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Anglo-Irish Agreement - Background Information

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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.

Background Information

Anglo-Irish Relations, 1922 - 1968

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 established the Irish Free State. Unionist objections to a united Ireland had resulted in the establishment of Northern Ireland through the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Relations between Dublin and London soured shortly after the arrival to power of Eamonn de Valera in 1932. The 1930s were dominated by a trade war, instigated by de Valera's Fianna Fáil (FF) Government. Ireland ratified a new constitution in 1937 and declared itself a Republic in 1948. Britain responded with the Ireland Act 1949, which claimed exclusive British jurisdiction over the administration of Northern Ireland.

Relations warmed through a series of trade agreements in 1938, 1948, and 1960, culminating with the Free Trade Agreement of 1965. Both countries also joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.

Northern Ireland, however, was not an important political issue for either government for most of this period. Overall, the British and Irish governments attitudes to the Stormont years in Northern Ireland (1922 to 1972) was one of benign indifference. Despite traditional republican rhetoric from Dublin and claims of exclusive British sovereignty from London, neither administration were particularly interested in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Anglo-Irish Relations and the Emergence of 'the Troubles'

The emergence of the civil rights movement and subsequent political violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s strained relations between Dublin and London. Jack Lynch, the then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), asserted:

the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and, perhaps, worse. The Irish Government have ... requested the British Government to apply immediately to the United Nations (UN) for the urgent dispatch of a peace-keeping force to the six counties of Northern Ireland (quoted in Hadden and Boyle, 1989).

The British Government responded that 'Northern Ireland had long been an integral part of the United Kingdom and that events there were an internal matter for the United Kingdom Government' (Hadden and Boyle, 1989). The Stormont Government was prorogued and direct rule from Westminster was established in March 1972. Direct rule was seen as a temporary measure but has continued to this day.

The Sunningdale Experiment, 1973 - 1974

The Sunningdale experiment of 1973 represented an imaginative Anglo-Irish attempt to accommodate both national identities in Northern Ireland. Its main provisions were a devolved assembly, a power-sharing executive and a cross-border institution, called the Council of Ireland. Although few of the provisions of the accord were brought into effect, a power-sharing government was established involving the Official Unionist Party (OUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI). The executive, however, only lasted five months due to the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike of May 1974.

Objections to the Sunningdale accord from sections of the Unionist community centred on fears that the Council of Ireland would become a stepping stone to a united Ireland. Nevertheless, the experiment was a major development in Northern Ireland politics and Anglo-Irish relations. Many of the concepts and terms used in the Sunningdale agreement can be found in subsequent communiqués between the two governments, including the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The various elements of the Sunningdale agreement provided the parameters for subsequent political discussions, up to and including the 'peace process' of the 1990s.

Searching for an internal settlement, 1974 - 1980

Merlyn Rees, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, published a White Paper in July 1974 outlining a plan for a Constitutional Convention. The United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) took 46 and 17 seats respectively in the subsequent election. The Convention was unable to agree on a devolved form of government and voted for a return to the Stormont system. The British Government had rejected this with the introduction of direct rule in 1972, and the Convention expired in November 1975.

Roy Mason succeeded Rees as Secretary of State in September 1976 and sought to introduce another from of power-sharing through his 'interim devolution' scheme of 1977. This was based on the idea of a devolved non-legislating 78-seat assembly from which sub-committees would be drawn to deal with non-contentious issues such as health, social services and transport. Discussions dragged on for some months but the approach failed to attract much support. A similar fate awaited the Round Table Conference initiated by Conservative Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins in 1980, and Secretary of State James Prior's 'rolling devolution' scheme of 1982.

The Thatcher / Haughey Initiative, 1981

The focus of British policy shifted from Belfast to Dublin following the failure of Atkins' Round Table Conference in 1980. Margaret Thatcher led a high-powered delegation to Dublin and met the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Charles Haughey, in May 1980. The focus of the initiative was the relationship between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. A number of joint studies were commissioned concerning new institutional arrangements, security matters, economic co-operation and measures to encourage mutual understanding. The phrase 'totality of relationships between these islands' also entered the political vocabulary for the first time.

The joint studies have provided the back-bone of many of the developments in Anglo-Irish relations since 1981. More immediately, however, they resulted in the creation of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council, a series of intergovernmental contacts at various levels, and the non-governmental Anglo-Irish Encounter, primarily concerned with cultural and social issues.

It should be noted that much of the Thatcher / Haughey initiative was over-shadowed by the hunger strikes at the Maze prison. The hunger strikes concerned 'political status' of prisoners and resulted in ten republican prisoners dying from self-imposed starvation, including Bobby Sands MP (Member of Parliament), elected in a by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The hunger strikes were a major propaganda coup for Sinn Féin (SF) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and heralded the entry of Sinn Féin into electoral politics.

New Ireland Forum, 1983 - 1984

The New Ireland Forum was established by the FitzGerald Government and sat from May 1983 to May 1984. It was established partly in response to the rise of Sinn Féin (SF) following the hunger strikes. The final report has been described as 'the most authoritative restatement of the nationalist ideal in recent times' (Whyte, 1990). The Forum was attended by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) from Northern Ireland, and the three main political parties in the Republic, Fianna Fáil (FF), Fine Gael (FG), and the Irish Labour Party. Other parties from Northern Ireland were invited to attend but declined. The Forum received 317 written and 31 oral submissions.

The New Ireland Forum Report concluded that 'a united Ireland in the form of a sovereign independent state to be achieved peacefully and by consent' was 'the best and most durable basis for peace and stability'. The Report also put forward a federal or confederal state, and joint authority as alternatives. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in a famous press conference stated 'the unified Ireland was one solution - that is out. A second solution was a confederation of the two States - that is out. A third solution was joint authority - that is out'.

Nevertheless, sections of the Anglo-Irish Agreement draw heavily on the language and substance of the New Ireland Forum Report, and its influence can be seen throughout the Agreement. The Report also formed much of the basis for the negotiations leading to the signing of the Hillsborough Agreement.

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