John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

THE PEACE OF EUROPE IS AT RISK

I have visited Ukraine twice, once to observe their recent Presidential Elections, which were free and fair. It is troubling to see Russia massing its troops on Ukraine’s border.

But is is wise to fight a war over Ukraine’s “right” to join NATO? And even if one has a “right” to do something , is it necessarily right to do it!

Professor Gerard Toal of Virginia Tech has published a very sensible article in the Irish Times today. I shows how all sides are blind to the worries of others and acting as if everybody else is obliged to see them as they see themselves…..the most common mistake in politics.

Below is the text of Professor Toal’s excellent article.

Delusion on all sides has paved way for Russia-Nato standoff

It is hard to be objective about the Ukraine crisis. Russia is massing tanks and troops next to Ukraine. US intelligence reports Russia is planning a multi-front invasion involving 175,000 troops in the early new year.

Accompanying Russia’s posture of war is fevered rhetoric about Ukraine as an aggressor state. Russia decries Nato infrastructure, weapons, training and military exercises in Ukraine.

Late last week, Russia released a proposed draft treaty of what it sees as a desirable new security order for Europe. Viewing it as a gun-point demand for a Russian sphere of influence, Western and Ukrainian officials immediately rejected the proposals.

Russia is behaving like a bully toward Ukraine. But why? What happened to the dream of Europe whole, free and at peace at the end of the Cold War? How did we get from that hopeful new dawn to the sobering prospect of military invasion in 21st-century Europe? The short answer is this: security delusions on all sides paved the way, delusions that are now on a dangerous collision course.

Russia’s security delusions are easiest to grasp. Thinking military force can create genuine security and influence in neighbouring states is delusional. Recovering under Russian president Vladimir Putin after a decade of crisis, Russia began rebuilding its power capacities across post-Soviet space.

In August 2008, the Russian army invaded Georgia after a reckless move by its pro-Nato leader Mikheil Saakashvili to crush Russian backed separatists. In March 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine as violent protests overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Kremlin leader. Russian forces annexed Crimea, but proxy forces backed by Russia failed to create a large secessionist territory (Novorossiya) in southeast Ukraine. Only in part of the Donbas did Russian backed separatists succeed.

The subsequent Minsk Accords were designed to ensure that Russia’s proxies would influence the geopolitical orientation of Ukraine. It has not worked out that way. Indeed, in all instances, Russia’s military actions polarised states it hoped to influence, driving them to deepen ties with Nato. What aggrieves Moscow today about the creeping Nato-isation of Ukraine is partly of its own making.

The security delusions of the Nato West are more difficult to recognise. After the Cold War, the alliance decided to expand not disband. Nato’s “open door” policy allowed former Soviet republics like the Baltic States to join the alliance. Veteran Soviet security officials, like the conspiratorial-minded Putin, were forced to accept that their Cold War enemy was now at the border. Nato, of course, did not see it this way. It argued that all states have a sovereign right to choose their own defence orientation. Further, they claimed, Nato is not a threat to any power. Rather, it is a civilisational alliance advancing security and freedom.

Critics, most prominently an aging American diplomat George Kennan, saw Nato expansion as a fateful error and predicted it would strengthen the hand of hardliners within Russia. He was right. The insecurity that Nato expansion was designed to address only redoubled insecurity as Russia rebuilt its power and reacted.

A self-fulfilling security dilemma took hold. Nato expansion was justified by the very insecurity it produced. By 2008, Russia publicly asserted that Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine were its defensive red lines. Nato radicalised matters when in April 2008 it declared, in defiance of Russia, that those two countries would one day become members of the alliance.

Claiming Nato is not a threat to anyone is a delusion. Nato does not get to define Russia’s security perception. Presuming that expanding a military alliance to the border of an insecure great power advances security is delusional. Unilaterally exiting arms control agreements with Russia – like the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the US left in August 2019 – is reckless behaviour.

Admitting Ukraine into the Nato procurement system, training its troops, building Nato-standard infrastructure, and supplying advanced weapons to its forces without grasping that this may inflame Russian insecurity is also delusional thinking. It is living solely within one’s benevolent view of oneself.

The tragedy of the current Ukraine crisis is how both Russia and Nato seemed trapped within self-defeating policies. In seeking greater territorial security Russia has pursued a policy of undermining the territorial integrity of neighbouring states. Its imperialistic habits and attitudes endure.

In the past it has used separatists to advance its geopolitical goals. It now appears poised to pursue a more radical policy of direct military intervention to change facts on the ground. This can only further inflame Ukrainian sentiment against it. In no region will the Russian army be welcomed. Many Ukrainians may not actively resist but some undoubtedly will wage an insurgency against Russian occupation if it comes to that.

The West appears trapped by its fixation on the principle that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own military orientation. They cite articles from past security agreements. But they ignore other articles asserting that security is indivisible. Security requires responsibility and that begins with acknowledging collective sources of insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear the importance of qualifying individual free choice: we all have responsibilities to the collective good.

Many in the West are also fixated with Munich and appeasement, Yalta and spheres of influence. This desire for historically selective moralised analogies betrays a desire to purify the present into simpleminded categories of good and evil. More disturbingly, it also propels desire for righteous action. Violence is soon easily justified.

While the overall picture looks grim, let us hope that this crisis is a spur to serious negotiations and, out of these, a good enough compromise. Ukraine is a desperately poor country whose people have been victimized by embedded corruption and oligopoly since the Soviet collapse. They deserve better that to be a sandbox for a proxy war between Russia and the West. As we extend them solidarity and support in this hour of anxiety, let us also acknowledge the prevailing security delusions that got us here.

© 2021 irishtimes.com

Haughey

Charles Haughey’s childhood was marked by the illness and financial tribulations of his Derry born father, a retired army Officer and IRA veteran, Johnny Haughey. 

 Johnny Haughey was on the run in the South Derry countryside for much on 1920/1 and this may have permanently damaged his health. 

 He took part in the IRA Ambush at Swatragh on 5 June 1921, in which the 28 year old Catholic member of the RIC from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, Michael Burke, was killed.

  Johnny Haughey went on the serve as an officer in the Free State Army, but seems not to have been politically involved beyond that. His wife, Sarah, had to bear an extra burden of caring for him when he contracted multiple sclerosis. 

Charles Haughey was a good student, won a scholarship to UCD and had qualified as both an accountant and a barrister by the age of 24, quite a feat. He also represented Dublin in the minor hurling All Ireland final. His hurling career ended, when he was suspended for a year for striking a linesman, when playing when for Parnells.

This book is useful in reminding readers of his early career, his struggle to be elected to the Dail, and  his nationwide role in party reorganisation.

 He was effective, as Minister  for Justice,  in enacting some of the large backlog of partially prepared legislation in the Department , notably the Succession Act, which gave greater protection to widows. He also reformed the Civil Liability Act, which, among other things,  recognized  that unborn children might be injured, and thus be entitled to redress after birth. In this, he was more enlightened, and had a larger vision of human rights, than has the present generation.

 His avoidable confrontation with the farmers in 1966 is covered rather cursorily. Things got so bad that outgoing Taoiseach, Sean Lemass had to intervene to bring this row to a diplomatic conclusion.

 Gary Murphy claims that, in this book, he is making what he calls a “reassessment” of Charles Haughey, on the basis of his unprecedented access to Haughey’s private papers.  

The facts of Mr Haugheys later career, and of his totally inappropriate financial dependency on donors to maintain an artificially extravagant public lifestyle, are so well known that this “reassessment”    is unlikely to change opinions.  Readers will just be better informed of the facts.

 Apart from some private jottings, which Haughey left in his papers, about his attitude to Northern Ireland and the Arms Trial, the private papers reveal relatively little that is illuminating about Haughey himself, or his private thoughts. 

  The private papers are full of  letters of enthusiastic praise from correspondents on the occasion of his various promotions as a Minister, and of his survivals of party heaves against him. 

Surprisingly for such a partisan figure, many of these letters he received came from senior civil servants and judges, people one might have been expected would maintain greater professional distance. 

 The fact that such people felt moved to write to him throws light on the persona that Charles Haughey had deliberately cultivated. His persona was designed   to mesmerize and hold people in thrall, and thus to enhance his power. In his manner and comportment, he cultivated mystery, awe, and to a great degree, fear.

 He wanted to be seen as the uncommon man, not as the common man.

 His exotic , and mysteriously financed, extravagant lifestyle, was part his attempt to cultivate awe and a consequent  degree of fear.

 As Donald Trump  once said to the author , Bob Woodward;

“Real power is….. I don’t want to use the word….. fear”.

This fear was an important instrument in Mr Haughey’s political repertoire.  The author says Haughey   “could be extremely dismissive of his political colleagues”, but adds , rather dubiously,  that he was never rude to his civil servants. 

From long before his own election to the Dail, Haughey had cultivated a relationship with the grassroots members of Fianna Fail all over the country, by attending Cumann functions and addressing meetings. He later harnessed this relationship to browbeat some TDs into voting for him.

He also was a master of symbolic language, of uncertain content.  

He claimed adherence to Fianna Fail’s “republicanism”, without ever defining what that meant, in terms of day to day politics in the here and now. 

 By focussing on the distant dream, he kept everyone happy. 

 He believed the” British had no more right to be in the 6 counties than in the 26”, as if the problem was the British, rather than the unionists. After his acquittal in the Arms Trial, he claimed to have a “fundamental difference” on Northern policy with Jack Lynch, but never elaborated on what that was. The author does not probe this. 

 The author describes Haugheys views on Northern Ireland as “naive”, believing, it seems, that all that was needed was to persuade the British to leave, and all would be well.

When it comes to Mr Haughey’s economic record, the author does not dig very deep at all. He claims Haughey was an “instinctive Keynesian”.  The author does not reflect on what  ”Keynesianism” could credibly mean, in a small open economy, where any debt fuelled stimulus  would quickly leave the country in the form of extra imports.

When Haughey became Taoiseach in 1979, he was warned that the solvency of the state was at risk as a result of increases in spending and reductions in the tax base, that had occurred since 1977 and before.

 In the meantime,  international interest rates had been deliberately hiked by Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve, in what proved to be a successful , but very painful ,  attempt to drive inflation out of the  international system.

 As a small country, but a big borrower for day to day spending, Ireland was very vulnerable indeed in 1979, when Mr Haughey inherited Jack Lynch’s large parliamentary majority, and could have done something about it. 

Maurice Doyle of the Department of Finance, one of his regular congratulatory correspondents, warned Haughey that the country was already at stage 2 on a 5 stage route to economic disintegration.

 Haughey then  made an eloquent television broadcast warning that the country was living beyond its means, and hinting that he would take  imminent action. But, notwithstanding his large parliamentary majority, his government did nothing. 

 Haughey pursued the illusion of an understanding with unions and employers, rather than putting the government’s own financial  house in order first,  by tax increases and spending reductions.  

 He acted as his own Minister for Finance, sidelining the real Ministers for Finance, Michael O Kennedy and Gene Fitzgerald.

 In January 1981, he produced a budget that pretended to curb  nominal spending, without taking  any of the  necessary policy decisions,  and which  artificially inflated  1981 revenue,  by bringing forward revenue from 1982 ( adding to the 1982 problem).

  As Opposition spokesman at the time, I informed the Dail of the phoniness of these budget numbers and described the budget as one of “drift and expediency”. 

Shortly after this budget, Mr Haughey, who had a large overall majority, and could have continued in office for another year, to deal  with the financial crisis, called General Election.  He lost it, and Fianna Fail was never again to regain the overall parliamentary majority that he had failed to use, and then prematurely cast away.  

 His government was replaced by a Fine Gael/Labour government which, unlike the Haughey government, was in a minority in the Dail.

 That new government had no choice, minority or not, to tackle to financial problem it had inherited head on, and I am proud to say , it did so.

 But because of the lack of a parliamentary majority, this led to the country having to endure  three General  Elections in a row, something which could have been avoided if the Haughey government, which did have a majority in the Dail,  had done its job between 1979 and 1981.

When he returned to office in 1987, with the insurance provided by the support of Fine Gael and Alan Dukes Tallaght strategy, his government  eventually made the economies he could have made in the 1979/81 period. The task was eased by the fact that international interest rates had fallen in the meantime, which reduced government spending on debt service. But he then cast that   insurance aside,  by calling a wholly unnecessary General Election in 1989, a mistake that he paid for later.

 In second order things, Charles Haughey was a very imaginative policy maker.  But on the big things, he often dodged responsibility, and showed a degree of timidity that sat very uneasily beside his carefully cultivated public image. 

 This 637 page book is more than a biography. It is a fairly full political history of Ireland, from the 1950’s to 1990, as seen from the perspective of Ireland’s then largest party, Fianna Fail. 

HOW IRISH PEOPLE HAVE SEEN THEMSELVES SINCE 1958

I have just finished reading Fintan O Toole’s latest book, “We don’t know ourselves”, (Apollo Books) which is subtitled “a personal history of Ireland since 1958”.

O Toole was born in that year and he weaves some of his family story into the broader trends in Irish life, that the book describes.

The central theme  is an exploration of Irish hypocrisy.

 Fintan O Toole sees hypocrisy in recent Irish attitudes to religious practice, abortion, the use of violence for political ends, the desirability of a united Ireland, unmarried motherhood, clerical child abuse, the United States and what it stands for, and to a host of other things.

He neatly defines hypocrisy as

 “the tribute paid by realism to piety”.

Hypocrisy is also often a survival strategy and a form of evasive politeness. There are worse sins.

O Toole describes how, in his early life, emigration was a constant feature of the Irish experience.  45% of those born in the independent Irish state between 1931 and 1936 would eventually emigrate.

For some of them, emigration was a means of escaping the constraints imposed, both by the expectations of their extended family in Ireland, and by notions of morality and respectability derived from prevailing versions of Catholic teaching.

These constraints have loosened, and O Toole admits that

“The real effect of the loss of church authority was that there was no deeply rooted civic authority to take its place”.

He does not explore this. If religion is no longer a guide, what is taking its place? Is it individual choice based on utilitarian principles, or is wokeness taking the place of faith?

This might be a topic for Fintan’s next book.

But demolishing hypocrisy, so elegantly done in this book, is an easier task than creating the ingredients for a new and sustainable social contract.

This will be a big part the task that faces the Christion churches in 21st Century Ireland.  It is their road back to social relevance.   A huge mental and moral effort will be required, and no one else is volunteering to undertake it.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY……A NEW BIOGRAPHY

“JFK”, by Fredrik Logevall, (Penguin Books) is the first volume of a two volume biography of the US President who was killed in Dallas in 1963. It covers the period up to 1956 with a lot of personal and family detail.

Kennedy was a moderate student, but one who read widely. He was serious and introspective, but he also used people without much concern for their feelings. This was particularly the case in his relations with women.

 He came from an unnaturally competitive family and displayed great physical courage, both in his wartime service, and in his battle with illness throughout his life.

While his father, Joe Kennedy, supported appeasement and isolationism in the 1930s, JFK , in contrast, supported US military activity abroad, and criticised President Truman for the  “loss” of China to the Communists.

This is a very readable, if slightly long, book.

AUSTIN CURRIE RIP

I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the death of a great Irish Democrat, Austin Currie. I am proud to have known and served with him.

As a very young Nationalist MP in Stormont, and later as a founding member of the Civil Rights movement and of the SDLP, Austin showed immense physical and moral courage.

He, and his devoted wife Annita, were subjected to grave intimidation and harassment by paramilitaries from both sides during that time.

His first cause was that of ensuring fair access to public housing in Northern Ireland. 

When he later joined Fine Gael, and contested elections on this side of the border, he brought with him the same passion for justice. 

 He was a very good Minister of State and served simultaneously in three government Departments coordinating services for families and children.

He may not have been successful in his quest to become President in 1990, but , if he had succeeded, he would have been a very good President .

MYTHS ABOUT HISTORY CAN LEAD TO FUTURE ERRORS

An unrealistic understanding of the past can lead popular opinion, and politicians, into tragic errors.

Felix Larkin has recently published a collection of essays, entitled “Living with History”, that deals the use and abuse of historical commemorations,  and of official versions  history, in Ireland. 

 Popular opinions about history frequently involve mythologizing certain events, and over simplifying  the choices that were available to decision makers at the time. 

For example, Felix Larkin robustly challenges the popular view, endorsed in his recent book  by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, that the border was “imposed “  on Ireland, against its will, by the British in 1920.

 Larkin points out that Redmond and Carson had accepted some form of partition in principle in 1914, and again in negotiations after the Rising in late 1916. So also did the majority of TDs, who had been elected under a Sinn Fein banner,   when they accepted the Treaty of 1921 by a vote in the Dail. 

 On each occasion the Irish leaders in question shrank from the prospect of a prolonged and bitter sectarian war, and even more deaths, that would have been necessary to impose a united Ireland on a resisting unionist population. 

 They were realists, facing their unpleasant responsibilities, and realists are rarely suitable subject for romantic historical commemorations.  We are being reminded of this by recent events. I am not sure much has changed. There is still a widespread view that unionists will cease to be unionist once there is a border poll. 

As Larkin sees it, the role of the historian is to debunk myths about the past.

 The historian’s role is to recognize that nothing that happened in the past was necessarily inevitable.  History is the result of an accumulation of a series of individual decisions, each one of which could have been different.  Politicians and citizens are, and always were, the shapers of their own destiny within the constraints that existed at the time.

So the study of history, and the well chosen commemoration of past events, should enable us, by learning from the consequences of   past decisions, to make better decisions in the future.

 It should encourage the taking of responsibility, rather than undue submission to victimhood, nostalgia or the blaming of others.

Larkin’s book covers many other topics, the contrast between the ideologies that inspired the 1798 and 1848 rebellions, the successes and failures of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the varying attitudes of the Catholic Hierarchy to political violence.

 It also explores the appropriation of the religious feast of Easter by the faction of the IRB that launched the Rising, including through the use of religious imagery and notions of blood sacrifice in the Proclamation . 

 Even to this day, in secular Ireland, the 1916 Rising is commemorated on Easter Sunday, whenever that falls under the Christian calendar, rather than on 24 April each year, which is the actual anniversary.  This purely secular commemoration should probably not be conflated with the Resurrection of Christ. Each should be recalled by modern Ireland on their own merits.

Larkin believes democracy should infuse commemoration, so the foundational event of this state should be recognised as the anniversary of the meeting of the duly elected First Dail in 1919. This was a democratically sanctioned event, whereas , as a matter of historical fact, the  1916 Rising was not.

Felix Larkin’s book deserves to be widely read. It gives a very personal perspective, and offers insights that will help all residents of this island, whatever their allegiance, shape a peaceful  future,  free of grievance and myth.

He is a former senior official in the Department of Finance and later in the National Treasury Management Agency. 

All the while, he has also been an historian writing about many topics, most notably the history of Irish newspapers, something he first took up as a graduate student as far back as 1971. 

Felix Larkin’s work on newspapers has given him a unique window into contemporary Irish public opinion, over two centuries.

AN AIRLIFT OF SURPLUS VACCINES TO POORER COUNTRIES COULD SAVE MANY LIVES

Statement by John  Bruton, Former Taoiseach

I am happy to be one of the signatories of a letter to the G20  leaders, meeting in Rome this weekend,  calling on them to  airlift surplus  Covid 19 vaccines, unlikely to be used  in high income countries,  to low income countries, where vaccine rates are dangerously low.

Gordon Brown estimates that 240 million unused vaccines will accumulate in the EU, the US , Canada and the UK, by the end of the year, and that 100m of these will have passed their  ”use by” date by then.

It is calculated that, for every 100m vaccines administered, 120000 lives will be saved.

The more vaccines that are administered in Africa, and in other low income countries, the less likely will be the development of new variants of Covid, which could spread back into better off countries.

Gordon Brown’s proposal is a sound one.

MERVYN TAYLOR

I wish to pay heartfelt tribute to the life and work of Mervyn Taylor. I extend deep sympathy to his wife Marlilyn at this time of immense loss.

As a solicitor he gave really valuable service to thousands of clients, always in his characteristic sympathetic and reasoned way.

He will also be missed by his former constituents  in Dublin South West whose interests he served with similar dedication.

He gave outstanding service as Minister for Equality and Law Reform in the Rainbow government that came to office in 1994.

 He was a pleasure to work with as a Cabinet colleague.  We worked together on the Divorce Referendum. He was dedicated and committed to his goals but had a great ability to work together across party lines.

I was surprised when he retired from politics in 1997. I believe he enjoyed his retirement and it was my pleasure to meet him from time to time.

He will be missed.

ARMAGH CHURCH SERVICE……..IRISH STATE SHOULD HAVE A SINGLE POLICY ON CENTENARIES

(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For the President of Ireland to stand together with Queen Elizabeth at a church service in Armagh next month would convey a strong emotional message. 

It would underline the simultaneous Irishness and Britishness of Northern Ireland. It would show that both views of sovereignty can be reconciled. 

 In fact, it would be a big step away from the exclusive territorial expression of sovereignty that underlies the Brexit policies of the current UK government.

 The Queen, by standing as an equal beside our President, would be symbolically underlining the treaty based interest this state, that he represents, has in protecting the rights and privileges of people living in Northern Ireland, regardless of which power is technically sovereign over the territory. It would represent a major step away from the traditional unionist way of looking at what Northern Ireland is.

 It should be welcomed by people on this side of the border. The vivid image of the two heads of state standing together in harmony, in a place of Christion worship, in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, would symbolise something really important, in a way that no amount of words on official papers ever could.

This is why I believe the President, who as a poet, understands the power of imagery, should think again about his decision to decline the invitation he received to worship God together with the Queen in Armagh on 21 October.

 I understand the invitation to the President was dated 20 May, five months ago, so there was ample time for the President, in consultation with the government , to iron out any protocol difficulties that might have inhibited the President’s acceptance of the invitation.

 I do not know when or how the President replied  to the invitation he received five months ago and why his rejection of it emerged only this week. 

It is very clear that the invitation was not to attend to any form of celebration, or self congratulation. It specifically calls for an “honest reflection” on the past 100 years and for the acknowledgement of “failures and hurts”. 

I understand the invitation, which was from The Church Leaders Group (Ireland) , was addressed to

 “The President of Ireland, Aras an Uachtarain, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8.

The invitation was to a “service of Reflection and Hope” to mark the centenary of the “partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. The President found these words unacceptably political. I do not see his point.

 Partition is a reality and so is Northern Ireland.

 The Irish people, in endorsing in a referendum the Good Friday Agreement, accepted that  the existence of Northern Ireland represents the “present wish” of the people living there. The provision for a possible future border poll is the corollary of that acceptance of that in the Good Friday Agreement. They go together.

A rejection of an invitation  to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland could be seen as suggesting  that we in this state are not reconciled, at a deeper level , to things we have formally accepted in the referendum on the  Good Friday Agreement, namely that Northern Ireland is, for the time being anyway, legitimately  part of the UK.

It is true that the President has a measure of discretion as to the invitations he accepts or rejects. 

But he is our head of state, not a private individual , and the decisions he takes to accept or reject particular invitations are decisions that have implications for the state and government of Ireland. 

If the Irish government is seeking to reach out to both communities in Northern Ireland, that outreach should be reflected in the President’s decisions. 

The State cannot afford to have divergent policies in Northern Ireland issues, one set in the Phoenix Park and another in Merrion Street. That is why Article 13(9) of the constitution is framed as it is.

The State should have a single policy on commemorations.

The Church leaders, who invited President Higgins two months later to Armagh, quoted St Paul

“So the let us pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another”.

That is the spirit in which the invitation was issued. That is the spirit in which I hope the President can look at this again. 

THE ANGLO /IRISH AGREEMENT OF 1985……….A PROFOUND IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS,

HAS IT BEEN UNDERMINED BY BREXIT?

This book gives a lively account, by one of the leading diplomats on the British side, of the origins and negotiation of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. It is well written and a valuable contribution to history.

 It also gives a searing insight into Mrs Thatcher’s governing style from the perspective of someone who had to work with her. 

Mrs Thatcher had strong prejudices, mainly of an English nationalist kind. Her eventual acceptance of the Anglo Irish Agreement was a case of her even stronger sense of political realism eventually overcoming her prejudices.

 But it was a stormy process. Mrs Thatcher was difficult to brief and hard to keep on topic. David Goodall describes her “eclectic and discontinuous style of argument”, and how she often adopted a “hectoring and tangential mode, both confusing and dominating the discussion”. 

She saw the nationalist minority situation in the Northern Ireland, as similar to that of the Sudeten Germans in pre war Czechoslovakia, hardly a hopeful starting point.  

That she was eventually won around to a more balanced appreciation of the Irish problem is a tribute to the persistence and persuasiveness of Garret FitzGerald, and also of her own Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe.

 Indeed, Howe emerges as an unsung hero of the whole process, along with his Irish counterpart, Peter Barry. These two men, and their officials, kept the show on the road, despite many discouragements, not least the horrifying attempt by the IRA, to murder Mrs Thatcher herself in Brighton on 12 October 1984. That she could agree something as radical as the Anglo Irish Agreement, so soon after this, showed real statesmanship.

Mrs Thatcher liked and trusted Garret FitzGerald. But he had to overcome deep British fears and prejudices. Goodall says Garret was so convinced of his own and his party’s loathing of the IRA, that he could never understand why, in the eyes of many British people including Mrs Thatcher, Irish nationalism as a whole was tainted with the terrorist brush.

Goodall praises John Hume’s “deep strategic thinking” and his reasonableness in public. But he found him unwilling in private to say what  the Irish government might offer unionists as reassurance that they were not being driven down the road towards a united Ireland.

 This Agreement gave, for the first time,  the Irish government a  formal  Treaty based right to put forward proposals on political, security, legal and cross border issues in respect of Northern Ireland. It was given a means of doing this through an Inter Governmental Conference, which was to meet regularly at ministerial level and which was supported by a Secretariat based in Belfast. 

 By agreeing to this, the UK accepted that Northern Ireland was no longer a purely internal British matter. The UK government also pledged itself to make determined efforts to resolve differences that might arise on these proposals from Dublin.   This was an important breakthrough in psychological as well as legal terms. 

It was resented deeply by unionists, but was a necessary step on the road towards acceptance by unionists of equality between the two traditions, without which the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could never have been negotiated, with the inclusion of unionist political parties.

From an Irish government point of view, the goal of the Agreement was to combat northern nationalist alienation from the state and its security services and this persuade them  to disavow any support for the IRA campaign and support the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein. The Agreement did not achieve this goal at the time, and the SDLP’s political distinctiveness was later blurred by the Hume/Adams dialogue.

At the time of the Agreement , Northern Ireland was under direct rule from London. The UK wanted to devolve powers to a Northern Ireland Assembly, but the SDLP was not willing to participate because of the way in which the power sharing government, established in 1973 at Sunningdale , had been brought down by a Loyalist strike. The SDLP would not re enter the Assembly without stronger guarantees on power sharing and  north/ south arrangements, and it looked to Dublin to get such guarantees for  them, which  eventually came about through the Good Friday  Agreement.  

  The Agreement also contained an incentive to Unionists to share power with the SDLP in a devolved administration because it said that the Irish government would give up its right to “put forward proposals” under the Agreement , on any subjects that were devolved to a  power sharing Administration.  So Unionists had a simple choice- share ministerial power with the SDLP, or put up with Dublin being involved. 

One of the British goals in the negotiation was better cooperation between the security forces and this was to be an important part of the work of the Inter Governmental Conference. Garret FitzGerald’s idea of mixed courts, including judges from the South sitting on sensitive cases involving terrorist offences in Northern Ireland, did not , however , make it into the final Agreement. 

On the long term status of Northern Ireland, the Agreement reaffirmed that a majority, at that time , wished to remain in the UK,  but it  added that if, in future, a majority

 “clearly wish for and formally consent  to the establishment of a united Ireland”

 both governments would give effect to this.

 This wording is more nuanced than that of the Good Friday Agreement , which leaves less room for negotiation and preparation for such a radical step, and does not even require formal consultation with the Irish government before a border poll might be called..

Goodall tells his readers that when he first came to deal with the Northern Ireland question,  he thought then that

“the circumstances of Northern Ireland were such as to make it impossible  for it to function contentedly , either as an integral part of the UK tout court , or as part of a united Ireland”

If that was true in 1983, it is unfortunately still true today. 

The “aspirations” of the two communities, which loom large in this and subsequent Agreements negotiated between the two  governments, are fundamentally contradictory.  Both the Good Friday Agreement and the Downing Street declaration talk of respect  for unionist and nationalist “aspirations”,  even though these aspirations contradict one another, and for one to succeed, the other must fail. Perhaps the focus on aspirations of this nature was a mistake

 As long as the unionists and nationalist communities are defined, and described by themselves and others ,  in terms of  their competing and contradictory “aspirations” around the constitutional status,  it is hard to see Northern Ireland, of the island as a whole, “functioning contentedly”, as Goodall put it.  

 Brexit , and the pressure for an early border poll, have combined to sharpen the divide even further. Perhaps it is time for the two governments, and the parties in Northern Ireland,  to  move away from seeing their  task in terms of finessing  two incompatible aspirations for the future, and  decide to focus instead on goals which unionists, nationalists, and the middle ground between,  would be  content to achieve together and be proud of achieving.

It is also worth asking whether Brexit,  by  the resulting Anglo/Irish  political tensions it has brought, and the deep structural divergence it will create between the neighbouring islands, has undone the achievement of 1985.

Book review I wrote for in the “Irish Examiner” 


AUTHOR;           David Goodall
TITLE;             The Making of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985
PUBLISHER;     National University of Ireland 
PRICE ;           20  Euros

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