Theses on the Anglo-Irish (Hillborough) Agreement of 1985

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2006 - 12:26

1. What is the Anglo-Irish agreement?

The Anglo-Irish agreement sets up an inter-governmental conference - backed up by a permanent secretariat stationed in Belfast-between the London and Dublin governments which will jointly run Northern Ireland.

The executive power stays exclusively in British hands but the political control of the executive is normally to reside in the intergovernmental conference.

The Anglo-Irish agreement is an international treaty registered with the UN, according to which the British government obligates itself to run Northern Ireland in agreement with the 26 County government and when disagreements emerge earnestly to seek agreement and a common policy.

Britain declared itself to have no opposition to a united Ireland if the Six County majority wanted it, and promised to legislate for a united Ireland if a Six County majority decided for it; the 26 County government promised to respect the separateness of the Six Counties so long as a majority there wanted to be separate.

This is power-sharing between Dublin and London. Because it proved impossible to establish power-sharing between Northern Ireland political forces in Belfast, the two governments have established a radically new framework over their heads.

If some form of mutually acceptable power-sharing in Belfast is agreed, then most of the powers of the intergovernmental conference will devolve to the Belfast government.

The agreement contrasts with the Sunningdale agreement of 1973 in not being dependent on any local agreement. Sunningdale started with agreement for power-sharing in Belfast, and proposed to-build upwards on this towards a Council of Ireland. Hillsborough starts with a Council of Britain and Ireland and wants to build downwards. The Sunningdale agreement was vulnerable to the Orange general strike of 1974 because that strike could bring down the power-sharing executive. No local action in Northern Ireland can bring down Hillsborough, if the nerves of the London and Dublin governments hold.

The Orangeists are - from their own point of view - quite right that the Anglo-Irish agreement marks a big new involvement of the 26 Counties in the administration of Northern Ireland.

2. Why the Hillsborough agreement

Northern Ireland broke down as a political entity in August 1969. Catholic revolt against their second-class citizenship and a Protestant backlash against the Catholics led to the British Army being put on the streets to stop sectarian fighting (after over 500 Catholic families had been burned out in Belfast).

That Northern Ireland had indeed broken down was recognised by Britain in March 1972 when the IRA military campaign forced Britain to abolish the Protestant-controlled Belfast home-rule government. Britain attempted radically to restructure Northern Ireland politics by replacing majority - Protestant sectarian - rule with institutionalised power sharing.

It won the majority of Catholics to support the power-sharing, but only a minority of Protestants. When an executive based on the Catholic majority and a Protestant minority was nevertheless set up, a powerful Orange general strike brought it down in May 1974.

After that British direct rule became semi-permanent and the chief task Britain set itself was to defeat the insurgent Catholic IRA. But the IRA remained in the field and after ten Republicans died on hunger strike in 1981 the Republican movement achieved a degree of Catholic political support that convinced the rulers of London and Dublin that things were getting out of their control.

The Southern Irish nationalist parties and the Six County constitutional nationalist party, the SDLP - which had been the mainstay of the power-sharing experiment in 1974 - spent a year in the 'New Ireland Forum' discussing constitutional rearrangements in Ireland that would end the IRA's revolt and bring about reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant.

They prepared a number of possible options, all of which were immediately rejected by Mrs Thatcher. One of these options was joint rule in the Six Counties by Dublin and London, London representing the Protestants and Dublin the Catholics. That was rejected in 1984 by Mrs Thatcher.

But after over a year of negotiations, what the London and Dublin governments came up with was a variant of power-sharing - political power-sharing while the executive power remained in British hands. As well as that, it is proposed to create a strong Dublin-Westminster joint parliamentary committee, thus drawing Britain and the 26 Counties closer together than they have been since Southern Ireland seceded from the UK in 1922. The Anglo-Irish agreement is thus a framework within which British/Irish collaboration can evolve and develop on a closer level than for 65 years - if it holds.

3. The Anglo-Irish agreement and a united Ireland

Most of the left, following the Republicans, denounces the Anglo-Irish deal for 'copper-fastening' partition. But this is false.

Every 26 County government since 1922 has in fact recognised partition and some have declared that there can be no united Ireland without the consent of a sizeable section of the Six County Protestants.

The Anglo-Irish deal would only copper-fasten partition if there was some way of removing partition that the deal hinders. There is no way to remove partition unless the Northern Ireland majority wants it. To try to conquer the Protestants would not bring Irish unity Almost certainly it would lead to sectarian civil war and bloody repartition. In fact the alternative to the Anglo Irish agreement was the status quo - i.e. deepening integration with the UK under prolonged direct rule.

If the Anglo-Irish agreement works against a united Ireland, it will be by way of the embitterment it has caused.

4. Socialists and the Anglo-Irish deal

Anything that would bring about reconciliation between the two communities in Northern Ireland, and thus create the preconditions for working class unity, should be welcomed by socialists. But the Anglo-Irish agreement does nothing of the sort.

While alienating the Protestants more profoundly than they have ever been alienated from Britain, it gives little to the Catholics other than the participation of the Dublin government as their champion. It is a profoundly undemocratic agreement, made over the heads of all the people in the Six Counties ant resulting in structures that fall a great deal short of democracy.

The Anglo-Irish agreement does not solve the problem that has to be solved in Ireland; it exacerbates and inflames it.

The basic problem is that there is a natural Irish minority - the Protestants - which, according to democratic norms, would have every right to special treatment as a minority by way of having autonomy in its own heartland areas. But Ireland as a whole was ruled by Britain, and the minority - partly for reasons of protecting itself against the Irish majority - allied with a powerful section of the British ruling class against the Irish majority. As a result of that alliance Ireland was partitioned, with the Protestants having their own home-rule state within which there was a Catholic minority bigger as a proportion of the Protestant state's population than the Protestants of all Ireland would have been in a united Ireland.

The Catholic minority in the North was some 35%, and they were in the majority in a sizeable part of the Six Counties-so they were felt to be a permanent threat to the Protestant majority. They were treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against and rigorously excluded from any say in ruling the Six Counties, even in local government where they were the local majority (e.g. Derry).

They suffered for decades and then revolted with a strength and determination that the British government has found impossible to quell.

The problem is to find a democratic framework which (a) takes account of the legitimate concerns of the two communities in Northern Ireland, of the wish of the Protestants not to be incorporated as an oppressed majority in a Catholic-majority Ireland as well as the wish of the Six County Catholics not to be an artificial minority in the Six County state, and, (b) allows for reconciliation and the development of normal class politics in Ireland.

That framework can only be a federal united Ireland-in which the minority areas will have autonomy-combined with the closes link between Ireland and Britain acceptable to the Irish majority.

The fundamental criticism of the Anglo-Irish agreement from this point of view is that though it provokes the Orangeists about as much as a united Ireland would, it does not move any way towards providing a workable democratic framework.

The majority of the Orange population want a restoration of Orange majority rule. They will resist anything short of that and anything other than it. There would be resistance to any attempt to create a democratic federal structure. But resistance to structures that actually do take account of Orange interests could eventually dissipate. By contrast the Anglo-Irish agreement does not offer structures within which the Orangeists can be reconciled.

It puts them forever under the joint ultimate control of Britain and Britain's inter-governmental conference partner, the Fenian government which they believe schemes and plots endlessly to take out the Six Counties and incorporate its people as a helpless minority in the Catholic state.

5. Prospects

The Orangeists seemed almost unanimous in their opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Their unity has begun to shatter in face of the intransigence of Thatcher.

As a section of the Orangeists go all the way to outright illegality, the process of differentiation within the Orange ranks will accelerate. Already the Official Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux has said 'Never again' after the violence of the 3 March strike, and the OUP officially kept away from the illegal demonstration at Portadown on 31 March.

A two-way separation will occur. A section of the Orange politicians will probably try to reach accommodation with Britain, as Paisley and Molyneaux did in late February. Others will go into militarist occupation. The creation of a 'Protestant IRA' is most likely - an organisation striking at the South.

The majority of Catholics have been shown in opinion polls to favour the Hillsborough agreement, and the SDLP has been boosted at the expense of Sinn Fein. But the Catholics have in practical terms gained little, and the Orange backlash now threatens them with the sort of campaign of sectarian assassinations that swept across Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1976. The consequence of the Orange backlash in the Catholic community is that the IRA will be boosted as a defensive force.

In the months ahead the prospect is for a series of fierce clashes between the police and the Army and the Orange militants. The RUC will probably be eroded by the campaign against them in the Orange community (though this may provoke a revulsion which will be part of the process of polarisation in the Protestant community). In any case the RUC could hardly cope with the level of conflict that looms in the marching season ahead.

Therefore the British Army will be drawn more and more into 'police' work against the Protestants. The experience in 1969 and after when the Army did police work in the Catholic areas where the RUC had ceased to be acceptable suggests that this will further poison the already very bitter relations between the British government and the Protestant community.

The chances that Britain, caught between the two communities, will just pull out, are probably very small. The consequences, including the very likely spread of Catholic/Protestant conflict to British cities like Glasgow, are far too grave for any British withdrawal in response to the new situation. Britain will try to tough it out.

6. The Republicans

If any benefit to the Catholics can be claimed from the Anglo-Irish agreement, then to the Republicans' military campaign belongs the credit.

The tragedy is that the cost of that campaign in terms of the deepening of the ancient gulf between the two communities is immense-and it has not yet been paid.

The revolt of the Catholics was a just revolt, its channelling into this sort of military campaign the product of the domination of a particular political tradition. Today the dilemma of the IRA lies in this, that if the military campaign were to stop then the pressure for change would stop; and if it goes on now then it is the pyromaniacal activity of pouring petrol on a fire that may anyway be uncontrollable.

The temptation to 'detonate the Protestants' and use them against Thatcher must be great. After all it was the Protestants who wrecked power-sharing in 1974. But no good can come of it.

Out of the sectarian civil war that is a clear possibility in this situation can come neither a united, nor a democratic, and still less a socialist Ireland.

7. Civil war

The fundamental threat in Northern Ireland is of sectarian civil war - which would lead to a bloody repartition, complete and fix the division in the Irish people for perpetuity, and probably boost clericalist reaction on both sides of the new border. Compared with that, the carnival of reaction which accompanied the 1920 partition would seem mild and moderate.

One consequence of the vicarious Irish nationalism so widespread on what might be called the organisationally inchoate but ideologically Mandelite left is that the danger of sectarian civil war is not properly appreciated. It filters through the ideological spectacles as 'the socialist revolution', 'the permanent revolution', or as a little local difficulty which the good guys would win.

We must fight this irresponsible and light-minded attitude. In the period ahead it will otherwise isolate the left from serious and sober-minded labour movement militants who will rightly recoil from the prospect of sectarian civil war.

8. The left

Most of the so-called Marxist left is politically subservient to Sinn Fein. They relate to Ireland through romantic populist spectacles which allow them to avoid seeing the horrifying spectre of communal civil war that looms behind events there.

In their reaction to the Anglo-Irish agreement most of the left have surpassed themselves, focusing on the alleged surrender of Irish sovereignty and failing almost entirely to see anything new. The writers and readers of publications like Socialist Action and Labour and Ireland must be mightily surprised by the recent events in Northern Ireland.

On Ireland the left needs urgently to rearm itself with working-class Marxist politics.

9. Troops Out

The single isolated slogan 'Troops Out' has come to be the mark of a sizeable part of the left in the last decade. It has become something of a fetish, isolated from the rest of a socialist or democratic programme on Ireland.

We are for Irish self-determination therefore for troops out. But Socialist Organiser has repeatedly criticised the slogan-mongering use of troops out as if it were a self-sufficient programme. Right now troops out without a political settlement means - for a certainty - sectarian civil war and repartition. It means not self-determination of the Irish people as a whole, but the dog-eat-dog destruction of any chance of unity of the Irish people as a whole.

Troops out is not a political programme, but only part of one - and it can be part of more than one programme. Plain troops out tomorrow means sectarian civil war - troops out with a political settlement means something radically different.

We are in favour of British withdrawal but as part of a political solution which actually allows Irish self-determination: and that can only mean a solution which leads to some form of federal Ireland within which Protestant and Catholics will not, immediately Britain goes, have to set about determining how they relate to each other by sectarian civil war, perhaps even on the pattern of Lebanon.

We do not say 'we support troops out only after a federal Ireland has been agreed'; we say 'a serious movement for troops out among the Irish working class, let alone the British working class, can only be built as part of a programme for actually realising Irish self-determination.' In a sense this is conditional support for British withdrawal - but withdrawal is not a fetish. And it does not mean that we take any responsibility for the British troops. They buttress an untenable status quo and they serve British governments - Labour and Tory alike-which over the last 17 years (and now again with the Anglo-Irish agreement) could not have acted very differently if they had been deliberately trying to make sectarian civil war inevitable.

As the Orange mobilisation develops, sections of the soft left will probably start supporting British troops against the Orangeists or advocating their use. We do not back the Orange bigots, but we do not back the troops either. We remain the party of irreconcilable opposition.

10. The Catholics

The Northern Ireland Catholics remain the chief victims of partition. They are likely now to be victims of reactivated Orange murder gangs. In the event of sectarian civil war they will be the most vulnerable, especially in Belfast.

While we advocate a democratic solution to the Protestant Catholic conflict, and reconciliation and working class unity as a basic immediate policy for Northern Ireland, in face of sectarian conflict we must stand with and defend the Catholics.

11. Socialism

The unspeakably bitter spectacle of the workers who live in the run-down Shankhill area of Belfast in murderous conflict with their Catholic working-class neighbours in the run-down Falls area sums up what capitalism, British rule and the activities of the Irish bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians have done to Ireland.

The massive 25% unemployment rate among people who often lack the means of life above the bare necessities is a further indictment of that system.

The Irish working class, Protestant and Catholic alike, needs
socialism- that the workers should join together and take power from the capitalists.

We do not counterpose future socialism to the just struggle of the Catholics now, nor pretend that a divided Irish working class can miraculously make a sudden leap from the terrible reality of today to socialism.

But we need socialism, and a movement that fights for socialism as well as for a democratic solution to the Catholic/Protestant conflict.

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