Ian Gow – 1985 Speech on the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Below is the text of the speech made by Ian Gow, the then Conservative MP for Eastbourne, in the House of Commons on 26 November 1985.

Since my departure from the Government 10 days ago I have made no public statement or comment. I wanted first to explain to the House the reasons for that departure.

My first encounter with Northern Ireland took place nearly 30 years ago. As a young subaltern I was stationed at Omagh in county Tyrone. It has been my good fortune to return to Ulster on many occasions since then, first as a soldier and then as a Member of this place. I have been proud to count unionist Members of this House as my friends.

It is nearly seven years since I spoke in a debate on Northern Ireland, from the Opposition Front Bench, with Airey Neave at my side. I speak today to show that it is not necessary to have a big mouth or a loud voice to care deeply about Ulster. I speak, too, as one who condemns violence in all its forms. I speak as a unionist who repudiates today and who will repudiate tomorrow, every kind—I repeat, every kind—of unlawful or unconstitutional action. Unlike others I do not impugn the motives of Her Majesty’s Government. In particular, I do not doubt for one moment the sincerity and the sense of honour of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Those who fashioned the Anglo-Irish agreement, principally my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, said to themselves, “We are faced with a continuing tragedy in Northern Ireland.” I say in passing that I regret that no Foreign Office Minister is taking part in the debate. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary also said to themselves, “Lives are being lost, innocent people are being maimed and injured, property is being destroyed, unemployment is higher and investment lower in Ulster than in any part of the kingdom. We must try to abate those evils. Things cannot go on as they are. We must make a new initiative. We must do something about Ulster.”

For years, successive Governments and successive Secretaries of State have told the House that a particular initiative could not be pursued in Northern Ireland because it would be unacceptable to the minority. Note that in this part of the United Kingdom the Government take pride, in my view rightly, in pursuing policies that they believe have the support of the majority despite the objections of a minority.

However, I will be told that Northern Ireland is different from England. I will be told that in Northern Ireland one cannot proceed save with the broad assent of the minority. I do not necessarily subscribe to that argument but if it is valid, how is it possible to proceed now with a policy that may be broadly acceptable to a minority but that is totally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority, among whom is a significant number of Catholic unionists?

The Government believe that the majority ought to be well satisfied with the agreement and profess some surprise that it is not. Conor Cruise O’Brien puts it well in The Times today. He writes:

“But the political impact will not be determined by … theories about how people ought to feel, but by how people actually do feel. And the feeling, on both sides … is that the Catholics have won a significant step in the direction of a united Ireland.”

In round figures, as the House knows, there are 1 million Protestants and half a million Roman Catholics in Ulster, but it is a grave over-simplification to equate religion with political allegiance. I do not ask the House to accept my word for that. It is not only my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) who is testimony to that truth. In the past few days I have received letters from Roman Catholic unionists who endorse that view. I have been authorised to quote from one. A doctor now working in Liverpool writes:

“As an Ulsterman—and incidentally a Catholic—who has always voted Conservative (and Ulster Unionist before I came to England) I can only say that I am absolutely appalled by the terms and implications of the Anglo-Irish agreement which gives a ​ foreign Government a say in the affairs of a part of the United Kingdom. There is not a shadow of doubt that the status of Northern Ireland has been changed without the consent of the majority of its people”.

Nor is it only the so-called Protestant bigots—and there are Protestant bigots in Northern Ireland—who oppose the agreement. Again, with the authority of the writer of the letter, I wish to quote. I do so not because I need to rely on others to support the views that I hold, but because the views of decent people from Northern Ireland are tragically misunderstood or simply unknown in the House. This is the letter that I have been authorised to read:

“I am now living quietly in a bungalow with my two sisters … We are the ordinary ‘silent’ Unionists of Northern Ireland. Our days are filled with caring for our families and homes, and we do not have the time, or the inclination, to demonstrate at protest marches, or wave banners, or gather at meetings of hate. But we are British. And we are also bewildered, and hurt, and angry. How do we, the silent majority, effectively express our hurt and fear and protest at what is being done to us? Our politicians hurl abuse and anger, but I do not think that they gain sympathy that way. The ordinary quiet-living British people of Northern Ireland are totally united in their opposition to the Hillsborough agreement, and in their desire to remain British without condition, but can you tell me, please, if there is any possible way we can convey our wishes to those who are in Government over us and at the same time to gain understanding and support from the other citizens of the United Kingdom? I feel that the lack of understanding from those who do not live here, together with the feeling of helplessness at not knowing how to gain that understanding, is the hardest part to bear.”

I have done as my correspondent asked. I have brought her fears to the attention of my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench. However, I want to repeat her crucial words:

“the lack of understanding from those who do not live here … is the hardest part to bear.”

For many Members of the House, Northern Ireland is a faraway country of which we know little. Indeed, it may be that more Members of the House have visited the Republic than have visited Ulster. I hope that in the coming months more hon. Members will be able to visit the Province, not just to listen to soldiers and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, heroic though they are, but to listen to the views of ordinary people who often are equally heroic.

Following the signing of the agreement at Hillsborough on 15 November, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that she was a unionist and a loyalist. I shall never question her sincerity, but I have to say to my right hon. Friend that those words were received with incredulity by unionists in Northern Ireland.

The Anglo-Irish agreement has been signed without understanding of the views of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland. It has been signed against a background that gives wholly disproportionate consideration to the views of the minority. Under the agreement, the Irish Government will put forward views and proposals on political, security and legal matters, including the administration of justice. The Government who will put forward their views and proposals relating to Northern Ireland are the same Government from whose territory murderous assaults have been made on the innocent in the Province and to whose territory the guilty have returned and found too often a safe haven.

Article 2 of the constitution of the Irish Republic lays claim to the territory of the whole of the island of Ireland. One might have thought at least that if the Republic’s Government were to be allowed—and in the most ​ solemn terms of an international treaty—to put forward proposals relating to political, security and legal matters, they would have agreed to remove article 2 from their constitution. The British Government claim that it is a major step forward for the Government of the Republic to have given formal acceptance of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. If that is so, why was article 2 not removed?

We are told that the agreement will mean more effective co-operation on security matters between the Republic and the United Kingdom. Is it really suggested that without the agreement such co-operation would have been less effective? All civilised Governments, with or without a formal agreement, should commit themselves unreservedly to the elimination of terrorism. If the Government of the Republic have been unable hitherto to be as effective in combating terrorism as we were entitled to expect, why are we so confident that they will be able to deliver now?

The Intergovernmental Conference will be composed of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and a Republic Minister, who, in effect, will be the Minister for Northern Ireland affairs. The two Ministers will be the joint chairmen. The Republic Minister, even though he has only a consultative role, will be perceived to be the representative of the minority community. Thus, for the first time, a Minister from a foreign country will be representing at official level citizens of this kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the arrangement in her speech. That arrangement leaves unionists with no comparable status. That arrangement will be damaging, and incalculably damaging, for those who are asserting the principle that unionists and nationalists are fellow citizens. Instead of reconciliation there will be further division.

Our fellow countrymen from Northern Ireland will perceive—and will not be wrong in perceiving—that the agreement would never have been signed unless there had been a prolonged campaign of violence. The agreement will be perceived as having been won as a result of violence. The Irish National Liberation Army and the Irish Republican Army will believe that their violence is succeeding. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment will perceive that they have been betrayed.

The new agreement is being trumpeted in Dublin mainly because the Irish Government will be able, in the most solemn terms, to

“put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland”.

When those views and proposals are submitted to the United Kingdom Government, they will be made known in Dublin. When those views and proposals are accepted by Her Majesty’s Government, Ulster will feel that the views of a foreign power are being given greater weight than the views of the majority in Northern Ireland. The Intergovernmental Conference will not be able to receive the views of the majority. The views of the minority will be expressed, not by the minority itself, but by the Government of a foreign power.

No Member of the House should criticise the agreement without putting forward an alternative policy. I remember the words of our manifesto at the 1979 general election. They were words in which I had a hand. The manifesto said: ​

“In the absence of devolved government we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils with a wide range of powers over local services.”

Alas, following the assassination of Airey Neave, that policy was never implemented. It may be that he was assassinated because that was his policy. Successive Secretaries of State have abandoned that policy. Six years on, although there is still an absence of devolved government, there is still no

“one or more elected regional councils”.

I approved of the policy set out in the 1979 manifesto.

I approved, too, of the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at a meeting organised by the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast on 19 June 1978, when she said of the Conservative and Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party:

“Our two parties share one overriding common purpose: the maintenance and strengthening of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. we shall not consider any plans for the political future of this part of the United Kingdom which could result in the weakening of the union.”

To my deep regret, the Anglo-Irish agreement is inconsistent with those words.

The Government assert, and continue to assert,

“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.”

I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to understand that, with this agreement, the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that there has been a change in status. I must tell the House that frankly, so do I.

We should implement the policy laid down in the 1979 manifesto. We should assert that those in Northern Ireland who aspire to a united Ireland will be respected. We should assert that Ulster Unionists are ready to acknowledge the place in Ulster of the Roman Catholic, whether unionist of republican, as in any other part of the kingdom, and that all men and women should be entitled to express their views, opinions and identities under a rule of law which would safeguard their rights. We should assert that the policy of the Government is to maintain and to strengthen the union.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) rose—

Mr. Gow

I shall not give way. The House has been patient and I have almost done.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in her place. I do not recommend resignation. It is every bit as painful as I had expected. No doubt the Prime Minister would face the departure of some of her colleagues with greater equanimity than that of others. I do not know into which category I fall.

However, Ministers of State are of no importance. They come and go, and when they go their room is soon filled. Life goes on for the Department very much as before—although, following the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), to whom we send our congratulations and good wishes, no doubt very much better than before.

As right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House know, for the departed Minister, tomorrow is very different from today. Only my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and possibly not even she, understands how deep is my regret at my departure. But I have one consolation that is denied to all others the memory of the four years of the previous Parliament, when it was my privilege to ​ have tried to be of some help to the finest chief, the most resolute leader and the kindest friend that any Member of this House could hope to serve.

I disagree profoundly with the new policy on which the Government have embarked. I fear that this change of policy will prolong and not diminish Ulster’s agony. With all my heart—it is quite a big heart—I pray that I am wrong.