The Anglo-Irish Agreement

anglo-irish agreement
The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a November 1985 treaty between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. It marked the British government’s first significant step towards peace since the Sunningdale Agreement, 11 years earlier. The Anglo-Irish Agreement maintained Westminster’s commitment to self-determination in Northern Ireland – but accepted the possibility of Irish reunification, if this was supported by a majority of Northern Irelanders. The agreement also established an Intergovernmental Conference: a bilateral committee on matters affecting both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Anglo-Irish Agreement received support from many quarters. Ulster Loyalists, always suspicious about Irish interference in the North, condemned the agreement and mobilised against it. This opposition was voiced in protests, violence and strikes, culminating in the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly. While the Agreement failed to end the violence of the Troubles or resolve questions on how Northern Ireland should be governed, it did improve relations between London and Dublin and served as a stepping stone toward future peace talks.

A decade of strife and division

The Anglo-Irish Agreement followed a particularly difficult phase of the Troubles. The collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in mid-1974 triggered a decade of division, tension and paramilitary violence. In October-November 1974, Provisional IRA volunteers bombed four pubs in Guildford and Birmingham. These attacks killed 26 people and rocked England. By early 1975, the Wilson government was contemplating washing its hands of Ulster by withdrawing British troops and granting independence. Dublin opposed this, fearing that an independent Northern Ireland would quickly descend into civil war. Meanwhile, Loyalist paramilitaries responded to IRA attacks by escalating their own violence. In April 1975 Red Hand Commando members attacked a Catholic bar in Belfast, killing six people. Loyalist attacks on Catholics continued for weeks. In late July Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members in County Down ambushed the Miami Showband, a musical group from Dublin, and assassinated three of its members. Later that year Lenny Murphy and the infamous Shankill Butchers began their reign of sectarian terror in Belfast.

The rise of Thatcher

brighton hotel bombing
A newspaper reports the Brighton Hotel bombing, 1984

Tensions were not eased by Margaret Thatcher‘s victory in the May 1979 British election. The new prime minister took her advice on Northern Ireland from ultra-conservatives like Airey Neave and Ian Gow, both of whom were assassinated by Republican paramilitary groups for their tough line. Thatcher considered Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups to be criminals and hoodlums rather than revolutionaries or political militias – and said so many times. She refused to give ground during the 1980 and 1981 prison hunger strikes, the second of which claimed the lives of ten inmates. In 1982 Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Morrison summed up Republican views of Thatcher at a party conference, calling her “the biggest bastard we have ever known”. Thatcher’s sharp tongue and unwillingness to compromise made her an obvious target for the Provisional IRA. In October 1984 the group detonated a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the venue for the Conservative Party’s annual conference. Thatcher narrowly escaped injury but the blast killed five others, including a sitting Member of Parliament, and destroyed four floors of the hotel building.

anglo-irish agreement
The document of agreement, signed in 1985

Some believed the Brighton bombing would further harden Thatcher’s position on Northern Ireland. Instead, events took a different course. In early 1985 members of Thatcher’s government began secret negotiations with the Republic of Ireland. Thatcher hoped to forge a bilateral agreement with Dublin that would reinforce security while acknowledging the “Irish dimension”: the historical and cultural relationship between the Republic and Northern Ireland. By acknowledging these Irish connections and giving Dublin an advisory role in Northern Ireland – without surrendering British sovereignty – Thatcher hoped to win over moderate Nationalists in the Six Counties. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was negotiated over the course of 1985, in meetings between Thatcher, Irish taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume.

Acknowledgement and cooperation

The final agreement was signed by Thatcher and FitzGerald at Hillsborough in November 1985. It contained the following points:

  • Both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland acknowledged the existence of Northern Ireland, as established by the Partition of Ireland in 1920. Both governments affirmed that the political status of Northern Ireland would only change with the consent of a majority of its people. Both also agreed that the current majority in Northern Ireland wanted no change to their status. They acknowledged the possibility of a future majority voting for “the establishment of a united Ireland”.
  • The agreement also established an Intergovernmental Conference, involving officials from Britain and Ireland. The conference was tasked with discussing and advising on issues and policies in Northern Ireland, as well as cross-border matters. The conference was a purely consultative and advisory body: it had no executive or legislative authority. It was assumed that recommendations made by the conference would be closely considered by the British and Irish governments.
  • Article Nine of the agreement also promoted “cross-border cooperation” on security matters. This promised to facilitate greater liaison, collaboration and information-sharing between the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Garda Siochána (the Republic of Ireland police). This, it was expected, would help both governments combat paramilitary groups and their activities.
corbyn ireland
British MP Jeremy Corbyn (centre), who supported a united Ireland

Reactions to the Anglo-Irish Agreement were mixed. There was support for the Agreement internationally, within Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and among moderate Nationalists in the Six Counties. Britain’s House of Commons gave an overwhelming endorsement to the Agreement, voting 473 to 47 in favour. Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn, an advocate for a united Ireland, voted against the agreement, saying “we believe the agreement strengthens rather than weakens the border”. Media commentators welcomed Thatcher’s willingness to compromise and engage with the Republic. The United States applauded the Agreement, offering a $US250 million aid package to fund its implementation. Those in favour of the Agreement highlighted the recognition of Northern Ireland as a significant shift in Dublin’s position. Some hoped the Agreement might draw Nationalists and Republicans to the negotiating table.

“Ulster Says No”

paisley ulster says no
Ian Paisley interrupts Thatcher’s speech in the European Parliament, 1986

Within Northern Ireland, the agreement was widely unpopular. Unionists opposed it bitterly, on the basis that Thatcher had not included them in the negotiations. They also objected to the proposed Intergovernmental Conference, fearing that Dublin would have one hand on the levers of government in Ulster. Their response was swift and considerable. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), often at loggerheads on other issues, united to oppose the Agreement. They began protesting under the slogan “Ulster Says No”, DUP leader Ian Paisley the loudest and most visible figure. On November 23rd, eight days after the agreement was signed, more than 150,000 people assembled in Belfast in protest. In typically acerbic fashion, Paisley condemned Thatcher for signing away the rights of Loyalists. He also attacked Dublin: “Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary? To the Irish Republic! And yet Mrs Thatcher tells us that the Republic must have some say in our province. We say Never! Never! Never!”

“Unionist reaction to the Agreement revealed yet another attempt to play the ‘Orange Card’. They came onto the streets in their thousands to bring it down. [But] if anything jeopardised the Unionist position inside the UK, it was not the Agreement but Unionist reaction to the Agreement. The Agreement stated the clear fact that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK as long as a majority of its citizens so wish. That was hardly a threat to the rights of Unionists. It specifically recognised the particular identity and aspirations of the Unionist community. That was hardly ‘stealing their birthright’.”
John Hume, SDLP leader

On December 11th, cabinet ministers from the Republic of Ireland arrived in Belfast for the first Anglo-Irish conference. This triggered mass protests in the city, where thousands of Loyalists clashed with RUC officers. Six days later 15 Unionist Members of Parliament resigned their seats in the House of Commons in protest. These MPs then stood as candidates in 15 by-elections held on January 24th 1986, all winning back their seat bar one, which fell to the SDLP. On March 3rd Loyalists held a ‘Day of Action’, walking off the job, holding marches and bringing Northern Ireland’s commerce and industrial production to a halt. In late March the Secretary of State placed a ban on Easter marches by Loyalists, further inflaming the situation and leading to confrontations between protestors and police. The situation became so volatile that the Northern Ireland Assembly, at that stage dominated by Unionists, was dissolved in late June.

At the other end of the scale, hardline Republicans opposed the Agreement because of Dublin’s acknowledgement of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA claimed credit for the agreement, suggesting its armed campaign had forced the British to make concessions to Nationalists. Sinn Fein simply chose to refuse the agreement, denouncing it at every opportunity. Paramilitary violence continued on both sides but did not escalate markedly. Ultimately the British government underestimated the hostile opposition of Loyalists and Unionists – and found it difficult to combat. In her memoirs Margaret Thatcher claimed that by agreeing to Irish demands she had alienated Unionist groups, further jeopardising the security situation. Most consider the Anglo-Irish Agreement a failure because it failed to improve conditions in Northern Ireland – yet it allowed London and Dublin to find some middle ground, improving relations and paving the way for a future peace deal.

anglo-irish agreement key points

1. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a treaty between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. It was negotiated in 1985 and signed in November 1985 by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald.

2. The Agreement recognised the Partition and the existence of Northern Ireland. It acknowledged that the status of Northern Ireland would not change until a majority was in favour.

3. It also established an Intergovernmental Conference between Britain and Ireland, to consider political, economic and security matters in Northern Ireland on a consultative basis.

4. Most outside Northern Ireland saw the Agreement as a positive move, acknowledging the ‘Irish dimension’ and establishing a dialogue and better relations between Westminster and Dublin.

5. But the Agreement invoked furious opposition from Unionists and Loyalists, who were not involved in negotiations and argued that their rights had been signed away by Thatcher.

anglo-irish agreement sources

The Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)
Ian Paisley: “Never! Never! Never” (1985)

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and S. Thompson, “The Anglo-Irish Agreement”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],