Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement represented an attempt to ameliorate the endemic problems of Northern Ireland.

Summary of Event

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed at Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, on November 15, 1985, was the most serious political attempt between the early 1970’s and the truce of 1994 to settle the long, often violent dispute in Northern Ireland. In the 1960’s another round of “the troubles” began with the “civil rights” movement, inspired in part by recent events in the United States, which motivated the largely have-not Catholic community to demand equality with the majority Protestant community, which had wielded economic, political, and social power since Ireland was partitioned in 1921. Inevitably tied to the demand for equality was the issue of the ultimate future of Northern Ireland: Would it remain a part of the United Kingdom, or would it join the Irish Republic, which had sovereignty over the rest of the island? Those who demanded the first were known as Unionists or loyalists; the latter were referred to as Nationalists. The former were overwhelmingly Protestant; the latter, largely Catholic. Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)[Angloirish Agreement]
Northern Ireland;Anglo-Irish Agreement[Angloirish Agreement]
[kw]Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed (Nov. 15, 1985)
[kw]Agreement Is Signed, Anglo-Irish (Nov. 15, 1985)
Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)[Angloirish Agreement]
Northern Ireland;Anglo-Irish Agreement[Angloirish Agreement]
[g]Europe;Nov. 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed[05840]
[g]United Kingdom;Nov. 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed[05840]
[g]Ireland, Northern;Nov. 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed[05840]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed[05840]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed[05840]
FitzGerald, Garret
Haughey, Charles James
Hume, John
Molyneaux, James
Paisley, Ian
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;Anglo-Irish Agreement[Angloirish Agreement]

Republic of Ireland’s taoiseach Garret FitzGerald (left) and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher shake hands after signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland in November, 1985.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Peaceful demonstrations led to confrontation, and by the early 1970’s violence had returned to the streets of Northern Ireland, most infamously in the Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday (Northern Ireland) episode in Londonderry in January, 1972. The local police, largely Protestant, were unable to keep order, and British troops were sent in, but the violence continued. The Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA), particularly the Provisional IRA Provisional Irish Republican Army faction, or Provos, along with Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin the IRA’s political wing, moribund during the 1960’s, were resurrected. They demanded that the British leave and the north be incorporated into a “socialist” Irish Republic. The Unionists also spawned their own paramilitary groups. In a generation, more than three thousand persons died in violence related to the troubles.

The Protestant-dominated home rule parliament was abolished in 1972, and a political solution was attempted in 1973-1974 through the establishment of a power-sharing government that represented both communities. This cooperation died almost at birth: The IRA instituted a new bombing campaign, and the Unionist majority, also opposed, resorted to a general strike in May of 1974 that brought the political agreement crashing down. The later 1970’s and early 1980’s were years of violence. For the British government, the primary concern was security, which meant more troops rather than a search for political solutions. The IRA’s campaign of militancy spread to Britain itself, most notably in the bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party Conference in October, 1984. The main target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who survived, but several others were killed. The focus on security had not succeeded.

Garret FitzGerald was the taoiseach, or prime minister, of the Irish Republic. His Fine Gael party was traditionally less sympathetic to the IRA and its militaristic dreams of unity than was the other major party, Fianna Fáil, under the leadership of Charles James Haughey. With FitzGerald’s support, the New Ireland Forum New Ireland Forum met frequently in Dublin in 1983 and 1984. Because of its ties to the IRA, Sinn Féin was excluded, but in the absence of Unionists, the forum, representing only the Nationalist community, particularly the north’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, headed by John Hume, was destined to come to nothing. Its vision was of a future unified Ireland, not necessarily one based on a unitary state, but one constructed as a federation or confederation or encompassing a system of joint authority with Great Britain, at least temporarily. Thatcher dismissed out of hand the forum’s proposals as compromising British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

Discussions had already begun between the two governments, however. Politics was not the least of the concerns: Both Thatcher and FitzGerald needed to appear to be doing something about the problems of Northern Ireland. Both sides also understood the continued threat of increased violence, not only in Northern Ireland but also in mainland Britain and even in the Irish Republic. In addition, the failure of the military solution led to the hope that peaceful discussions might prove to be a viable alternative to continued terrorism and violence. Unlike some of his more traditional Irish colleagues, FitzGerald was firmly convinced that a unified Ireland could come into existence only through majority consent in the north.

Thatcher’s conservatism was instinctively sympathetic to the Unionist demand to remain part of the United Kingdom, but reliance on the military had not succeeded. In addition, the obstreperous nature of the Unionists, notably the Reverend Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux, the leaders of the two major Unionist parties, saw Thatcher turn away from Northern Irish politicians. To what degree this was a matter of emotional reaction rather than considered policy is difficult to determine, but in the months leading up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Thatcher’s government provided the Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland with almost no information regarding the negotiations—in retrospect, this was perhaps a fatal error.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA), signed on November 15, 1985, at Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, ostensibly satisfied the two sovereign governments but not necessarily all of the communities or traditions in Northern Ireland. Article 1 of the agreement recognized that there could be no change in sovereignty until a majority in the north desired it, long a principle of British governments, but perhaps implicit was the belief that someday Northern Ireland would become part of the Republic. Articles 2 and 3 established the Intergovernmental Conference, which was to meet regularly regarding such matters as cross-border security, human rights, and elections. The AIA recognized that the Republic had the right to “put forward views and make proposals” regarding Northern Ireland, in effect becoming something of the advocate of Nationalist and Catholic interests in the north. Article 4 envisioned some sort of power sharing or political devolution for the province, but ultimate control would continue to rest in the British parliament with input from the Intergovernmental Conference.

The agreement was met with almost universal praise—except within Northern Ireland. Those in the Unionist majority, left out of the deliberations, were outraged, feeling that the assumption of the agreement’s signatories was that someday, somehow, the north was to be joined to the Republic. On the other hand, in spite of FitzGerald’s hopes, the AIA did not bring peace. The IRA saw the agreement as a disaster because it stated that no change of sovereign status would come until a majority desired it, something the IRA could not admit. Ironically, both the IRA-Sinn Féin and the Unionists believed that the agreement was a sellout, a plan made over their heads by governments and politicians who should have been the advocates and defenders of their positions. Politics does make for strange bedfellows.

The British parliament quickly approved the agreement, 473 to 47, with opposition from only the Unionist representatives, a handful of Conservatives, and, ironically, several left-wing Labour Party supporters who wanted a unified Ireland immediately. The Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, voted in favor, 88 to 75.


Little that was positive resulted from the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The IRA increased its militancy, and the Unionists, claiming that the agreement was an example of “parliamentary despotism” imposed on the people of Northern Ireland without their consent, also rejected the agreement. On Saturday, November 23, 1985, a crowd estimated at more than 200,000 gathered in front of Belfast City Hall in protest, with Paisley, noted for his inflammatory oratory, crying, “Never! Never! Never!”

Fifteen Unionist members of Ireland’s parliament resigned, forcing new elections. Candidates who were opposed to the Hillsborough agreement, including Unionists and supporters of Sinn Féin, were selected by 78 percent of the voters. Protests at the local council level, already begun, continued, and strikes and boycotts were organized. Many Unionist politicians urged that the agreement be suspended. It was not, but Unionist defiance and IRA militancy ensured that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would ultimately become more a brief symbol and hope than a contributor of any lasting substance to the settling of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)[Angloirish Agreement]
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Further Reading

  • Aughey, Arthur. Under Siege: Ulster Unionism and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Highly critical analysis of the Anglo-Irish Agreement presents the Unionist position. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Bell, J. Bowyer. The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967-1992. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Comprehensive and brilliant narrative by a noted scholar. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Cochrane, Feargal. Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Rev. ed. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2001. Comprehensive examination of Irish politics in the period following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • Kenny, Anthony. The Road to Hillsborough: The Shaping of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. New York: Pergamon Press, 1986. Valuable summary by an English academic, written shortly after the signing of the agreement. Includes index.
  • Keogh, Dermot, and Michael H. Haltzel, eds. Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Collection of essays on Northern Ireland includes a chapter in which Garret FitzGerald defends the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Mitchell, Paul, and Rick Wilford, eds. Politics in Northern Ireland. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Collection of essays covers a wide range of topics concerning the Northern Ireland political arena. Several chapters include discussion of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Includes index.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Autobiographical work suggests that Thatcher’s interest in the Anglo-Irish Agreement was more reactive than a concerted search for a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. Includes index.

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