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Opinion: 'Thatcher dismissed FitzGerald's proposals but later said she could do business'

The Anglo-Irish Agreement is 35 years old this month. Mike Chinoy charts how the work of two professors shaped that agreement and laid the ground for the peace process.

Mike Chinoy

IT’S 35 YEARS this month since British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which laid out key principles that would subsequently shape the Good Friday peace deal of 1998.

What has only now become publicly known is that underpinning the 1985 deal was the analysis of two Northern Irish law professors, Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden, neither of whom ever sought to publicise their role.

The men – both professors of law –were unlikely intellectual collaborators. Boyle, an early leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, was a Catholic then teaching at NUI Galway.

Hadden, a Protestant, was a law professor at Queen’s University. Although from warring communities, they had become colleagues and friends in the 1970s, producing books and articles on policing, courts, security policy and human rights in Northern Ireland.

Was the lady for turning?

In late 1983, Garret FitzGerald, concerned about the growing popularity of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, had convened the New Ireland Forum, a mechanism for Ireland’s constitutional nationalists to develop new approaches to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict.

At a summit with Thatcher in November 1984, FitzGerald offered three proposals based on the Forum’s findings.

But Thatcher brusquely dismissed all three. ‘A unified Ireland was one solution,” she famously told reporters. “That is out. A second solution was confederation of the two states. That is out. A third solution was joint authority. That is out.’

Her comments were widely interpreted as a blanket dismissal of fresh thinking about the Troubles. But in a previously unknown episode, Thatcher then took a paper drafted by Boyle and Hadden in response to the Forum report James Prior, dropped it on the table, and said to FitzGerald, ‘On this, I can do business.’

Boyle-Hadden

The Boyle-Hadden analysis, sent to Thatcher by Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior, described the Forum’s proposals as ‘totally unrealistic.’

Instead, the two academics called for the Irish government to recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland and urged that immediate measures ‘be directed toward a fuller recognition of the identity, rights and interests of the nationalist minority in the North, rather than the unionist minority in Ireland as a whole’.

20 - Boyle arguing a Kurdish case at the Europoean Court of Human Rights Kevin Boyle arguing a Kurdish case at the Europoean Court of Human Rights: Source: Mike Chinoy

In particular, the Boyle-Hadden paper called for steps to end linguistic and cultural discrimination against nationalists, such as repealing laws banning the display of the Irish flag and naming of streets in Irish, security cooperation between Dublin and Belfast, and specific proposals on power-sharing and minority representation in Northern Ireland.

Any new arrangements, they argued, should be underpinned by a binding international agreement between London and Dublin.

Amid the uproar over Thatcher’s “out, out, out” statement, few observers paid much attention to the fact that in a joint communique, the two prime ministers explicitly stated their interest in a settlement in which ‘the identities of both the majority and minority communities should be recognised and respected.’

Such language echoed Boyle and Hadden’s argument, as, indeed, did Thatcher’s dismissal of the Forum’s three models.

‘I suspect that Maggie Thatcher got her “out, out, out” on the basis of what we had said about each of the options’, Hadden observed years later. “We said none of these options were actually terribly realistic, except in slightly more diplomatic language.”

Despite the controversy, FitzGerald, perhaps because of his awareness of Thatcher’s interest in the Boyle-Hadden paper, kept his cool, while she allowed aides to continue to negotiate.

When the two leaders signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 15 November 1985, its central concept was an idea that Boyle and Hadden had long advocated: formal recognition of the right of Northern Ireland’s majority unionists to remain in the United Kingdom while acknowledging the right of Northern nationalists to express their Irish identity.

The Agreement was a watershed moment, foreshadowing some of the key elements of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, on which Boyle and Hadden’s influence, especially in language about protecting human rights, was also substantial.

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Understated, key operators

Neither FitzGerald nor Thatcher ever publicly mentioned their conversation about Boyle-Hadden document. I only learned about the episode recently while researching a biography of Boyle.

And for reasons of temperament and tactics, neither Boyle nor Hadden was interested in claiming any credit for the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the subsequent peace process. As Hadden sardonically noted decades later, ‘there are so many people with their fingers on the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. They don’t want people like me and Kevin interfering with their kudos.’

But former Irish president Mary Robinson, herself an influential figure in the search for peace, is not alone in acknowledging Boyle and Hadden’s impact. ‘That they were very influential in the thinking behind these deals,’ she told me, ‘is not in doubt.’

Brexit has called some of the key assumptions of the peace process into question not least the notion that Northern Ireland, the Republic and the UK, as members of the EU, would inexorably be drawn closer together and divisions in the North would gradually begin to fade.

It will take the kind of creativity and empathy that Boyle and Hadden demonstrated in the 1980s to find a way to sustain the peace and promote reconciliation in these uncertain times.

Lilliput Press, Are You With Me(1) Source: Mike Chinoy

Mike Chinoy was a long-time foreign correspondent, serving as CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief and as senior Asia correspondent. He covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. He is currently a Hong Kong-based Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. His new book is “Are Your With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement,” is now available.

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Mike Chinoy

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