinets to take the necessary decisions on three or four disputed points. Dick Spring, the Irish deputy prime minister, and Foreign Minister Peter Barry met with Howe and Hurd in London.

The process hit a brief rough patch on the road in September when Mrs. Thatcher included Hurd in a major cabinet reshuffle, moving him from the Northern Ireland Office to the job of home secretary. Christopher Patton, one of his junior ministers who had the sensitive assignment of conducting political talks with the Northern Ireland parties, was shifted to junior minister in the Ministry of Education. These changes seemed once again to signal a British view that Northern Ireland was not, after all, very important compared to the concerns of mainland Britain. The press reaction in both London and Dublin was adverse, particularly as Tom King, Kurd’s successor, was not a well-known political figure. Like most of his predecessors he had no experience and little knowledge of the north. As it became clear that the agreement was already far advanced and that its details would be decided upon by the prime minister herself, these concerns faded.


The agreement finally made public in November 1985 represented the culmination of 18 months of negotiations begun at an official level almost immediately after the release of the New Ireland Forum report in May 1984. Along the way there were the two summit meetings of the prime ministers, their four informal meetings on the margins of European common market conferences, six meetings of cabinet ministers, and 35 among officials at lower levels. In that period, the British prime minister had also had a close brush with death in October 1984, when IRA bombs blew up the hotel in Brighton where she and most of her cabinet were staying for a Conservative Party conference.

No one could have predicted after the "out, out, out" press conference of November 1984 that when the two prime ministers next met for a summit a year later, it would be marked by the signing of an Anglo-Irish agreement. The events that brought about the evolution in Mrs. Thatcher’s thinking can be traced back not one year but four.

Her stern, unyielding management of the IRA hunger strike in 1981 had caused an upsurge of support for the IRA within the Catholic nationalist community. This emboldened Sinn Fein to return to contesting elections. Its relative success alarmed the SDLP and the major parties in the Republic, and their response was the New Ireland Forum. Meanwhile, Prior was trying to get the revived Assembly off the ground. If either of the principal unionist parties in 1982-83 had been willing to contemplate sharing power with the SDLP, the latter would have been willing to enter the Assembly. However, throughout nearly a generation of crisis, the unionist people and their leaders have been unable to grasp the point that either they would have to come to terms with the SDLP at the regional level or face some kind of intervention by the government in Dublin on behalf of the nationalist minority. The unionists adamantly refused to share power with their Catholic neighbors and remained even more distrustful of the government in Dublin.

The failure of Prior’s Assembly initiative made it clear to the British prime minister that if she were to make any move to change the unpromising dynamics of the Northern Ireland situation, she would have to do so through an agreement with Dublin. In this sense, the 1985 agreement is an expression of British exasperation with the stubbornness and sterility of the unionist position.

Mrs. Thatcher could have continued to hold to the view she had maintained since taking office in 1979, that the situation in the north was bad, but that anything she could do might make it worse. The patient persuasion of Prime Minister FitzGerald was decisive in altering that viewpoint. He ultimately persuaded her that doing nothing was not a prescription for peace and stability, that time and events were working in favor of the IRA. If this trend were not reversed, it spelled danger for her country and for his.

In this context, the unfavorable reaction, particularly in Ireland and the United States and in some influential quarters in Britain, to her "out, out, out" press conference made Mrs. Thatcher more amenable to FitzGerald’s campaign of persuasion. It was pointed out to her that if she could not find common ground with such low-key, undemagogic politicians as FitzGerald and Hume, she was unlikely to find any Irish politician with whom she could negotiate the Northern Ireland problem.

The result of this meeting of minds between the two prime ministers is an agreement that is extraordinarily vague about procedures and details but clear about the broad scope of the cooperation that is envisaged between the two governments.

"The United Kingdom Government accept that the Irish Government will put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland." Presumably, no government invites another to offer advice about problems within its own jurisdiction unless it intends to take that advice seriously. The agreement provides no procedure for arbitrating or resolving differences. It merely states: "In the interest of promoting peace and stability, determined efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences."

The operation of the Intergovernmental Conference was carefully outlined. (The term "conference" was used rather than council or commission, partly because the number and identity of the cabinet ministers in attendance were expected to vary depending upon the issues under discussion, and partly because "conference" sounds less structured and permanent, and therefore might be less intimidating to unionists.) The Intergovernmental Conference is to meet at either ministerial or official level, its meetings shall be "regular and frequent," and its business will "receive attention at the highest level." The Irish minister designated as the permanent Irish ministerial representative and the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland are to serve as co-chairmen. The agreement establishes a joint secretariat to help follow up on the Intergovernmental Conference’s decisions and plan future meetings. The creation of this secretariat, with offices a short distance from the Northern Ireland government complex at Stormont, means that for the first time since 1922 officials from the south of Ireland are at work in the north.

The fourth article asserts that it is the declared policy of Britain to encourage a devolved government in the north that would be acceptable to both sides of the community and that the Irish government supports that policy.

Article 5, entitled "Political Matters," sets forth three objectives. They are to accommodate the rights and identities of the two communities, protect human rights and prevent discrimination. Among the subjects for review by the Intergovernmental Conference are "measures to foster the cultural heritage of both traditions, changes in electoral arrangements, the use of flags and emblems, the avoidance of economic and social discrimination and the advantages and disadvantages of a Bill of Rights."

This last item is an allusion to a significant diversion between British and Irish constitutional practice. Britain has the world’s most famous unwritten constitution, while Ireland has a written constitution subject to judicial review and interpretation in the American manner by a supreme court. Since most Catholics in Northern Ireland are deeply alienated from the British law-enforcement and judicial systems, they would like a bill of rights to which they could appeal for protection. In Britain, there is considerable support in the Labour and Alliance Parties for adopting a bill of rights for the nation as a whole, but Mrs. Thatcher and most members of the Conservative Party are suspicious of such a break with tradition.

Dublin’s new status as designated spokesman for the Northern Ireland Catholics has its clearest definition in Article 6 which states that the Irish government may put forward proposals "on the role and composition" of five government agencies: the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Fair Employment Agency, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Police Authority, and the Police Complaints Board.

Since the unionists have been accustomed to think of the police as a shield against the murderous depredations of the IRA, this provision is anathema to them. In the darker unionist imagination, the IRA is the covert arm of the Dublin government; the one seeks to unite Ireland by force and the other by consent, and both are to be resisted. To grant the Dublin government a voice in selecting members of the Police Authority and the Police Complaints Board is regarded as tantamount to turning the chicken coop over to the fox. But conversely, this provision was crucial for Dublin. Unless Catholic confidence in the impartiality of the police can be established, there is no prospect for achieving normality in the north.

Articles 7 and 8 discuss the need for improvement in police training, police and community relations, and an increase in the number of Catholics in the police. Prison policies and the cases of individual prisoners are subject to review by the Intergovernmental Conference. There is to be an effort to harmonize criminal law in the north and the south, and consideration will be given to the possibility of mixed courts in both jurisdictions.

FitzGerald and the Irish negotiating team had pushed hard for the concept of mixed courts. There were times when the idea seemed likely to be agreed upon, but in the end the British were reluctant to undertake the experiment. The controlling consideration was the British view that mixed courts might create as many problems as they would solve. There would be serious security problems in guarding the judges on both sides who undertook this hazardous duty, and mixed courts would arouse acute unionist indignation because of the formal sharing of authority with Dublin. The question was left open.

The remaining articles express support for the creation of an Anglo-Irish parliamentary committee drawn from the House of Commons and the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish Parliament) and provide for a review of the agreement after three years.


What can the unionists do to subvert the agreement? That is the compelling question now and for the coming year.

To dramatize their contention that the agreement defies democratic sentiment in the province, the unionists who held 15 of Northern Ireland’s 17 seats in the House of Commons resigned as a group. There was an element of risk in this maneuver since four of the unionist seats are in nationalist areas. The unionists represent these districts only because the moderate SDLP and more militant Sinn Fein split the nationalist vote. To guard against splitting their own vote, the unionists arranged an electoral pact which nominated only one of their number in each constituency.

When the special election was held on January 23, 1986, the outcome was less than ideal for the unionists. Paisley and several other well-known figures won by predictably huge majorities. One of the four marginal seats, however, was lost to the SDLP and in a second, Enoch Powell, the veteran English politician who is now the intellectual driving force of the Official Unionists, scraped home by fewer than 2,000 votes. The unionists had incautiously called for the support of 500,000 voters, which would have been a clear majority of the Protestant population. They actually polled only 418,000—a show of strength but not particularly impressive.

For the British and Irish governments warily observing this voting, there was some heartening news. The two nationalist parties only contested the four districts where Catholics are in a majority. The SDLP candidates campaigned in support of the agreement and their combined vote rose 19 percent above the level reached in the 1983 general election. Support for Sinn Fein, which attacked the agreement as a "sellout" to the British, dropped 25 percent. Inasmuch as the political rationale for the agreement is to lessen the alienation of nationalists, the SDLP’s strong showing indicates that this rationale is sound.

Having had the special election, unionists can still withdraw from Parliament. They can also refuse to serve in elected local councils and on appointed boards dealing with health and with education. But in the past abstention never paid dividends for the nationalist minority. It is likely to be equally self-defeating for the unionists.

Another option is a recourse to violence. Leading politicians in the Republic could be prime targets for assassination. There could be a round of sectarian killings in the north such as occurred in the mid-1970s when many rank-and-file Catholics were killed. The police, however, are believed to have infiltrated the Protestant paramilitary groups. A new wave of killings might lead only to a substantial increase in the number of Protestant gunmen already behind bars. In any event, the British government is unlikely to be deterred by fresh violence.

Unlike previous attempts to resolve communal antagonisms in the north through regional institutions that required unionist cooperation for their success, this agreement is entirely between the sovereign governments in London and Dublin. This reality severely limits the room for maneuver open to unionist resistance. Prime Minister Thatcher met with Paisley and Molyneaux on February 25 and offered them a consultative procedure of their own. Every time the British and Irish cabinet ministers meet at the Intergovernmental Conference, the unionist leaders could meet separately with the Northern Ireland secretary to be briefed and to offer their own advice on issues under discussion. This offer may yet find some unionist takers, although it was temporarily overshadowed by a unionist show of militancy: a one-day strike on March 3 that shut down most business in the north.

The agreement includes language intended to encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to form a coalition government along the lines of the power-sharing executive of 1974. Most of the advisory powers conceded to Dublin, for example, are to be exercised only in the absence of a devolved government in the north that is acceptable to both communities. Insofar as the unionists dread Dublin’s intervention in their affairs, the ideal option is for them to return to power-sharing.

The Assembly established by Prior is scheduled for renewal or abandonment in the autumn of 1986. The unionists would have to make a U-turn with remarkable speed away from their intransigent rhetoric and toward the language of cooperation in the few months remaining before the election if they are to convince the SDLP to drop its abstentionist position and enter into a wholehearted effort to make the Assembly work. Such a reversal of policy is conceivable but unlikely. Although Hume has offered to enter talks with the unionists without preconditions, the SDLP may prefer to place its trust in the Intergovernmental Conference and its own influence in Dublin rather than rely upon unionist cooperation.

As an incentive to the two hostile communities in the north to cooperate, the negotiators of the agreement decided to seek the creation of an economic development fund to be financed by special grants from Britain, the European Community, Canada, Australia and, they hope, the United States. Despite the restraints of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget act, President Reagan has proposed and House Speaker O’Neill is actively supporting a one-time grant of $250 million, with the actual appropriations stretched out over five years. This money would go to a trust fund to be established by the British and Irish governments.

The route to reconciliation in Northern Ireland will be long and tortuous. The Intergovernmental Conference must show results through changes in the police, the courts and the prisons if the alienation of the Catholic community is to diminish and its support for the IRA to decline. Time will have to pass before unionist fears subside and members of that community begin to recognize that enlisting Dublin’s active involvement has not damaged their security and has, in fact, made some problems easier to manage. The two governments have set in motion a process of change. The way ahead for this kind of intergovernmental cooperation is uncharted. It may be the end of the century before it finally becomes clear how far Northern Ireland has drifted from its old habits of conflict.

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  • William V. Shannon is University Professor of History and Journalism at Boston University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland in 1977-81, and previously had been a member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times.
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