Margaret Thatcher – 1985 Statement on the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Below is the text of the statement made by Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 26 November 1985.

I beg to move,

That this House approves the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Cmnd. 9657) signed on 15th November by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald.
Since 1969, nearly 2,500 people have lost their lives in Northern Ireland as a result of terrorism, more than 750 of them members of the security forces. As the House is only too well aware, there has also been further loss of life among the armed forces, police and civilians in the remainder of the United Kingdom, including three of our colleagues in this House.

That is the stark background to today’s debate and it takes us immediately to the historic divisions between the two communities in Northern Ireland, which we cannot ignore.

Whatever the differences that may emerge in our debate, I believe that we shall all be united in our determination to end the violence and to bring to justice those who are guilty. We shall all be united in our deep sympathy for the thousands of families whose lives have been darkened by the shadow of the gunman and the bomber; and we shall all be united in our admiration and gratitude for the men and women of the security forces in Northern Ireland and, indeed, from all parts of Great Britain, so many of whom have paid the price of protecting us with their own lives.

But it is apparent that any initiative, however modest, to bring the people of Northern Ireland closer together to beat the terrorists raises emotions and fears rooted deep in the past. I understand those fears, although I do not believe them to be justified.

Faced with all that we have seen in the past 16 years, it was not enough for the Government to rely solely upon the security forces, valiant though they are, to contain and resist the tide of violence. Let me make it clear that there can be no such thing as an acceptable level of violence, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Government owe a duty to the security forces and to all the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic alike, to do everything within their power to stamp out terrorism—not by giving in to the terrorist, not by giving him a single inch. Indeed, the fact that the terrorists have condemned the agreement is a demonstration that we have done no such thing.

The fight against terrorism is greatly weakened if the community is divided against itself, and it is greatly strengthened if all people committed to democracy and the rule of law can join together against the men of violence. That, the Government felt, required a further attempt to reconcile the two communities in Northern Ireland.

The Unionist community, firmly loyal to the Crown and to the United Kingdom, represent a proud tradition of devotion to the Union which everyone in these islands should respect, and which this agreement does respect. They have a right to feel secure about Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom. This agreement, by reinforcing the principle of consent, should make them ​ feel more secure, not only today but in the future. Unionists have the assurance that neither an Irish Government, nor of course a British Government, will try to impose new constitutional arrangements upon them against their will.

The nationalist community think of themselves as Irish in terms of their identity, their social and cultural traditions and their political aspirations. The House can respect their identity too and acknowledge their aspirations, even though we may not see the prospect of their fulfilment.

The only lasting way to put an end to the violence and achieve the peace and stability in Northern Ireland is reconciliations between these two communities. That is the goal of this agreement.

I now draw the attention of the House to what I consider to be the most significant points of the agreement. The preamble sets out the commitment of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic to work for reconciliation; our utter and total rejection of violence; our recognition and respect for the separate identities in Northern Ireland; and our acceptance of the right of each to pursue its aspirations by peaceful means. These principles reflect the hopes of both communities.

Article 1 of the agreement makes it abundantly clear that there is no threat whatsoever to Unionists’ heartfelt desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. It provides, in a formally binding international accord, a recognition by the Irish Government that the status of Northern Ireland will remain unchanged as long as that is the wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. It recognises also that the present wish of a majority is for no change in that status. There can be no better reply to the fears that have been expressed in the House than this explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the Unionist position.

Article 2 of the agreement acknowledges in a practical and strictly defined way the concern that the Irish Republic has with matters relating to Northern Ireland. In the past, that concern has sometimes been expressed in critical or negative terms which did not help the cause of harmony between the communities in Northern Ireland. Article 2, therefore, establishes an Intergovernmental Conference. This will have no executive authority either now or in the future. It will consider on a regular basis political, security and legal matters, including the administration of justice, as well as cross-border co-operation on security, economic and cultural matters.

This co-operation will not be a one-way street. The Irish Government will be able to put forward views and proposals on certain matters affecting Northern Ireland. We for our part shall be able to pursue issues of concern to all peace-loving people in Northern Ireland. Notably cooperation in the fight against terrorism—co-operation which goes beyond the borders of Northern Ireland.

The matters within the scope of the conference are spelled out in greater detail in articles 4 to 9 of the agreement. I should like to draw the House’s attention to three particular points about these articles. First, if devolution is restored, those matters that become the responsibility of the devolved Government will no longer be within the purview of the intergovernmental conference. We hope that the agreement will encourage the constitutional representatives of both communities to come together to form a local administration acceptable to both. This hope has been specifically endorsed by the Irish Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern ​ Ireland will be exploring with the constitutional parties how best to make progress. Meantime, the Assembly continues in being, with all its statutory responsibilities.

Secondly, article 8, which deals with legal matters, says that consideration will be given to the possibility of establishing mixed courts. Let me say straightaway that we have absolute confidence in the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the integrity and courage which they have shown in recent years in maintaining high standards of judicial impartiality have been outstanding.

We know the difficulties which would be involved in mixed courts both in Northern Ireland and in the republic. We recognise the reservations which are held by the legal profession. We see no easy or early way through these difficulties. That is why, although we are prepared to consider in good faith the possibility of them at some future time, we have made it clear that we are under no commitment to introduce them.

Thirdly, I draw the House’s attention to the proposals for improved security co-operation in article 9. This provides for a programme of work to be undertaken by the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Commissioner of the Garda to improve co-operation in such matters as threat assessment, exchange of information, technical co-operation, training of personnel and operational resources.

The really vital element in this programme is fuller and faster exchange of information, especially pre-emptive intelligence which helps to prevent acts of terrorism.

These are specific measures which I believe will lead to real improvements in security—improvements which will be welcome above all to those men and women who live in the border areas and who have been subjected to so many merciless attacks designed to drive them from their homes and farms.

That improvement should be further reinforced by the Irish Government’s intention to accede to the European convention on the suppression of terrorism.

The convention’s purpose is to ensure that those who commit terrorist offences should be brought to justice and that any offences involving the use of explosives or firearms should not be regarded as political.

Irish accession should greatly increase our prospects of securing extradition from the republic of persons accused or convicted or terrorist crimes. This will be a major and a welcome step forward in the war against terrorism.

I draw the House’s attention to the reference in article 12 to the possible establishment of an Anglo-Irish interparliamentary body. Both we and the Irish Government felt that this was a matter for our Parliaments themselves rather than for Governments to pursue. I hope that contacts will be established through the usual channels to consider how discussions on an interparliamentary body can most effectively be taken forward.

I have tried to explain to the House the most significant points of the agreement. In view of some of the mistaken claims about it, I want also to say something about what is not in the agreement. The agreement does not affect the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. It does not set us on some imagined slippery slope to Irish unity, and it is nonsense to claim that it might.

The effect of article 1 is to confirm the provision in section 1 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority there so wish. That again is a ​ recognition of reality. The guarantee for the majority lies in the fact that it is a majority. That fundamental point is reinforced by this agreement.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Lady. Can she explain why the Irish Government signed the agreement?

The Prime Minister

I believe that the Irish Government signed the agreement because they share with us its objectives: to try to defeat the men of violence and to try to achieve peace and stability for all the people who live, and who will continue to live, in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to read it, all of this is set out fully in the preamble to the agreement.

Second, I want to make it clear that the agreement does not detract from British sovereignty in Northern Ireland—or, for that matter, from Irish sovereignty in the republic. We, the United Kingdom Government, accountable to Parliament, remain responsible for the government of Northern Ireland. Yes, we will listen to the views of the Irish Government. Yes, we will make determined efforts to resolve differences. But at the end of the day decisions north of the border will continue to be made by the United Kingdom Government and south of the border by the Irish Government. This is a fundamental point. There can be no misunderstanding.

Third, I want to dispel the absurd notion that the Government will listen to the views of the republic on Northern Ireland matters, but not to the views of our own unionist community.

There are already many ways in which the majority community in Northern Ireland can and do put their views to the Government. The right hon. and hon. Members of this House who represent the unionist parties are themselves an important channel. Another is the Northern Ireland Assembly, an important and experienced body which could be used to improve the arrangements for consultation. Yet another is the many representations that unionists make to Ministers. The unionist voice is clearly heard and will continue to be heard.

If the Anglo-Irish agreement is to bring about a real improvement in the daily lives of the two communities in Northern Ireland, it must be matched by a determined effort on the part of all law-abiding citizens to defeat the men of violence. And that effort must rest on clear and consistent principles of justice, equity and fairness. For if democracy is the rule of the majority, the other side of the coin is fairness and respect for the minority, for all are citizens of the United Kingdom.

On the economic front, we will continue to pay special attention to Northern Ireland’s needs. During direct rule, spending on economic and social programmes has risen since 1972–73 by 50 per cent. in real terms to £3,600 million last year. That amounts to nearly £2,500 a head, far more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Spending on that scale shows the high priority given by successive Governments to the needs of Northern Ireland and its people. Our concern will continue.

On security, our efforts will also continue. Thanks to the magnificent work of our policemen and soldiers, we have already made some progress, but we still have much to do. I believe that our security forces can take new heart from the promise of greater security co-operation that will flow from the agreement.
In commending this agreement to the House, I should like first to pay tribute to Dr. Fitzgerald, who has worked ​ honestly and sincerely for an agreement to bring reassurance to both communities and a real prospect of peace and stability.

Second, I say to the members of both communities in Northern Ireland that, if Parliament approves the agreement, the Government will steadfastly implement it. This House represents all the people of the United Kingdom and its decisions are binding on all of them. We shall not give way to threats or to violence from any quarter. We shall look to the co-operation of all men and women of good will who want a better future for Northern Ireland and for their families.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the point about the accountability of Parliament, will she say whether there will be any opportunity for Parliament to know about the deliberations of the Anglo-Irish conference? Will its deliberations be made public anywhere, or debated?

The Prime Minister

It is not expected that everything that is said in the intergovernmental conference will be made public. I am giving consideration to how we can report to the House, for obvious reasons. We attend many intergovernmental conferences in Europe and elsewhere and usually report to the House about those that we attend. I am giving urgent consideration to this matter because I realise that there is concern about it.

Finally, I address myself once more to those among the unionist community who have openly expressed their fears and worries about this agreement. Far from representing any threat to the union of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, the agreement reinforces the union, and that should bring reassurance and confidence to the unionist majority. It clearly recognises—as it should—the validity of their great tradition, and it holds out the prospect of greater success in the struggle against terrorism from which the majority have suffered so much. As one who believes in the union. I urge the unionists to take advantage of the chance offered by the agreement.

We embarked on this agreement because we were not prepared to see the two communities for ever locked into the tragedies and antagonisms of the past. The younger generation, above all, has a right to expect more than that. The price of new hope is persistent endeavour. That is what we ask, and ask equally of all.