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Anglo-Irish Agreement - Description of Contents

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Text and Research: Alan Morton
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The following text has been contributed by Alan Morton, Ph.D. Student with the Irish Peace Institute Research Centre, University of Limerick. The views expressed in this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Description of the Agreement Contents

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Garret FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on 15 November 1985 at Hillsborough, the former residence of the Governor General of Northern Ireland. The Agreement consists of thirteen articles dealing with the status of Northern Ireland, the Intergovernmental Conference, political, security and legal matters, cross-border co-operation and interparliamentary relations.

The Status of Northern Ireland

Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement concerns the status of Northern Ireland:

The two Governments

(a) affirm that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland;

(b) recognise that the present wish of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland;

(c) declare that, if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland, they will introduce and support in the respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.

The Irish Government had already signed up to the principle of consent in the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, as the British Government had already declared its support for a united Ireland if that was favoured by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. But the Sunningdale agreement was only a joint communiqué, while the Anglo-Irish Agreement wrote these clauses into an international treaty that was registered at the United Nations (UN). As has been noted by Guelke (1988), it is anomalous by international standards for a state to make its claim to a territory dependent on the wishes of the people of that territory. It was this conditional nature of the British claim to Northern Ireland that was a factor in unionist hostility to the Agreement.

The Intergovernmental Conference

Articles 2 and 3 makes provision to expand the role of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council that was established between Thatcher and Haughey in 1981. Article 2 is the most important and most contentious article of the Agreement, as it provides a consultative role for the Irish Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland. It also suggests that a devolved assembly and executive in Northern Ireland could replace the input of the Irish Government. Article 2 states:

The United Kingdom Government accept that the Irish Government will put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland within the field of activity of the Conference in so far as those matters are not the responsibility of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland. In the interests of promoting peace and stability, determine efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences ... There is no derogation from the sovereignty of either the United Kingdom Government or the Irish Government, and each retains responsibility for the decisions and administration of government within its own jurisdiction.

Article 2 is far removed from Margaret Thatcher's description of Northern Ireland as being 'as British as Finchley' (her constituency in the House of Commons). Garret FitzGerald described the role of the Irish Government as 'less than joint authority, but more than consultation'. Political scientist John Whyte concurs: 'in effect the British Government was conceding to the Irish Government a special role in Northern Ireland: something less strong than joint authority, but stronger than mere right to consultation' (Whyte, 1990). The 'field of activity of the Conference' refers to political matters, security and related matters, legal matters and cross-border co-operation. But as the definition of 'political matters' is almost limitless, so is the range of issues the Irish Government can put forward views and proposals. Article 3 outlines the workings of the Conference and provides for the establishment of a Secretariat, serviced by Irish and British civil servants at located at Maryfield in Belfast. The Maryfield Secretariat, as a symbol of Dublin's involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland, became a focus for unionist protest.


Article 4 expands the conditions whereby a devolved administration in Northern Ireland could replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Article 4 (b) and (c) read as follows:

(b) It is the declared policy of the United Kingdom Government that responsibility in respect of certain matters within the powers of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should be devolved within Northern Ireland on a basis which would secure widespread acceptance throughout the community. The Irish Government support that policy.

(c) Both Governments recognise that devolution can be achieved only with the co-operation of constitutional representatives within Northern Ireland of both traditions there. The Conference shall be a framework within which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals on the modalities of bringing about devolution in Northern Ireland, in so far as they to the interests of the minority community.

The phrases 'widespread acceptance' and 'co-operation ... of both traditions' clearly imply the requirement of power-sharing for any devolved arrangement. O'Leary and McGarry (1993) convincingly argue in favour of a 'Machiavellian interpretation' of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, portraying it as 'a rational power-game, designed to coerce the unionists into accepting a new version of the Sunningdale agreement of 1973-74'.

The Agreement confronted unionists with an 'Irish dimension' of far greater significance than the Council of Ireland envisaged in the Sunningdale experiment. The reward to unionists for agreeing to a power-sharing arrangement with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) would be the replacement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This view was given credence by a remark from Margaret Thatcher in Belfast soon after the signing of the Agreement: 'the people of Northern Ireland can get rid of the Intergovernmental Conference by agreeing to devolved government' (O'Leary and McGarry, 1993).

Articles 5 - 13

Articles 5 to 8 detail the constituent parts of 'political matters', 'security and related matters', and 'legal matters, including the administration of justice'. The Irish Government is acknowledged as representing the interests of the nationalist minority in article 5(c). Article 9 and 10 are concerned with cross-border co-operation on security, economic, social and cultural matters, and included the rational for the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland which co-ordinated financial support from the international community for economic and social projects in both parts of Ireland. Article 11 concerns the arrangements for a review of the Agreement, and article 12 relates to interparliamentary relations.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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