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The protest against the Anglo Irish Agreement, November 1985


I left Northern Ireland in 1987, more or less persuaded that there was no longer anything useful I could do. I think I was right in this. My political perspective was beaten and I didn't think anyone else had a political perspective that could lead to anything other than violence and despair. But that was where I was wrong. The leadership of the Provisional IRA had, unbeknownst to me, come to the conclusion that little more could be achieved by the military struggle. The eagle had got as far as it could. It was now time for the wren to take off on its own.

What had the eagle achieved? The Dublin government was now implicated in the government of Northern Ireland. If I complain that Westminster wanted nothing to do with Northern Ireland, a Nationalist could equally complain that Dublin wanted nothing to do with Northern Ireland. They could reasonably have expected at the very least moral support from the government whose constitution claimed sovereignty over the whole island and who had been churning out anti-partitionist literature throughout the whole period of its existence. But they had received precious little of it. Now, without expecting that Dublin would do anything very positive, an all-Ireland dimension had been successfully introduced. And if I was unhappy that Dublin would veto my favoured option of full integration into the UK, Nationalists could be happy that Dublin would certainly veto any return to a majority rule devolved government.

And make no mistake. This remarkable development - a complete turnaround on the part of the lady who famously boasted that she wasn't for turning - could not have happened without the Brighton bombing which nearly killed the whole Tory cabinet. The Brighton bomb was in December 1984. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in September 1985. The sequence of cause and effect - especially when we consider that Thatcher had previously shown an integrationist tendency that was actually built into the Tory manifesto of 1979 - is unmistakeable. (14)

(14)  When Margaret Thatcher came to power she was greatly influenced by Airey Neave who had been her campaign manager during her bid to be leader of the Conservative Party and who was head of her private office and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Neave was a strong supporter of the policy of creating an adequate system of government for Northern Ireland by the simple device of closing the Macrory gap. He was assassinated in March 1979 by the Irish National Liberation Army - a remarkable achievement by an otherwise generally ineffective split off group from the Official IRA. The Wikipedia article on Airey Neave, citing Simon Heffer's biography of Enoch Powell, claims that Powell believed Neave had been assassinated not by the INLA but by American interests anxious to prevent the integration of Northern Ireland into the UK.

But there is another achievement, less tangible but ultimately much more important. The eagle had for well over a decade maintained a war with the one of the world's most powerful, or at least highly regarded, military machines. They had shown staying power. And the people who had shown such staying power were Northern Catholics, the 'croppies' who had kept their heads down for fifty years. They had shown that they were no longer to be trifled with. They had asserted themselves as a people of substance.

In 1994, the Provisional IRA declared a truce. It was made perfectly clear that the army council and Sinn Fein had decided they wanted to end the war. It seems that they had long recognised that the aim of achieving a united Ireland by military means was impossible - there is reason to think that they had decided that as early as 1977. (15) I certainly thought in the late seventies, and in particular when Roy Mason was secretary of State showing no interest in any destabilising devolution initiatives, that the war was more or less over. It was around this time that a substantial shift in the IRA/Sinn Fin leadership occurred from the Dublin traditionalists - Sean MacStiofain, Daithi O Conaill and Ruairi O Bradaigh - to a new leadership formed in the conflict in Northern Ireland and of course personified by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. A symptom of this was the decision of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in 1986 that Sinn Fein representatives should take their seats in Leinster House, the Southern Parliament. Non-recognition of the Southern government and therefore refusal to sit in the Dail, was an article of faith for the traditionalists.

(15)  Walsh: Resurgence p.287 refers to an address by Jimmy Drumm at the annual Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in 1977 'when he gave formal recognition that the War was not being won by the Provos ... Once Drumm had spoken the end of the War was in sight, although that was not apparent initially. There was little doubt that the Army Council had countenanced the Bodenstown address and it had fundamental consequences for the War. From then on the problem was how to end the war in a functional settlement. If the British Government did not facilitate the ending of the War on reasonable terms, it would probably have to be prolonged until it did ...'

In the 1980s, a series of discussions occurred involving Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in the Republic, Fr Alex Reid, a Redemptorist priest in the Clonard monastery in Belfast, Gerry Adams and, eventually, John Hume - Hume acting quite independently of the Nationalist SDLP, of which he was leader. In 1987 Fr Alex Reid sent a letter to Haughey outlining Adams' proposals for a cessation of IRA activity and in 1993 Adams held a series of discussions with Hume, made known publicly in a joint statement. This is usually presented as the beginning of what is known as the 'peace process'.

However, bringing a war to an end is a very delicate process, especially if you are confronted with an enemy who doesn't have the intelligence to give you a helping hand. Adams and McGuinness weren't proposing to surrender. Nor were they going to allow a post war settlement to run around arresting everyone who had been active in the Provisional IRA. The achievement of the Northern Ireland Catholics in maintaining a war for, now, over twenty years, had to be acknowledged and respected. They were bringing the military phase of their struggle to an end but they wished to continue the political struggle. Time for the wren to take off from the eagle's back. But there was no point in trying to engage in politics if the logic of Northern Ireland, with its inbuilt Protestant Unionist majority, was not somehow broken. The Anglo Irish Agreement, which gave the Southern government a veto over Northern Ireland affairs was perhaps a step in the right direction. But how could you trust the Southern government which was as anxious as the UK government to wash its hands of the whole affair? What was required was a system which gave the Catholics of Northern Ireland themselves a veto over government. 

This is what was achieved in the 'Good Friday Agreement' of 1998. Yet even after 1998, Sinn Fein had to put up with continual efforts of the Unionists, the British government and even the SDLP and the Southern government after the withdrawal of Haughey and his immediate successor Albert Reynolds, to give the process of IRA dissolution the appearance of a rout, of humiliation and surrender, an admission that the war had all along been nothing but a criminal enterprise (and this from the government that was maintaining the murderous policy of sanctions on Iraq and, having by this means destroyed Iraqi civilian society, was about to embark on the invasion which would destroy the Iraqi state and open it up to an anarchy of warring paramilitaries).

It wasn't until 2006 that Ian Paisley finally decided - acting, like Hume, in defiance of his own party - to stop playing games and accept the opportunity that had been given at least ten years earlier to end the war, enabling the IRA finally to disarm and step out of the picture.