Anglo-Irish Agreement - Assessment
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The following text has been contributed by Alan Morton, Ph.D. Student with the Irish Peace Institute Research Centre, University of Limerick. The views expressed in this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
Assessment of the AgreementThe precise value of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is difficult to assess in quantifiable terms because of the tacit agreement between the two governments not to emphasise decisions reached at the Intergovernmental Conferences due to unionist hostility. That said, the Agreement can be judged against the various aims ascribed to it. Some of the aims and objectives of the two Governments overlapped, others were divergent.
Before discussing these overlapping
and divergent aims, it is necessary to define what the Agreement
represents. Perhaps the best starting point in that exercise
is to define what it is not. O'Leary and McGarry (1993) contend
that it does not represent joint authority, it is not a forerunner
to a united Ireland, and does not represent the abandonment of
the Republic's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland (as witnessed
in a test of the Agreement's constitutionality by a Unionist politician
in the Irish Supreme Court (McGimpsey V. An Taoiseach)).
Rather, they argue it institutionalised Anglo-Irish relations;
guaranteed the unionist position while ensuring unionists did
not have a veto over policy formation; and bound the Republic
to an abandonment of a united Ireland in the short term (O'Leary
and McGarry, 1993). Yet if a united Ireland was only off the
agenda in the short term, surely the unionist position was only
guaranteed in the short term also?
O'Leary and McGarry (1993) correctly
view the Agreement in terms of 'coercive consociationalism' (or
'coercive power-sharing'). It was seen as a temporary measure
by both Governments to push unionist politicians into a devolved
power-sharing arrangement. 1988 saw 'talks about talks' between
members of the two main unionist parties and officials from the
Northern Ireland Office (NIO). From 1989, both Governments were
willing to discuss a new arrangements which would transcend the
Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference
was also suspended on two occasions in 1991 and 1992 to provide
space for the Brooke / Mayhew initiative (see Political Developments
In order to assess the achievement or
otherwise of the Agreement, it is necessary to illuminate the
rationale and objectives of both Governments.
The British Rationale
Margaret Thatcher, the then British
Prime Minister, approached the treaty negotiations with the security
situation as her main priority. She described her 'own instincts
as profoundly Unionist' (Thatcher, 1993) but was willing to consider
a role for the Dublin Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland
in return for co-operation on security. She argued that 'the
biggest concentration of terrorists anywhere in the world save
Lebanon was to be found in Ireland. The border was virtually
open so far as terrorists were concerned' (Thatcher, 1993). This
echoed the not uncommon perception in Britain, of the Republic
of Ireland as being a 'safe haven' for the Irish Republican Army
(IRA) and its activities.
The British Government was also keen
during the early stages to introduce reforms aimed at meeting
nationalist criticisms, while wishing to play down the influence
of the Intergovernmental Conference. However, the increase in
Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity in 1987 and 1988 following
the shipment of arms from Libya saw increased emphasis being placed
on security matters. O'Leary and McGarry (1993) argue that Britain
was anxious for the Irish Government to share responsibility over
the management of Northern Ireland, partly to help reduce international
The Irish Rationale
Garret FitzGerald's prime concern was
to prevent further growth in the support for the Irish Republican
Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Féin (SF). The
intention here was fourfold: to reduce the levels of violence
in Northern Ireland; to protect the position of constitutional
Nationalism in Northern Ireland, represented by the Social Democratic
and Labour Party (SDLP); to protect the political party system
in the Republic from the growth Sinn Fein; and to ensure that
political violence did not spill-over into the Republic.
The Irish Government was also keen to
advance the interests and aspirations of the nationalist minority
in Northern Ireland, and to co-operate with the British and Northern
Ireland authorities in security related matters.
The most useful criteria by which to
assess the contribution of the Anglo-Irish Agreement can be found
in the document itself: the Intergovernmental Conference, political
matters, legal and security matters and cross-border co-operation.
The Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference
struggled in 1987 and 1988, partly due to the arrival of Charles
Haughey as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and partly due to
changes in senior personnel at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
O'Leary and McGarry (1993) report disillusionment with the workings
of the Agreement both inside and outside Northern Ireland during
1988 and 1989 due to the perception that it was merely jumping
from one crisis to the next, with little strategic planning involved.
This criticism was acknowledged in the official review of the
Intergovernmental Conference in 1989.
The Intergovernmental Conference formalised
relations between the Britain and Ireland, and this, accompanied
by frequent contact through the European Union at official and
political level, has been a key factor in the Downing Street Declaration,
the Joint Framework Document and the Northern Ireland peace process
of the 1990s. It could be successfully argued that Britain and
Ireland now see the Northern Ireland problem in the same light.
The problem remains, however, of filtering this bi-partisanship
to the divided communities and political leaders of Northern Ireland.
The Agreement intended to promote devolution within the ranks of Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and marginalise the more extreme Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
However, the impact in these respects
has been negligible. In terms of marginalising Sinn Féin
(SF), the Agreement was more successful. Sinn Féin's support
fell in subsequent European, Westminster and local elections,
and support for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
stabilised. Sinn Féin contested in the general elections
to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) in 1987 and 1989, winning
only 1.9% and 1.2% respectively. Therefore, in terms of seeking
to undermine the position of Sinn Féin, the Agreement was
successful in the short-term. However, the Northern Ireland Forum
elections of 1996 saw Sinn Féin recover the electoral support
it had achieved in the aftermath of the hunger strikes in the
In terms of the Irish Government advancing
the interests of the nationalist community, the Intergovernmental
Conference achieved some notable successes. The Flags and Emblems
Act, which was used to discriminated against symbols of the nationalist
minority, was repealed. Fair employment legislation was introduced,
stricter criteria emerged for controversial parades and marches,
and incitement to hatred laws were strengthened. However, as
the two Governments were not keen to attribute these advances
to the workings of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, nationalists did
not perceive the Agreement as achieving much for their cause.
An indirect political consequence of
the Hillsborough accord was the talks process between John Hume,
the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and
Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin (SF), in 1988.
These talks developed into the Hume / Adams initiative, a crucial
factor in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the subsequent
Security and Legal Matters
The security aspect of the Agreement
was a key concern for Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald.
In his autobiography, Garret FitzGerald pointed to the RUC handling
of unionist demonstrations, improvements in arrangements for parole
and compassionate leave for prisoners, the abolition of the 'supergrass'
trials, and the establishment of the Police Complaints Commission
as evidence of progress in legal and security related matters.
Margaret Thatcher is somewhat more reticent in her autobiography:
'our concessions alienated the Unionists without gaining the level
of security co-operation we had the right to expect' (Thatcher,
The failure of the Irish courts to extradite
a number of suspected Irish Republican Army (IRA) activists to
Britain, including Evelyn Glenholmes and Fr. Patrick Ryan, strained
Anglo-Irish relations, as did the British Government's refusal
to introduce three-judge courts for terrorist offences in Northern
Ireland. Overall, advances in terms of the policing and the courts
systems have been less than anticipated. Although as pointed
out by Boyle and Hadden (1989), security issues have frequently
been discussed at Intergovernmental Conferences, but little information
has been released.
The Agreement resulted in some improvement
in cross-border security co-operation, involving a sharing of
intelligence information between both Governments and police forces,
but there has been no dramatic success. In terms of increasing
public confidence among nationalists in the administration of
justice, Boyle and Hadden (1989) report 'little progress'.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement envisaged
the Intergovernmental Conference as the framework for promoting
economic, cultural and social co-operation between the two parts
of Ireland in the absence of devolution. Boyle and Hadden (1989),
however, report 'little observable change'. In contrast, increased
economic and social interaction between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland was achieved in the aftermath of the paramilitary
ceasefires of 1994.
Peace, stability and reconciliation
in Northern Ireland were the main objectives of the Agreement,
although admittedly in the longer run, as both Governments expected
an initial increase in the level of paramilitary activity. In
terms of reconciling the communities of Northern Ireland, the
Anglo-Irish Agreement can only be judged as a failure. Catholics
generally believe it has made little difference to their lives,
while Protestants are bitterly resentful of its existence. Twelve
years after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the two
main traditions in Northern Ireland are as polarised as they have
1990 saw the then Secretary of State,
Peter Brooke, quietly launch his initiative to bring Northern
Ireland's constitutional political parties to the negotiating
table. Brooke's successor, Sir Patrick Mayhew, continued along
similar lines. However, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire
of August 1994 provided the impetus for the inclusive peace strategy
that has dominated the political agenda of the mid-1990s. The
Anglo-Irish Agreement as the framework to create a lasting political
settlement has been sidelined. O'Leary and McGarry (1993) argue
that the Hillsborough Agreement merely created a new stalemate.
Yet it remains intact, provides the Irish Government with an
input into the administration of Northern Ireland, and provides
a vital channel of communication between both Governments.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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