Anglo Irish Agreement

The first reaction of the ruling establishments in Dublin and London was to try to take measures to shore up the SDLP. The setting up of the New Ireland Forum, involving the main parties in the south and the SDLP, was an obvious example. The aim was to give the appearance that it was the SDLP and not Sinn Fein who were at the centre of political progress. The Forum report, which paid lip service to a united Ireland and then went on list the alternative options of a Federal State or Joint Authority, was dismissed out of hand by Sinn Fein.

Margaret Thatcher was even more dismissive, making her now famous "out, out, out" remark. But even she was persuaded that some lifeline needed to be thrown to the SDLP. She entered talks with Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. The outcome was the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. This offered concessions - such as a consultative role for Dublin in the north - while the return for Thatcher was greater cross border cooperation on security. It was a new menu but made from the old 1970's recipe of concession and repression combined.

If Thatcher's arrogance had antagonised the Catholic community during the hunger strike, this time it was the Protestant community that felt enraged. She had deliberately not consulted with the unionists, but merely presented the deal to them as a fait accompli. Protestants felt alienated and betrayed and the strength of feeling was shown by a huge rally, the biggest in the history of the Troubles, called outside Belfast City hall in protest.

The Protestant reaction did not force Thatcher to scrap the Agreement. But it rendered it stillborn. The two governments could maintain it on paper but they were left in no doubt that a settlement would have to come via some other route and that the Anglo Irish Agreement was more of an obstacle than a staging post on the way.

The Agreement, the manner in which in was imposed by way of a deal with the Dublin government and the fact that it remained nominally in place, did affect the psychology of the Protestant population. The huge crowds at the anti agreement rallies demonstrated anger - but also insecurity. This was the beginnings of the sense of isolation and of the feeling that Protestants were now a political minority surrounded by hostile forces in Ireland and internationally. It was the sense, as some unionists put it at the time, that they had been left on "the window sill of the union".

After the Agreement loyalist paramilitaries tried to step up their indiscriminate attacks on Catholics. The IRA too was trying to escalate. During the summer of 1986 they announced a widening of their range of "legitimate targets" to include all civilian workers who in any way helped the state forces.

With the danger of tit for tat killings dramatically escalating it was once again the working class who intervened to partially cut across the mounting sectarianism. Working class areas were by now more segregated than ever but the workplaces remained mixed. Within them sectarianism was by and large kept at bay.

When workers in dole offices were threatened the entire workforce across the north, Catholic and Protestant, walked out. Our members in NIPSA played the leading role in organising this action. Other workers took this up until the paramilitaries got the message and called at least a partial halt to the threats and to the direct attacks on those at work or on their way to and from work.

Sinn Fein shifts ground

Sinn Fein completely rejected the Anglo Irish Agreement. Just before it was signed Martin McGuinness dismissed it as an attempt to "rationalise and sanitise" partition and said that settlements that "ignore reality, that ignore history, that do not confront the real issues, are not solutions at all, but devices that enable Britain to refine its repression of republicans and its partition of Ireland."

Referring to the possibility of alternative negotiations he added: "The only talks that will ever have any relevance and hope for Ireland will be talks that involve the Republican Movement, talks with two items on the agenda - namely the disengagement of Britain from our country and self determination for the Irish people." An Phoblacht 7.11.85

There is not much difference between this and the ultimatist position with which the republican movement approached the British government during the 1972 negotiations. But by now the swagger had gone and the public words of defiance belied their growing uncertainties and disguised the profound changes in ideology and strategy that were already taking place.

The "ballot bomb" strategy was sold on the basis that there could be an escalation of the military campaign alongside political successes both north and south. Already by the mid 1980s it had started to unravel, the needs of the political arm of this struggle were in collision with the military needs and visa versa.

The electoral breakthrough in the south did not come. The leadership blamed the abstentionist policy, which indeed was an obstacle, and - on the promise that without this handicap the party could take five Dail seats - succeeded in getting rid of this at the November 1986 Ard Fheis at the cost of only a small split away by what was left of the old guard southern leadership.

The breakthrough still did not come and it was clear that the military campaign was an obstacle as great if not even greater than abstention. Meanwhile the promised military escalation foundered at Loughgall where military intelligence and a ruthless "shoot to kill" policy taught a powerful lesson - that an all out frontal assault against a much superior military force would lead to rapid defeat.

The only alternative was a long war of attrition. Again the state had learned from its experiences in the 1970s; had sophisticated its techniques. With no mass movement in the Catholic areas to provide cover or recruits, the IRA campaign could be contained with relative ease.

Worse, the "Ulsterisation" of the security forces, a policy begun in the late 1970s when the state wanted to give the impression of a return to "normality" meant that the British army was a less available military target. It also meant that, whether they liked it or not, the IRA's campaign more and more was targeting Protestants, those in the RUC and RIR, or those who built their bases and supplied them. It was increasingly a campaign against local Protestants not against British soldiers.

To escalate meant to kill more Protestants. One event brought this home in a particular forcible and brutal manner. This was the no warning bomb at a Remembrance Day service in the centre of Enniskillen which killed eleven people. Republican leaders subsequently issued ringing condemnations of the atrocity carried out by the Real IRA in Omagh just over a decade later. In some ways the Enniskillen attack was even worse.

There may be some confusion about whether the Real IRA intended to give a proper warning in Omagh. This is no consolation to the victims and offers no excuse for what they did, but in Enniskillen there was deliberately no warning, the idea was to kill as many people as possible. Moreover, whereas Omagh was indiscriminate, the nature of the target in Enniskillen meant that only Protestants would be killed. To proceed with a military campaign of this character would be to declare war on the entire Protestant community.

A big section of the republican leadership recoiled from Enniskillen. It was a turning point emphasising the move away from military activity and was a decisive milestone on the road to a ceasefire. Within weeks of the attack Gerry Adams commented: "There is no military solution, none whatsoever. Military solutions by either of the two main protagonists only mean more tragedies. There can only be a political solution." Hot Press December 1987

The republican leadership may have publicly dismissed the Anglo Irish Agreement as more of the same: another deal on repression. Privately the agreement had knocked them ideologically off course. The British government's willingness to do a deal with the Dublin government behind the backs of the unionists raised a question mark over the republican view that the basis of the whole conflict was Britain's imperialist interest in holding the north.

At this time the "go it alone" ethos of Sinn Fein was also under question. With every aspect of their strategy pointing to a dead end, to stalemate and - in the sense that change had not been achieved - to defeat, the leadership began to cast around for allies. The Hume-Adams dialogue, which began in 1988, arose from this and initially centred around a debate on Britain's role and therefore on the real basis of the conflict.

Hume's position, that the British government would be prepared to withdraw and that the task was to win a majority in the north to this position, was much closer to reality than that of Adams. He held to the traditional republican view that Britain was determined to maintain their grip on the north for economic and strategic reasons and that the Protestants were being deliberately whipped up to provide a local basis of support for British policy.

The view was set out in a document. "Towards a Strategy for Peace" that Sinn Fein presented to the SDLP at the outset of the talks in January 1988. This stated bluntly: "The claim that Britain is neutral ignores their role as a pawnbroker and guarantor of Unionist hegemony. It ignores the basic political fact of life that Unionist hegemony was created by the British, to maintain direct control over a part of Ireland and a major influence over the rest of it. Britain's continuing involvement in Ireland is based on strategic, economic and political interests." (Our emphasis)

This was still the main line of thought of the republican leadership. It was a line of thinking that was increasingly obviously at odds with actual developments. Behind the public restatement of old lines of argument the theoretical roots from which these arguments stemmed had already begun to loosen.

On the issue of Britain's real policy objectives Hume won the theoretical argument and could report positively to the two governments that it might be possible to bring about a substantial shift in the position of the republican movement. The British government were able to interpret Hume's arguments and also the feelers that at the time were being sent out by the republican leadership from a position of relative strength.

The violence had not been halted but was close to the "acceptable level" talked of by Home Secretary Reginald Maudling at the start of the 1970s. The Republican movement were effectively checked on all fronts, and its leadership were clearly forced into a revaluation of both ideas and strategy.

Changes in loyalism

Among loyalists a certain rethink was also taking place. This was significant given that these organisations drew the bulk of their recruits from the most backward lumpenised and semi lumpenised layers of the Protestant population. They no longer had the mass base of support that drew thousands to the UDA and local "defence" organisations in the early 1970s. Much of their activity involved racketeering and gangsterism. The UDA, and at least some within the UVF, were heavily involved in drugs.

Loyalist violence stemmed from various sources. Some of those involved were motivated by pure bigotry, by the growing sense of Protestant insecurity and by a desire to hit back against Catholics. Others saw the violence as a part of a military strategy of counter terrorism. The idea was to terrorise the entire Catholic community by responding to IRA attacks with random assassinations. Eventually, or so it was reasoned, this would drive Catholics to put pressure on the IRA to stop.

Another strand of loyalist violence was the targeting of individual republicans. There is no question that this policy of selective assassinations was encouraged and assisted by the state. At what level of the state apparatus the decision to pass intelligence on republicans to loyalists was taken we do not know for sure. What is beyond question is that there was collusion; that the loyalist paramilitaries were used to supply one of the fingers of the vice like grip that the state placed on republicanism

Yet even within this milieu more sophisticated ideas, even class ideas, began to emerge. In the prisons there had been ongoing discussion since the early 1980s about whether their military campaigns should be continued. This was especially the case with UVF prisoners some of whom had come to realise that there could be no going back to the days of Protestant hegemony and who were no longer prepared to act as foot soldiers and working class cannon fodder for middle class politicians.

The idea that working class loyalism would need to emulate republicanism and create its own political voice was being considered. Even within sections of the UDA there were signs that a rethink was taking place.

The protracted nature of the Troubles, the increasing alienation of Catholics from the state and then the blow delivered by Thatcher in the form of the Anglo Irish Agreement, caused even militarists like UFF commander John McMichael to look towards a political solution. In 1987 the UDA produced a document entitled "Common Sense" which went further in accepting the need for change than either of the main unionist parties was prepared to go.

"Common Sense" rejected straightforward majority rule and argued for a convoluted form of power sharing. It accepted that "we live in a deeply divided society with a large disgruntled and separatist minority which is not going to disappear nor be wished away" and argued that the answer is to find ways of ensuring that "Ulster Catholics will not continue to be "alienated" nor "excluded from playing a full role in the affairs of Northern Ireland."

All these factors combined to bring about a major change in strategy on the part of the British ruling class. On the one hand they were in a stronger position than at any time since the start of the Troubles. The violence was fundamentally contained. However a "solution" was no closer. Every attempt at an initiative to break the political deadlock had failed. Sunningdale, the Convention and the new attempt at an Assembly in the 1980s had all been swept into the dustbin of political failures. The Anglo Irish Agreement was stillborn and un-implementable.

Now the signs of a rethink on the part of republicans offered the possibility of a different approach. The fact that some of the loyalists were also prepared to contemplate change raised the possibility of negotiations that would be doubly inclusive, bringing not only the IRA but also the UDA and UVF leaderships in from the cold.

Towards inclusion

So there was the beginning of a step-by-step abandonment of the concession- repression strategy that had been in place since the early 1970s. For the first time since the failed attempt to negotiate with the IRA in 1972 - apart that is from the more half hearted efforts by Merlyn Rees to negotiate with republicans through the "incident centres" that had been set up in the Catholic areas in 1975 - the ruling class began to embrace the idea that the republican movement might now be prepared to sign up to a deal far short of what they had originally been demanding.

From "exclusion" the ruling class moved to the strategy of "inclusion" that was to dominate politics for the next decade. The British government set out to tempt and entice the republican leadership onto a purely constitutional road. In 1990 British Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, said that it was "difficult to envisage a military defeat of the IRA".

Then, in a carefully crafted speech given in his Conservative constituency association at Westminster, but really addressed to the IRA leadership, he rebutted, for the sake of this leadership, the points they had argued to the SDLP in their 1988 document: "The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interests in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain's purpose, as I have sought to describe it, is not to occupy, oppress or exploit, but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice. That is our way."

Students of the rapacious and bloody history of the British ruling class would justifiably wince at the idea that ensuring "democratic debate and free democratic choice" was ever the way that class pursued its colonial interests. However what Brooke said was at least part true. More accurately he might have said that the selfish, strategic and economic interests that always underline the policy of the ruling class were, at this time, best served by withdrawing from Ireland with the hope that they could continue to dominate this, their oldest colony, by economic means.

That was as things stood at the time and this reasoning was then accepted in full by the SDLP and eventually was to be accepted in practice by the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership. However in swallowing this line of argument they leaned from one incorrect position to another, from the "war" against Britain's "imperialist" interests to reliance on Britain to implement their declared wish to withdraw and to push the Protestants into a united Ireland.

The fact that the British ruling class for an historical period preferred the option of withdrawal does not mean that this could ever become the active policy of any British government. Withdrawal suited their interests, but only in the abstract. Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war meant that any steps to put it into effect would threaten their interests.

Nor is a policy that generally reflects the view of the main sections of the ruling class fixed and for all time. As things change and as crises develop cracks and divisions tend to open up in ruling circles. What seemed to be in their interests under one set of circumstances may no longer seem so and attitudes can change.

During the 1960s the British ruling class favoured getting rid of the Falkland Islands and actually opened negotiations with Argentina over the terms of an eventual handover. While giving public guarantees to the 2000 Islanders that there would be no sovereignty transfer against their wishes, the Foreign Office was privately bemoaning their "fossilised attitudes" and trying to work out a way of getting rid of them.

Yet fourteen years later, with Thatcher in charge, and with British prestige wounded by the Argentine invasion, the government went to war with Argentina supposedly to "safeguard the rights and uphold the wishes" of this "fossilised" community.

The British ruling class were also reasonably united in support of the ultimate idea of withdrawal from Northern Ireland during the 1960s. But any serious move to implement this today would reopen old divisions. There is a unionist wing of the establishment that, while it is not particularly concerned with keeping hold of Northern Ireland, is extremely concerned that allowing it to split away through a referendum would provide a huge fillip for nationalism in Scotland - and perhaps later in Wales - and might speed the complete disintegration of the United Kingdom.

Brooke was not declaring that Britain would withdraw. His message to republicans was simply that it is not us who are the obstacle to a united Ireland, it is the million Protestants - and if you want progress you will have to convince them not us. A myth has been built around this statement - and the subsequent peace process - that it was the IRA campaign that brought the ruling class to this position. Many supporters of the mid nineties IRA ceasefire still argue that the IRA campaign was justified in its time but, having shifted Britain, there is no need for it now.

In fact what Brooke said represented no change on the position of the ruling class over more than twenty years. The idea of withdrawal had been an aspiration that the ruling class had long recognised could not be put into practice. Brooke merely stated that, provided the conditions existed that would allow withdrawal, his government would do so. The only difference by the time he made this speech was that these conditions were even more remote than they had been before the start of the Troubles.

Back to Section 1 of the pamphlet
Phases of the Troubles, 1968-90.

To read the March 2002 introduction

Anglo Irish Agreement

1990-97

Good Friday Agreement

A Problem without a solution

Can a socialist alternative be built?