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Expert Comment: ‘It was the Americans that made me do it’: Margaret Thatcher’s signing of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement

UK and Ireland Wednesday 11 November 2015

Dr Stephen Kelly, Lecturer in Modern History, reflects on the role that America played in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. 

This month marks the thirty year anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement on behalf of the British and Irish governments. Signed by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Garret FitzGerald, on 15 November 1985, the Agreement was a defining moment in the history of 20th century Anglo-Irish relations.

At the heart of the accord, as enshrined under Article 1, was a commitment by the sovereign governments in London and Dublin to reject political violence, to acknowledge the principle of consent, ‘that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland’, and that Irish unity could only be achieved by peaceful means.

Article 2 dealt with institutional relations between Dublin and London. Significantly, for the first time London recognised that the Irish government had a ‘consultative’ role to play in the affairs of Northern Ireland, as a defender of the interests of the nationalist minority.

While FitzGerald basked in the glory of the Agreement (the Agreement was arguably his greatest political achievement) Thatcher was in a less jubilant mood. In fact, she regretted signing the Agreement almost immediately. In her memoirs she conceded that the Agreement was ‘not perfect’ and that she was ultimately ‘disappointed’ by how it operated.

The question therefore arises, why did Thatcher agree to sign the Agreement in the first place, given her subsequent animosity towards its implementation? Two points must be considered.  

Firstly, Thatcher hoped that support for the Agreement would provide the security solution to the Northern Ireland conflict, by isolating the terrorists and formalising security co-operation between Dublin and London. The previous year, on 12 October 1984, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had only narrowly failed to assassinate Thatcher, following the terrorist organisation’s planting of a massive bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. While the failed attempt on her life convinced Thatcher that she would never be ‘bombed to the negotiating table’, as she privately phrased it, she nonetheless conceded that she did require the support of the Irish government, particularly in relation to security matters, if the PIRA was to be defeated.

Secondly, apart from security considerations and ending the ‘long war’ against the PIRA a more immediate consideration dictated Thatcher’s attitude vis-à-vis the Irish government’s role in Northern Ireland affairs: her relationship with American president Ronald Reagan. In the aftermath of Thatcher’s infamous ‘Out ... out ... out ...’ dictum, whereby she ruled out London’s support for all three proposals put forward by the New Ireland Forum in 1984 to help end the conflict in Northern Ireland (the three proposals were: a confederal/federal model; joint authority; and a unitary state), Irish-American politicians in Washington intensively lobbied the Reagan administration to persuade the British prime minister to permit the Irish government a legitimate role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Thatcher caved to American pressure. Rather than risk destroying her ‘special relationship’ with American president Ronald Reagan, Thatcher agreed, against her better judgement, to support the Agreement. Indeed, several years after the signing of the Agreement she was remembered for exclaiming: ‘It was the Americans that made me do it!’.                     

The lobbying campaign on behalf of the Irish-American community was spearheaded under the auspices of ‘The Friends of Ireland’. Launched in March 1977 this body was led by several prominent Irish-American politicians, including Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan, Governor Hugh Carey of New York and speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill – the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’.

O’Neill, in particular, was integral to the entire Irish-American lobbying process. As Speaker of the House of Representatives he held considerable clout in Washington and regularly used his political muscle in the arena of Irish-American politics. Throughout the negotiating stages of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, working closely with the Irish government in Dublin and John Hume’s SDLP in Northern Ireland, O’Neill lobbied Reagan on the Irish question, pressurising the American president to raise the subject of Northern Ireland with Thatcher.

William (Bill) Clarke, Reagan’s national security advisor at this time, was also integral to the process. In the aftermath of Thatcher’s ‘Out ... out ... out ...’ remarks the Irish government made contact with Clarke with a request that he use his influence to press Reagan to assist in forging ahead with a new chapter in Anglo-Irish relations. Clarke duly obliged.

In advance of an Anglo-American summit between Reagan and Thatcher, scheduled for late December 1984, Clarke asked Reagan to discuss Anglo-Irish relations with the British prime minister and to express ‘his desire for political progress’. Apart from pressure from the Irish-American community Reagan had his own reasons for supporting O’Neill’s appeals. By giving into such requests Reagan hoped that he could soften O’Neill’s critique of his Nicaragua policy. 

The Clarke-Donlon-The Friends of Ireland axis soon bore fruit. At the Anglo-American summit on 22 December Reagan ‘stressed’ to Thatcher the need for ‘progress and the need for all parties concerned to take steps which will contribute to a peaceful resolution’ to the Northern Ireland conflict. Although it went against her own personal inclinations Thatcher agreed to the American president’s request.

In advance of the British prime minister’s planned return visit to Washington in February 1985 she instructed her officials, under the control of Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher’s cabinet secretary, to continue negotiations with the Irish government. It was these negotiations, held under the auspices of the so-called ‘Armstrong-Nally Framework talks’, (Dermot Nally was secretary to the Irish cabinet) that eventually led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985.

To this day Thatcher remains a divisive figure in Irish political discourse. Within Republican circles she is particularly despised.  Many will never forgive the ‘Iron Lady’ for her ‘no surrender’ attitude to the Republican hunger strikers during the early 1980s. On her passing in 2013 there were even street parties in parts of Derry and Belfast, and elsewhere. Despite her many detractors, both here and in Britain, Thatcher deserves far greater credit for her role in nurturing what was to become the early stages of the Northern Ireland peace process. Her willingness to put pen to paper and support the Anglo-Irish Agreement, albeit reluctantly, helped to set a process in motion whereby the British and Irish governments, working in conjunction with the major political parties of Northern Ireland came together to find a lasting settlement to the ‘Troubles’.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 brought to a climax these negotiations, helping to establish lasting peace on the island of Ireland. This accord would not have come about without Thatcher taking the brave gamble to support the Anglo-Irish Agreement a decade previously.

The contents of this article are sourced from Dr Stephen Kelly’s forthcoming monograph, ‘A failed political entity’: Charles J. Haughey, Anglo-Irish relations and the Northern Ireland question, 1945-1992 (2016).

Dr Stephen Kelly - full profile

Department of History and Politics at Liverpool Hope University




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