The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed thirty-five years ago today.
The Treaty was signed for the United Kingdom by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1985 was at the height of her powers. Thatcher was consistent in her antipathy towards Irish Republicanism. She had been completely inflexible when dealing with the IRA hunger strikers in the summer of 1981 and the animosity felt towards her by Irish Republicans was such that the Provisional IRA attempted to assassinate her by blowing up the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984.
Among British politicians, there were few more supportive of Northern Ireland remaining British than Margaret Thatcher. But Thatcher was also a realist and could see the demographic and political trends in the Province: the Roman Catholic community was becoming steadily larger and Sinn Fein had made a successful entry into electoral politics in the local government elections of May 1985. If there were no progress towards an accommodation of those who were not unionists, a point would be reached where there would be no accommodation of those who were unionists.
The proposals of the Anglo-Irish Agreement were very modest. The Irish government would be given an advisory role in Northern Ireland affairs, but Northern Ireland would remain very firmly British.
The unionist parties might have recognised that Margaret Thatcher had been a firm friend of the Union and would brook no interference from the Dublin government that exceeded that of being and advisor. Instead the unionists took to the streets in mass demonstrations and sought to paralyse local government. In a self-defeating gesture, the unionist members of the House of Commons resigned their seats to force by-elections, returning to Westminster with one less seat than previously.
Unionists might have chosen the path of progressive unionism. They might have sought to create a modern European society in Northern Ireland. They might have tried the path of reconciliation and reconstruction and endeavoured to build an inclusive community. Instead, confrontation, exclusion and atavism were the preferred path.
Demographic trends and electoral politics have continued in one direction since 1985. Unionists held fifteen of Northern Ireland’s seventeen Westminster seats at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they now hold just eight out of eighteen. In the 2011 Census, the Protestant population had fallen below 50%, while the Roman Catholic community numbered 45%. The age distribution of the respective communities suggests that Roman Catholic community will constitute a majority of the population in the near future.
The Brexit debate has only exacerbated the situation for unionists. Setting their face against the European Union, they now face the prospect of a hard border in the North Channel that will leave them in a state of political limbo.
On 15th November 1985, the unionist parties could have made a different call. If Irish unity occurs in the coming years, it will owe much to the intransigence of 1985.