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Anglo-Irish Agreement - Reaction to the Agreement

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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.

Reaction to the Agreement

Reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement varied according to the various interpretations of its meaning. The Agreement meant different things to different people. Unionists regarded the Agreement as the beginning of the end of the Union, while republicans saw the continuation of British rule by other means. Even the framers of the document diverged in their interpretation. Britain's attempts to re-assure unionists contrasted with the Irish Government's need to defend the Agreement against republican critics.

Support for the Agreement

The reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement from the international community and public opinion in the Republic of Ireland and Britain was favourable. The traditional bi-partisan nature of party politics in the House of Commons towards Northern Ireland guaranteed its acquiescence. The Commons voted in favour of the Agreement by 473 votes to 47. The Agreement was also endorsed by a majority of members of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament), with Fianna Fáil (FF) voting against. Support in Northern Ireland was limited to John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who had indirectly influenced its outcome through the New Ireland Forum and who been kept informed of negotiations through contact with the Irish Government.

Opposition to the Agreement emanated from traditional nationalists, or republicans, in both parts of Ireland, primarily Sinn Féin (SF) and Fianna Fáil (FF), and most vehemently, from the unionist politicians and population of Northern Ireland.

Opposition from Republicans

As leader of the Fianna Fáil 'The Republican Party' (FF), Charles Haughey had previously highlighted the unitary state option of the New Ireland Forum recommendations as the only workable solution. Haughey claimed in the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was incompatible with articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann), which claims that 'the national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland'. Haughey contended that 'by confirming what is called the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, this Agreement will do serious damage in the eyes of the world to Ireland's historic and legitimate claim to the unity of her territory' (quoted in Hadden & Boyle, 1989). Haughey later committed himself to working with the Agreement prior to acceding to power in 1987.

Similarly, republicans in Northern Ireland rejected the Agreement as falling short of their political demand for a united Ireland and immediate British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin (SF) leader Gerry Adams regarded the Agreement as a sell-out to Britain in that it copper-fastened partition and British rule.

Opposition from Unionists

Both Governments under-estimated the strength of the opposition from the unionist community of Northern Ireland. Mass protest rallies were organised to protest against the Agreement under the campaign heading 'Ulster Says No'. Over 100,000 people gathered in Belfast on 23 November 1985 to hear speeches of protest from James Molyneuax, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Both leaders also supported a campaign of mass civil disobedience. Both unionist parties subsequently resigned their seats in the House of Commons and suspended district council meetings in protest. The subsequent by-elections showed the strength of grassroots unionist opposition to the Agreement, which was probably more extreme than that of unionist political leaders. Yet the initial campaign of protest achieved little other than the delay of an Intergovernmental Conference for a couple of days.

Unionist opposition stemmed from three main factors. Firstly, unionist political leaders were excluded from the formal negotiations that led to the Agreement. This factor led to future President Mary Robinson's resignation from the Labour Party in the Republic. Secondly, the Irish Government was given a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time. Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom was perceived as threatened. The unionist-controlled Grand Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly argued, with some justification, that 'Northern Ireland is no longer a part of the United Kingdom on the same basis as Great Britain' (Grand Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly First Report, quoted in Hadden and Boyle, 1989). Many unionists saw the Agreement as a 'joint authority in embryo' (ibid.). Finally, unionists were excluded from the levers of power until they accepted a devolved power-sharing regime.

Opposition to the Agreement from mainstream unionist politicians gradually became more muted as more extreme elements became involved in unconstitutional attempts to undermine it. But unionist opposition to the involvement of the Dublin Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland through the Anglo-Irish Agreement structures has remained to this day.

Reaction from Paramilitaries

In his autobiography, Garret FitzGerald (1991) contends that paramilitary reaction to the Agreement was much less severe than either government expected. That the Governments expected increased paramilitary activity demonstrates that the aim of peace and reconciliation was a longer term objective of the Agreement.

Loyalist paramilitary groups increased their attacks on Catholics and also targeted RUC officers. This particular phase of their campaign peaked between March and May of 1986. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) widened its definition of 'legitimate targets' to include people involved in commercial relations with the security forces. The IRA campaign was boosted in 1987 by a large shipment of military hardware from Libya. Both extremes were keen to show the Agreement was not working. However, the increase in levels of violence cannot be attributed to the Agreement alone. Other factors must be considered, such as the shipment of arms from Libya.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
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