James Molyneaux – 1985 Speech on the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Below is the text of the speech made by James Molyneaux, the then Leader of the Ulster Unionists, in the House of Commons on 26 November 1985.

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), not only because he has articulated, in a way that I could never attempt, the views of the rank and file citizens of Northern Ireland—unionists, nationalists, Protestants and Roman Catholics—but because he was a promising Minister who sacrificed a promising career because of his integrity. The fact that the hon. Member was intently listened to, even by those who disagree with him, proves that he is respected and admired for that integrity.

The House will have gathered that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be voting against the motion. However, I fully recognise that I have a duty and responsibility to explain plainly and sincerely why we shall take that course. We opposed the Anglo-Irish agreement because it will destroy any possibility of achieving peace, stability and reconciliation—three words that have found themselves by accident in the agreement’s preamble. Those words have been repeated—I do not say this in a disrespectful way—rather aimlessly in the debate so far.

During my six years as leader of the Ulster Unionist party, my objective has been to achieve for all the people of Northern Ireland those prizes of peace, stability and reconciliation. As leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland I feel, as I have always felt, that I have a duty to lead. For any party leader, that means some political risk. I accepted those risks, because I had to consider—today I still have to consider—the young people to whom the Prime Minister referred when she spoke at Hillsborough on the day of the signing. The fact that I am nearer the finishing post than are those young people, makes that consideration all the more compelling.

With all that in mind, in April 1984 I endorsed the policy paper “The Way Forward”. The main thrust of that paper was equal British rights for all British citizens. I shall read what I believe, and what the Prime Minister conceded in the aftermath of her statement a week ago, to be the key paragraph:

“The time is now ripe for both communities in Northern Ireland to realise that, essentially, their problems will have to be solved in Northern Ireland by their political representatives and that any future prospect for them and their children is best provided for within the Northern Ireland context. This will require a mutual recognition of each other’s hopes and fears. Only rights can be guaranteed, not aspirations”.

The next phrase is probably the most telling for an Ulster Unionist leader to use:

“but it is the responsibility of the majority to persuade the minority that the Province is also theirs.”

When a leader gives a positive lead, there is always criticism. All party leaders, great and small—I do not mean in stature but in the numbers of their Back-Bench Members—are criticised, and this case was no ​ exception. After much criticism, discussion and persuasion, the entire document was endorsed as party policy. However, although there was widespread interest from within the ranks of the minority, as well as the majority, there was little response from the elected representatives of the minority, except one good friend of mine who said, “You really terrified us with that phrase about convincing our people that the Province is also theirs. That would not suit us.” The Leader of the Opposition said that it was a tragedy that we did not carry forward our thinking on that occasion more than 18 months ago. He said that it was a tragedy that there was not fuller debate on that document and on the considerable shift in principles set out in the document. To my great regret, those proposals for achieving peace, stability and reconciliation within the bounds of Northern Ireland have been snuffed out by the Anglo-Irish agreement, and that document must be regarded as so much waste paper.

I owe it to the House to explain why the agreement will bring not peace, but the sword. On the day when the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) announced his decision to abolish Stormont, he justified his decision—he could be forgiven for putting forward that justification at such an early stage—on the grounds that it would end violence. However, as the IRA had demanded Stormont’s removal, it naturally regarded the decision as the first payment of the Danegeld. The right hon. Gentleman did not intend it in that way, but I hope that he will accept my word for it that that was how it looked to the so-called army council of the IRA.

The Prime Minister, like many of us in humbler positions, is tempted, especially in times of stress, to use phrases produced by her advisers—to give them their polite title—and such may have been the origin of a sentence uttered by the Prime Minister in her address to journalists at the signing ceremony. The sentence made my blood run cold. To quote from the transcript, she said:

“I was not prepared to tolerate the situation of continuing violence.”

That fatal sentence—I fear that it will literally be fatal for many—will convince the so-called army council of the IRA that, reinforced by the sweeping one-way concessions in the agreement, continued violence will extract the third and final payment of the Danegeld in the shape of an Ireland designed to their specifications, not the specifications of Dr. FitzGerald or even Mr. Haughey.

Indeed, the IRA claimed credit for the concessions two weeks before the signing. At the Sinn Fein conference, the IRA spokesman, Martin McGuinness, declared that any concessions to violence in the coming agreement would be welcomed by the IRA as a surrender to the armed struggle.

Far from the prospect of peace, I fear that we must brace ourselves for a renewed onslaught from a terrorist movement convinced of victory. That movement is in no way worried about the possible weaning away of Catholic support, which will not reduce its capacity for murder. As General Grivas said, there is a handicap in having too many supporters. He reckoned—he knew what he was talking about—that the maximum number of murderers he needed at any time was about 150. The IRA cares nothing for the predicted drop in support for Sinn Fein in terms of the ballot box, which it regards as ancillary to what it calls its “cutting edge” of terror.

The second casualty of the agreement is stability, because stability depends on a known way. But how can there be a known way when there is no consent? During ​ the past 15 years, the only period of stability was that achieved by the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason). He achieved that stability by making it clear in the honest, forthright terms for which he is noted, what was not going to happen, and by making it equally clear, in words and in deeds, that he would stand no nonsense from any quarter. I must say—this may pain Conservative Members—that, ironically, Conservative Central Office accurately forecast the end of what I call Mason stability, in the daily notes to candidates dated 11 April 1979. It stated:

“The next government will come under considerable pressure to launch a new high-powered initiative on Northern Ireland with the object of establishing another power-sharing government in the province which would pave the way for a federal constitution linking Ulster to the Irish Republic.”

We need not await the verdict of history to judge the accuracy of that forecast. For the past six years, we have seen a constant stream of foolish, failed initiatives, confusion and instability.

The third casualty of the agreement is reconciliation. Progress in that area is possible only if those who must be reconciled believe themselves to be secure. If Roman Catholics are meant to be assured by the agreement, why do so many of them say that they share my view? Why do so many of them tell me that they have conveyed their reservations to the Northern Ireland Office? I am in no position to confirm that; I depend upon their word. The answer is that they have never accepted—nor do they want—Dublin’s protecting power stance. Far more significantly, they have made it clear that they do not wish to live in a cold war atmosphere created by this proposed regime for which the necessary consent simply does not exist.

Tallying with the impressive quotations by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, the nightmare of Roman Catholics was expressed to me last Saturday by three young Roman Catholic constituents as they left the so-called loyalist rally—in reality a pro-union rally—at the city hall. They begged me to persuade the Prime Minister to think again and, as one of them put it, to

“beg her not to condemn us to spending the rest of our lives in an atmosphere of distrust and tension with our Protestant neighbours.”

That was a very moving occasion for me.

That grim prospect has been publicly recognised by church representatives, authoritative newspaper editors, moderate organisations and individuals, and, most of all, by those who have worked so hard for reconciliation in Northern Ireland and are now depressed because all that they have achieved has been obliterated at a stroke.

I notice that newspapers such as The Sunday Times and The Observer criticised the Government’s failure to reassure unionists. I understand—this was hinted at by the Leader of the Opposition—that the Northern Ireland Office is contemplating, at the expense of the taxpayer, providing copies of the agreement to every household. But the Secretary of State, who is observant, will know that the main newspapers in Northern Ireland have twice set out the full text of the agreement, unabridged and without journalistic comment. The people have read it for themselves, and the Government’s difficulty is that the people understand what they have read. Perhaps the Government intend to circulate a publication placing a gloss on the agreement. Dublin will do likewise, but they will conflict. The statements are already conflicting. I fear that the second state will he worse than the first.

The Government have a credibility problem, created not by them but for them by the Dublin Government, who leaked the agreement four days before the signing and who circulated copies of it two days before the signing to foreign embassies and other institutions. That breach of good faith with Her Majesty’s Government, not by the Government, placed Her Majesty’s Ministers in a position where they had no alternative but to mislead. That is no accusation; I am trying to defend Ministers. In good faith, they had agreed with Dublin to maintain as late as the Thursday afternoon before the signing on the Friday that agreement had not yet been reached. It is not in a spirit of accusation but out of sympathy with Her Majesty’s Ministers that I say that three Ministers of the utmost integrity were placed in such a position—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during Northern Ireland Question Time, the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time and the Leader of the House at Business Question Time. All were forced to use the phrase, “if an agreement is reached”, when, thanks to the Dublin double-cross, the whole world knew that agreement had already been reached.

I should like to address a personal word to the Prime Minister. Millions of our fellow British citizens throughout this nation feel that the Prime Minister has a lasting contribution to make to the destiny of the nation, but if she is to fulfil their expectations she must retain her standing and authority. I am sure that the Prime Minister knows that she owes it to those people not to damage those assets by lending her name to statements which have no validity or veracity.

One of the Prime Minister’s statements asserted that the status of Northern Ireland is unchanged. I accept that the territory is not to be transferred—or not yet at any rate—and technically it could be claimed that the final approval of legislation will rest with Parliament and the Crown. In reality, however, as all hon. Members know and as the hon. Member for Eastbourne clearly stated, the legislation will be formulated and agreed, because the agreement states:

“determined efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences.”

In reality, therefore, Parliament and the Queen will give rubber stamp approval to legislation designed by a form of coalition with a foreign sovereign state.

As I said earlier in my comments about the Prime Minister’s commanding position in the nation, my plea to the Prime Minister is not to allow anyone to continue to say in her name that the status of Northern Ireland is unchanged. I trust that she has already rebuked the subordinates who led her to claim that the agreement contains, to quote her own words,

“the most formal commitment to the principle of consent made by any Irish Government.”—[Official Report, 18 November 1985; Vol. 87, c. 19.]

The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup pointed out that the same commitment was given by a previous Irish Government in the Sunningdale agreement of 1973—which was also registered as an international agreement at the United Nations. The right hon. Gentleman will also confirm that an even earlier commitment was entered into by the Irish Government in 1925 and that that agreement was lodged at the League of Nations.

In the course of what I hope will be a constructive and well ordered debate—I am not casting any reflection ​ upon the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the responsibility lies with hon. Members—the House is entitled to ask what is new about that commitment or in Irish attitudes since 1925 and 1973.

The Prime Minister will not mind my saying that, over the years, she has sought my assessment of attitudes and feelings in Northern Ireland. In what may be my last contribution in the House, I am sure she will not object if I report to her in the presence of right hon. and hon. Members. I have to say honestly and truthfully that in 40 years in public life I have never known what I can only describe as a universal cold fury, which some of us have thus far managed to contain. I beg the Prime Minister not to misjudge the situation but to examine and assess the damage which will be done to the aims of peace, stability and reconciliation. Perhaps the leader of the Labour party and the leaders of the other opposition parties will not mind me saying to the Prime Minister that she will lose nothing in the eyes of the House or of the country if she decides to steer a safer course.