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Anglo-Irish Agreement - Assessment

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Text and Research: Alan Morton
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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 Agreement

The 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 below).

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 embarrassment.

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.

Intergovernmental Conference

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.

Political Matters

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 early 1980s.

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 IRA ceasefire.

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, 1993).

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'.

Cross-Border Co-operation

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 ever been.

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.

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