Ireland Revisited: Part 12
In the wake of the Brighton bombing the Irish and British governments both sought to reach a compromise over the North, in particular its constitutional status. Although relations between the pair had soured significantly after the Hunger Strikes of 1981 both acknowledged that in order for any agreement to be reached, they would have to work with each other and unite to have any chance of selling it to the public. Growing support for Sinn Fein, and the implications of that on southern Ireland and Britain, led both governments to compromise over some of the more controversial elements pertaining to the North.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in November 1985 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald after months of tense negotiations behind the scenes. Although upon first inspection the deal did not seem to create anything of great substance for either side of the community, it did accept the ‘consent principle’ – that Northern Ireland would remain in the Union with Britain until the will of the majority stated otherwise. Another strand of the agreement also gave the Republic of Ireland, for the first time, a say in the running of Northern Ireland, which was a major step forward in the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. As a direct result of this the Intergovernmental Conference was set up to discuss security and political issues. The agreement also stressed that devolution would not be forthcoming unless it enshrined the principle of power sharing.
However, like all its predecessors, the Anglo Irish Agreement was not without its criticism. Reaction to it varied, with Sinn Fein and official government opposition party Fianna Fail both arguing that the agreement essentially legitimized Britain’s occupation of Northern Ireland. Unionists were the most vocal opponents of the agreement, believing that by giving the Republic of Ireland a say in how the North was run, was laying the foundations for a united Ireland. In a rare show of unity all 15 unionist Westminster MPs resigned their seats and took part in big demonstrations, marches and strikes to publicly show just how opposed to the agreement they were. The SDLP welcomed the agreement, expressing delight at what they perceived as a victory for nationalism.
The by-elections after the agreement saw the anti-Agreement branch of unionism lose seats as did Sinn Fein, with the SDLP gaining a seat. In hindsight this can be acknowledged as the first example of reasonable support for non-violent nationalism. Unionist disaffection with the agreement continued in the following months, with a ‘Day of Action’ occurring in March 1986, followed by loyalist paramilitary rioting and attacks on the RUC, resulting in 47 police officers being injured. The Provisional IRA was still active too, killing two RUC officers and one British soldier in Crossmaglen with a remote controlled bomb hidden in a nearby ditch.
The Provisionals also widened the scope of who they deemed as ‘legitimate targets’ – warning that anyone working with the security forces in any way would be considered “part of the war machine and treated as collaborators”. However united Sinn Fein was in its dismissal of the Anglo Irish Agreement, the same could not be said of its Ard Fheis in November 1986, when a slight majority voted in favour of ending abstentionism in the Dail. A split within Sinn Fein ensued, with key members including Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Daithi O’Conaill followed by over 100 others in quitting Sinn Fein, forming their own party ‘Republican Sinn Fein’.
The SAS, already operating on the ground within Northern Ireland, were achieving relative success against the Provisional IRA. However 1987 would see them carry out an attack on the Provisionals which would leave eight members dead in controversial circumstances….
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