Northern Ireland History - The Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985 1990

Northern Ireland History 1985-1990

The Anglo-Irish Agreement document was formally signed by both Prime Ministers (Britain by Thatcher and Fitzgerald for the Republic of Ireland) at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland in November 1985, and was significant as it did for the first time give the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland.  It was a carefully crafted and worded document and at its heart was an intergovernmental conference that would be jointly chaired by London and Dublin ministers.  A well guarded office at Maryfield gave a support service to this conference team.  

An important fact was that the Republic of Ireland did not have executive powers as they were only consultative in their role.  Despite that many people had been taken aback by the fact that Thatcher had signed such an agreement and the Unionist people were simply dismayed and outraged.  The Unionist people felt betrayed and abandoned.  The very thought that any British government could sign up to an agreement that the Republic of Ireland could have any say in the running of Northern Ireland was viewed with utter dismay.  The fact that it was Margaret Thatcher, a British leader with strong Unionist instincts was not only surprising to many, but was like a double blow to the Unionist community.

James Molyneaux, the then leader of the Unionist Party had opted out of any such talks and his only offer had been some minor concessions to nationalists pending a return to the old Stormont regime.  Molyneaux had been convinced that without his participation no such agreement could be worked and the Unionist people had initially relaxed, reassured by these words.  The realisation that this shift in thinking by both governments was not going to go away, the more militant unionists such as Ian Paisley and his deputy Peter Robinson began to threaten widespread protests.  

Paisley said the proposals would be resisted to the very death and accused Thatcher of being prepared, “To wade knee deep in the blood of loyalists for this document of treachery and deceit.”  Many Unionists flocked to a protest at the City Hall in Belfast and throughout the North many Unionist controlled councils postponed and called off council meetings.  The New Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King was physically attacked by loyalists on a visit to the City Hall in Belfast.  

These forms of protest continued for years and there were many violent clashes between protestors and police.  Loyalist paramailitaries now turned against the police force and attacked their homes, with over 500 homes being attacked and 150 police officers forced to move home.  The 15 Unionist MPs resigned in an attempt to force by-elections and ended up losing a seat to the nationalist SDLP in the new election.  Loyalists once again tried to bring Northern Ireland to its knees as they had done before with a day of action, but the intimidation that was used and the violence that followed, was disapproved of by many Protestants.  Personally I remember a huge banner which draped around the City Hall in Belfast with the famous words, “ULSTER SAYS NO”.

Other forms of protest took place and Peter Robinson and a group of loyalists staged a midnight incursion into County Monaghan in the Irish Republic to demonstrate how weak security was, however he was arrested, and at a later date pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and had to pay a £15,000 fine.  Despite all these various types of protests the Agreement continued on.

Anglo Irish Agreement - Nationalist Viewpoint

The IRA and Sinn Fein were also concerned about the Agreement, especially whan a new set of security measures appeared along the border in the form of watchtowers.  Politically Sinn Fein were concerned that this new accord could result in a loss of votes as it now appeared that both the British and Irish governments were intent on working with the SDLP on a new process.  Sinn Fein for the first time in their history made a move in the republic of Ireland and voted against their lifetime policy of asbtentionism of taking seats in the Dail.

Clearly political changes were taking place across the nationalist parties and the Unionist politics remained one of protest rather than solution.  Despite the initial hope that the British had finally stood up to the Unionist protest, Nationalists quickly became disillusioned as no significant reforms took place.  

For Thatcher and King the protests by Unionists and the lack of any quick military gains appeared to change their thoughts to ones of soothing Protestant concerns and no futher development of the Agreement.  The net result therefore was that the Agreement was not as bad as the Unionists had feared and had delivered nothing for the Nationalists.  The Irish government grew frustrated at the lack of progress and at times were infuriated with the British government’s viewpoints on important issues such as Human Rights.  

Northern Ireland History - The Birmingham Six

These included the long running appeal by the Birmingham Six and the Guilford Four about their innocence.  These were Irish people who had been found guilty of crimes relating to bombings in England.  Britain resisted any attempt to admit any miscarriage of justice to Dublin and also denied any interference with the independence of the Stalker enquiry.  These would all later be resolved in the 1990s with Britain admitting they had got all of them wrong.  Likewise Britain were growing weary of the Irish government’s attitude towards extradition policies, whereby Britain were trying to get known Republicans sent to Britain for justice, something which the Irish government were reluctant to do.

This situation suited Sinn Fein and the IRA.  They continued on with both a political and military strategy. At around the same time relations between Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and Britain had declined, and the IRA who had once got weapons from Libya, once again recommenced that line of procurement.  This resulted in various shipment deliveries of rifles, semtex, armour piercing machine guns and anti-aircraft guns.  

The British combined security services including MI5 and MI6 failed to detect this activity.  The IRA kept their activity low during these shipments to avoid drawing attention to their supply source but once that had been achieved, then the IRA violence once again began to rise.  They attacked a wide range of targets in England and also attacked British troops based in Europe.  

They did not forget about Northern Ireland and a mortar bomb at Newry Police Station took the lives of nine policemen, and in 1987 a senior judge and his wife were blown up by a road side landmine.  Seldom a single day would pass without hearing of some incident on the local news.

The SAS retaliated and killed eight IRA men as they attacked a police station in the small village of Loughall.  In November 1987 eleven civilian lives were taken where mainly Protestants had gathered in the County Fermanagh town of Enniskillen for Remembrance Day.  The bomb which had been hidden in a community hall ripped through the assembled crowd removing eleven people from this earth and injuring more than sixty people.  Five of the people who lay dead were women.  The IRA had got this one completely wrong and the World at large turned against such an act.  These people had come to remember those who had given their lives during the World Wars and to defend democracy, and yet that remembrance had been used to carry out a terrible attrocity. 

Northern Ireland History - The Libyian Connection

Not long after that a French custom’s patrol intercepted a trawler carrying Libyan weapons destined for the waiting arms of the IRA and that did finally alert authorities to what had been happening.  At exactly the same time a renegade INLA member called Dessie O’Hare had kidnapped a Dublin dentist.  This man was held for several weeks and during this time O’Hare hacked off two of the dentist’s fingers with a chisel.  There was a huge revulsion throughout the country and although the dentist was rescued, the police failed on several occasions to capture O’Hare who shot his way out of several road blocks.  These combined actions by the IRA and associated Republicans put an end to any political success for Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland.  They have failed to fully recover from this and even today, they do struggle to win seats in the Republic of Ireland.

March 1988 and the SAS shot dead three IRA members, one of them a woman on the island of Gibraltar owned by Britain.  The killings were controversial as although this IRA unit were planning a bombing attack against British soldiers, those shot dead were unarmed.  Witnesses stated that the three dead may have been attempting to surrender and the SAS involved said the three people did not freeze instantly and also made suspicious movements.  

Hundreds gathered at Dublin airport to wait for the bodies to return home and many people lined the route as the bodies were brought home to Belfast.  Thousands of people attended the funerals at Milltown Cemetry in West Belfast, and as they did, a lone loyalist gunman called Michael Stone entered the graveyard and attacked the mourners.  He fired a handgun and tossed grenades at the mourners before making his exit back to the nearby motorway.  He was eventually caught and beaten by the crowd before being rescued by the police.

The funeral of one of the mourners, a known member of the IRA followed and a car carrying two British Army Corporals drove into the cort├Ęge.  Republicans afraid this was another attack by loyalists rushed the car and eventually pulled the two men out, kicking them and beating them.  They were dragged to a nearby sports ground, partially stripped, beaten again and finally shot dead.  This sequence of events from Gibraltar, Milltown and the deaths of these two young men are remembered as an almost unreal time of complete instability and sickness within the Troubles of Northern Ireland.  Despite the new all time low of pure hatred and violence things did not change and if anything society became more polarised.  This was for me probably the most horiffic time to have lived in Northern Ireland.  No-one I knew was sure what madness would or could happen next and it was a time of great fear and bewilderment.

Loyalists continued to kill Catholics and the IRA continued their attacks on Protestants and soldiers.  Thatcher responded by banning the voices of Sinn Fein members from the airwaves, and removing remission for paramilitaries.  The IRA nevertheless continued their campaign in England and an IRA bomb killed 11 army bandsmen in County Kent in England.  The IRA insisted they would attack anyone they considered part of the British war machine and this could include civilian contractors working on government buildings, those involved in the British legal profession and any job associated with British security services.

At around this time a lawyer who represented Republican clients, Pat Finucane was shot dead by loyalists and Sinn Fein alleged British collusion in the killing.

You can now read about the Northern Ireland Troubles 1990-1992