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‘It wasn’t long after the hunger strikes… mayhem on the streets and we realised that something had to be done.’

Former Tánaiste Dick Spring talks about the tensions and troubles of 1985.

From left to right: Dick Spring, Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement
From left to right: Dick Spring, Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE PUBLISHING OF the 1985 State Papers has revealed a lot about Ireland’s past.

The year was a tense time for Anglo-Irish relations, with government ministers and leaders of the day struggling to tease out what would eventually become the Anglo-Irish Agreement to try to address the troubles in Northern Ireland.

At the centre of negotiations were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who had a series of meetings throughout the negotiations as both sides sought an end to the conflict.

Playing a big part in proceedings was former Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party at the time, Dick Spring, who gave a wide ranging interview about the period this morning.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Keelin Shanley, Spring outlined the tension between both governments leading up to the agreement and the efforts of notable civil servants to keep things on track. Spring said the negotiations were:

At times very tense, at times very difficult. But I think both sides were motivated by the fact of the mayhem in the background.
It wasn’t long after the hunger strikes, the Brighton bombings, mayhem on the streets both in Ireland and the UK and we realised that something had to be done.

Spring also said that at the time there was an assumption within Irish circles that Thatcher was briefing the unionists in Northern Ireland – who weren’t taking part in negotiations – on what was taking place. But this was later shown not to be the case.

When the agreement was eventually signed on 15 November 1985, the UUP and the DUP (the leading unionist parties in Northern Ireland) were vehemently opposed to it and led the campaign against it.

90404039 File photo of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingews.ie

Spring said that people knew that the more hardline DUP – led by Ian Paisley – would reject the agreement, but he felt that the more moderate UUP might accept it.

We did feel that the UUP who would have been more moderate and reasonable would have been talking to Thatcher and her people.
But we were taken by surprise somewhat to discover that they were absolutely left out in the cold and they weren’t briefed.
Now, if they had been briefed of course the question is would they have supported the agreement or would they have taken the line they did anyway?

Thatcher didn’t prioritise Northern Ireland

Spring also said that if it wasn’t for the patience and perseverance of then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald the agreement never would have been reached.

Thatcher really didn’t prioritise Northern Ireland – I’ve often felt it was probably number eight or number nine on her list of her priorities.
Whereas for us Northern Ireland and unemployment at the time were the two key issues for the government to deal with. Thatcher really saw Northern Ireland as a security issue.

However, Spring said that FitzGerald kept at Thatcher at every political meeting. It was this, he said, as well as working of civil servants on both the British and Irish sides that led to the agreement.

90400071 File photo: Margaret Thatcher Source: Rollingnews.ie

Provisions of the agreement included a cross-governmental consultation body that would discuss affairs in Northern ireland as well as agreements that civilian police units would accompany the British army troops on their patrols around the affected areas.

Spring called it a “slow-burner” and said that it paved the way for the eventual laying down of arms and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Did we even realise that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would lead ultimately to the laying down of arms, to a new power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland – probably not at that stage.

Read: When Maggie dropped some epic shade on Garret FitzGerald…

Read: An Archbishop, a Taoiseach and an angry face-off over IRA violence and ‘genocide’

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