Thank you, Charlie, for that generous introduction. It was kind of Minister Flanagan to have quoted some of the passages of my Dáil speech from almost 30 years ago. I myself have reflected on the same intervention in preparing my remarks for tonight.
I recall that it came ten years after I was first elected during the Government of Liam Cosgrave, who I am delighted to see here with us tonight. As Taoiseach, his historic initiative at Sunningdale helped to inform and inspire his Government colleagues Garret and Peter as they took another initiative just over a decade later.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a genuine pleasure and honour to address you tonight as we mark the 30th anniversary of the signature of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I welcome all those here who helped make that agreement happen, who implemented it and built on its foundations over subsequent decades in the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, stability and prosperity.
It was a particular joy to see Peter Barry on screen just there, sounding great and as insightful as ever. I welcome the Fitzgerald and Barry families, along with Joan Nally, whose late husband Dermot contributed so much as head of my Department at the time.
Tonight, we can all take time to reflect on this major milestone in the history of this island, relationships within it and with our neighbours in Britain. And to assess and survey the role the Anglo-Irish Agreement has played in shaping events of the last three decades.
My own view, which I hope many of you will share, is clear. This was truly a momentous document that has helped to transform British-Irish relations for the better, in every possible sense. All three key relationships – between the respective two communities in Northern Ireland, between North and South and between East and West – have benefited enormously from it.
The fruits of the improved East-West relationship, in particular, have been in ample evidence in recent years. Indeed, it’s been said that they have marked a new zenith of British-Irish relations. After all, in the space of just over 50 months, we have heard the Queen speak Irish in Dublin Castle and lay a wreath at our Garden of Remembrance. We have seen President Higgins address the joint Houses of Parliament. And we have witnessed in recent days an Irish wreath being laid in Belfast, in London and in Enniskillen.
And to think now that 30 years ago an Irish President was simply not in a position to officially visit our neighbouring country at all.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement, by fundamentally changing the political chemistry on these islands, helped make all that – and much more – possible.
A closer look, with the benefit of 30 years of historical perspective, helps to bring into sharper relief its ground-breaking qualities.
The early 1980s was a particularly grim period for Northern Ireland. It was marked by continuous murder, maiming and terrorism on all sides. Sectarian violence and hatred plagued the communities. Support for extremists was on the increase. Nationalists and Unionists together lived in fear of the situation deteriorating into nothing short of civil war. Trust was non-existent. The future appeared bleak.
Things were difficult too insofar as the wider British-Irish relationship was concerned. Ties between the Governments in Dublin and London had been under strain, after missteps and misjudgements in the early years of that decade.
This did not augur well for a new British-Irish agreement. What’s more, the British Government was led by Margaret Thatcher, one of the most formidable Prime Ministers of the 20th century and a committed Unionist. And she was a Prime Minister who, unlike some of her predecessors and successors, had hitherto shown comparatively little interest in Anglo-Irish relations.
It was, quite simply, the most unlikely of political backdrops to the striking of a historical accord between Britain and Ireland. I know this directly, as a member of the New Ireland Forum which worked throughout 1984 on an in-depth cross-party, cross-churches analysis of options to move things forward.
But extraordinary times call for extraordinary people. And thankfully for Britain and Ireland, extraordinary people – on both sides of the Irish Sea – were in better supply than usual. In a word – leaders.
And none were more extraordinary than the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald. Returning to power as Taoiseach in December 1982, he knew that something profound was needed to steer Northern Ireland and British-Irish relations onto a better course.
He had no interest in playing to the galleries when it came to this. His interest lay purely in finding solutions that would better the lives of all the people on this island. Most importantly, he had the bravery needed to take the political risks to make that happen. And he knew there was no time to lose.
Dr. FitzGerald was aided in his task by the talented team he had gathered around him in Government. He could call on the wise counsel of his Foreign Minister Peter Barry, his Justice Minister Michael Noonan, and his Tánaiste Dick Spring, to name but a few. And he assembled a team of creative and bright officials, whose efforts in the negotiating process we will come to shortly. Some of these, sadly, including of course the late Dr Fitzgerald, have since passed away but I welcome many of the other key diplomats and negotiators who are able to be with us tonight.
The British Government and its diplomats and officials deserve great credit too in helping to bring about the discussions that led up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy may be the source of endless debate both here in Ireland and in Britain. What is clear is that she was determined, in her own words, “to do something about Ireland”, when she was returned to Government in 1983.
So there was a meeting of minds in that something had to be done, though both sides were pragmatic and realistic too in their outlook. They knew that the conflict was not going to be solved by this Agreement alone. And they appreciated that only modest gains might be the initial award.
While they shared realistic expectations, Ireland and the UK approached the prospect of an Agreement from very different perspectives.
Dr. FitzGerald felt Ireland now needed to have a formalised role in the North, primarily to help address the growing alienation of the nationalist community from the systems of Government in Northern Ireland. It was now a case, as has since been said, of trying to get the “Irish In”, rather than “Brits Out”.
Mrs. Thatcher, meanwhile, saw things differently. She envisaged the Agreement as a tool to provide the physical security she saw as paramount for Northern Ireland and its people. This would entail new practical arrangements to enhance cooperation of the authorities on both sides of the border. And achieving this might only be feasible if Ireland took steps to legally recognise British authority in the six counties.
Of course, the reality is that it was a lot more complicated and nuanced than that.
Time is against us tonight but what bears further elaboration is that the ambition of the two Governments in this project was so impressive.
Far more modest initiatives than this had failed or never even got off the ground in the first place.
And considering the hardly favourable political and security context from which it emerged, one can see just how much the odds were stacked against success.
We can’t forget that this negotiating voyage did not have the benefit of calm waters. The talks progressed under threat of being swamped, at any moment, by a terrible atrocity or other untoward turn-of-events.
That Prime Minister Thatcher held her negotiating nerve, including after a failed IRA attack on her own life in the Brighton bombing of October 1984, is to her enormous credit.
Great credit for keeping things going on an even keel must also go to the respective teams of officials leading the negotiations. Minister Flanagan has already listed some of those involved, as have I.
All of us owe a debt of gratitude for your contribution. And we say thank you again tonight for all you have done.
Looking back at that process now, clearly strong links were forged between the British and Irish political and administrative systems during the talks.
This growing trust would endure and bear fruit in the form of later agreements between the Irish and British Governments. These included, of course, the Good Friday Agreement but also the St Andrews Agreement and the agreement to devolve policing and justice in Northern Ireland. This trust remains the bedrock which is supporting the talks this week on the Stormont House Agreement, which are being facilitated by Minister Flanagan and Secretary Villiers.
There was another key force though at play in helping the Agreement come about. That force was – and still is – our joint membership of the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was back then.
Joining the European Economic Community together in 1973 marked a new and important stage in the British-Irish relationship.
It helped to consign to history any notions that Ireland was somehow subordinate to the UK. We were now partners, and important allies, in a wider, new European project.
This reality helped create a new parity of esteem between our countries that was a critical factor in the balanced dynamic of the Anglo-Irish Agreement negotiations.
What’s more, our common membership drove home that British-Irish relations needed to be seen in a wider, European context. This was, I think, healthy for both of us.
A wider European embrace would slowly substitute what had been, up until then, an excessive intimacy.
And our two Governments began to appreciate, by dint of our cooperation in Brussels, that we really could work together on problems even closer to home.
It’s a historic fact too that meetings between Dr. FitzGerald and Mrs. Thatcher in the margins of European Summits were critical staging points all the way to reaching an Agreement. Important encounters took place in Brussels, Stuttgart and Milan.
So it’s no wonder, if I may digress slightly for a moment to more current matters, that the Irish Government very firmly wants to see the United Kingdom remain a member of what now has become the European Union. Earlier this week at the CBI in London I described the EU as part of the glue that is holding the process of transition in Northern Ireland together. I also discussed the issue with David Cameron following that speech, and assured him of any help we can usefully provide with the open question of the UK’s membership.
Our wish remains, as is spelt out in these exact terms in the very first preambular clause of the Anglo-Irish Agreement 30 years ago, “to develop our unique relationship further as partners in the European community”. When I became Taoiseach I prioritised a Joint Statement with Prime Minister Cameron which set out a roadmap for deeper bilateral engagement on key economic and policy matters over the next ten years.
Returning to 1985, it seems to me that it was a combination of the strategic vision of our political leaders at the time, the commitment and skill of the negotiators, and the positive influence of the European Community that were key factors in helping – against the odds – to bring it to fruition.
It can be recalled that the support of the general public here at the time far exceeded political support in the immediate days following the signature at Hillsborough. The record of the Dáil vote is there to show that – it passed by only 88 votes to 75.
In the North, the Unionist community were aggrieved that they were not participants in the negotiations that produced the Agreement. I was conscious of their frustration then and I remember it well.
But the reality was that Ireland was a very different place in the mid 1980’s. The pressing need to secure an agreement that could breathe new hope in the people’s future trumped, rightly or wrongly, all other considerations.
So what did the Agreement achieve in the short term, beyond its symbolic marking of a new upturn in the British-Irish relationship?
Well, to understand that, we need to briefly revisit its basic equation: full acceptance of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and improved security cooperation alongside a now formalised role for our Government in the form of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. This allowed Ireland, for the first time, to have a consultative role on political, security and legal matters in Northern Ireland. Our legitimate interest in Northern Ireland was finally officially recognised. At the time, it was enshrined in law that no change in the status of Northern Ireland could ever happen in the absence of the consent of a majority of its people.
While the landmark political principles contained in the Agreement would, in time, have Northern Ireland spinning on an altogether better axis, it was the institutional link of the Intergovernmental Conference that was to more quickly prove its value.
It heralded the start of a new era of better strategic cooperation with the British Government.
The positive impact of this closer inter-Governmental cooperation soon became evident on the ground. The problematic Flags and Emblems Act was repealed. Laws on incitement to hatred were strengthened. Stronger anti-discrimination provisions were introduced. And the Police Complaints Commission, as it was then, was established.
All these steps, and many others besides, were important in restoring the confidence of the Nationalist community in the North’s institutions. This process did not happen overnight. But slowly and surely trust was re-established and the spectre of a spiral into a low-level civil war, once a genuine concern, began to recede. These were tangible, significant achievements and they should be recognised and celebrated.
At the same time, we must acknowledge too that the Agreement was no panacea for all the North’s ills. Violence actually increased in the immediate aftermath of its signature.
But to focus on perceived failings would be to miss the point. For this was never intended as a comprehensive, conflict-ending settlement, as I said myself in that Dáil debate 30 years ago.
That level of ambition was beyond the scope of what could be achieved in 1985 – a reality fully grasped by authors on both sides. Incremental steps, such as those provided by the Agreement, were needed before any effort could be made at a more ambitious solution.
No, the Agreement’s true worth and contribution is better assessed with its contribution to 30 years of subsequent peace-making more squarely in mind.
I have already described how the Agreement’s structures fostered stronger and more enduring relationships between the British and Irish Governments when it came to the North.
But of even greater importance was that it quite simply outmanoeuvred those who argued that progress could be made by violence. The Agreement demonstrated that this was palpably not the case.
Progress was, in fact, possible by peaceful and political means. The power of this simple fact changed the terms of the debate. And the conditions created by this new dynamic led to the dialogue between constitutional nationalism and republicanism – an initiative so courageously led by John Hume – and, in turn, the emergence of a genuine peace process.
The Agreement showed as well that neither Community could veto progress that was in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. The two Governments could go it alone if they had to – the need for peace and stability was simply too pressing to do otherwise.
There is no denying that the non-inclusion of the Unionists from the negotiating process in the run up to the Agreement was not a sustainable position if peace was to be ultimately achieved. In time, and to their immense credit, Unionists fully realised that the best way for their cause to advance was to engage in future discussions. Which is exactly what they did.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement introduced as well a new international dimension to peace-making efforts. The explicit recognition by the UK, in an international legal text, of Ireland’s interest helped make that possible.
The US Government began to become increasingly involved, with excellent results, as we all know. And the EU too became a steadfast supporter of peace and reconciliation in the North.
It also led to the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland, which will celebrate its own 30th anniversary next year and has been supported by our friends from the US, EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose representatives I welcome tonight.
The Fund’s valuable work continues, with its new strategy to be launched in Derry next week while its Board met only last week to decide on over 20 live projects promoting reconciliation and development.
Was all of this part of a master-plan by the Agreement’s authors? Perhaps not.
But that some of the longer-term positive effects of the Agreement were not foreseen should not make them any less of an achievement. The fact is that the Agreement was such a game-changer that its full positive impact was impossible to predict.
And it made all that followed, especially the Good Friday Agreement, possible.
As we meet tonight, negotiations on the most recent Agreement, the Stormont House Agreement, are continuing. We have had some difficult months recently in the North. I remain optimistic. But we need to move on from crisis negotiation after crisis negotiation.
When I addressed the British Irish Association in Cambridge in September, I set out a challenge. It is a vision for an island which is defined by optimism, hope and opportunity:
· With efficient, effective and representative devolved institutions working for the common good on a politically and financially sustainable basis;
· co-operating to build the island economy through overseas investment, trade, tourism, and utilising a competitive, common corporation tax rate;
· building a world-class infrastructure with state of the art road and rail links, especially from Dublin to the North West, and thriving ports and airports;
· delivering high quality public services that are designed around the needs of citizens and not ancient quarrels;
· removing the spectre of paramilitarism, of organised crime and of community control and intimidation from the backs of local communities;
· providing education that equips our young for a bright future and promote reconciliation and integration, not separation and difference
· a Northern Ireland bolstered by a clear plan for investment, regeneration, education, the elimination of hatred and the creation of a true shared society.
This is a challenging agenda. But it is one that must be taken up with all of the skill, commitment and resilience of those who delivered the Anglo Irish Agreement.
If I may finish on personal note. I began this week as a guest of the Royal British Legion in Enniskillen at the Remembrance Sunday ceremony.
I then went to London where I offered the advice of a close friend to our British neighbours on the EU debate. The Prime Minister and I discussed that and the current situation in Northern Ireland in Downing Street.
I finished the day in the residence of the Irish Joint Secretary – a position created by the Anglo Irish Agreement. There, I met with the DUP First Minister and the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister on a peaceful night in Belfast.
That is the world we now live in. It’s not perfect but it is immeasurably better than 30 years ago. This is a world that was made possible by the people who negotiated the Anglo Irish Agreement.
It has been my honour tonight to describe, to such a distinguished audience, what I see as the impact and value of the Anglo-Irish Agreement on its 30th anniversary.