On the 15th of November 1985 at Hillsborough Castle, south-west of Belfast, the government of the United Kingdom signed an international treaty, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, formally recognised the right of her counterparts in the government of Ireland, including her opposite number, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, to have an “advisory” role in the affairs of the UK’s disputed legacy colony on the island*. This recognition required London and Dublin to quickly establish an:
…Intergovernmental Conference (hereinafter referred to as “the Conference”), concerned with Northern Ireland and with relations between the two parts of the island of Ireland, to deal, as set out in this Agreement, on a regular basis with
(i) political matters;
(ii) security and related matters;
(iii) legal matters, including the administration of justice;
(iv) the promotion of cross-border co-operation.
It also noted that:
(b) The United Kingdom Government accepts that the Irish Government will put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland within the field of activity of the Conference in so far as those matters are not the responsibility of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland. In the interest of promoting peace and stability, determined efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences. The Conference will be mainly concerned with Northern Ireland; but some of’ the matters under consideration will involve cooperative action in both parts of the island of’ Ireland, and possibly also in Great Britain. Some of the proposals considered in respect of’ Northern Ireland may also be found to have application by the Irish Government…
(a) In relation to matters coming within its field of activity, the Conference shall be a framework within which the Irish Government and the United Kingdom Government work together
(i) for the accommodation of the rights and identities of the two traditions which exist in Northern Ireland; and
(ii) for peace, stability and prosperity throughout the island of Ireland by promoting reconciliation, respect for human rights, co-operation against terrorism and the development of economic, social and cultural co-operation.
(a) The Conference shall concern itself with measures to recognise and accommodate the rights and identities of the two traditions in Northern Ireland, to protect human rights and to prevent discrimination. Matters to be considered in this area include measures to foster the cultural heritage of both traditions, changes in electoral arrangements, the use of flags and emblems, the avoidance of economic and social discrimination and the advantages and disadvantages of a Bill of Rights in some form in Northern Ireland.
Eventually the 1985 deal was superseded by the even more comprehensive – and better known – Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was split into both a regional peace accord and a binding international treaty between Britain and Ireland, granting further administrative input to the latter. All of which historical reminders makes one wonder where the Tory MP Boris Johnson has been for the last forty years when he offers this condemnation of Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal, currently doing the ministerial rounds in London:
“For the first time since partition, Dublin – under these proposals – would have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London!”
In fact, that trend has been evident since the 1980s, under successive Conservative and Labour Party administrations in the United Kingdom, and the seemingly intractable crisis of Brexit is simply accelerating this process towards its logical conclusion. Something Johnson and company have done an admirable job of facilitating. Albeit unintentionally.
*As the American journalist and diplomat William V. Shannon noted of the original 1985 agreement:
Never before has Britain formally acknowledged that Ireland has a legal role to play in governing the north. Although it is far short of an acceptance of the principle of a united Ireland, the agreement contradicts cherished beliefs of the unionist majority in Northern Ireland: the belief that the north is exclusively British territory, that its affairs are purely an internal British concern…