A memoir by a senior civil servant on the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement opens a window on how the establishment rules, finds Chris Bambery

David Goodall, The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: A Memoir (Ollscoil na Éirann/National University of Ireland 2021), 244pp.

It is rare that a spotlight is shone on how the British state and its government make decisions. This volume does just that and it is fascinating.

Having said that, this is not a normal book review as I expect few people will, on the strength of it, read Sir David Goodall’s memoir, The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. It is a very well written and detailed account by a key insider, a Whitehall mandarin, of the negotiations which led to that treaty. It is seen now as a key stepping stone to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s political parties, including, vitally, Sinn Fein, although not at the time the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which laid the basis for the power sharing deal which holds today.

In that judgement I concur, because at the time I argued the 1985 Agreement represented a shift by the British government, not just in involving the Irish government, but facing the Republicans with a crucial choice: carry on with their military struggle, which many in their leadership increasingly saw as unwinnable, or come in from the cold.

Character of the ruling class

This book appeared earlier this year after the thirty-year rule had lapsed, under which the official British papers regarding the 1985 Anglo-Irish Treaty were kept under lock and key. I mentioned Sir David was a Whitehall mandarin. He was slightly unusual in that he was a Catholic and went to Ampleforth College, the top Catholic private school. It was only his religion that made him slightly different. For, on the British side, all the top government officials and all the government ministers went to top private schools and Oxbridge. A slight exception was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who went to a grammar school and only thence to Cambridge. All had or would receive knighthoods.

All the men had served in the military; National Service had made that compulsory. Goodall himself had worked with David Cornwall (John Le Carre) in the British Embassy in West Germany, and he looks in the photos published here very much like Le Carre’s George Smiley. The two men remained friends. In the British team, Goodall was number two to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong. The Irish side were a bit more varied but again all from elite backgrounds.

What makes the book so fascinating is that the negotiations were carried out from the British side by a tiny group of such men, they were all men, who were very much part of the ruling class. Not ruling-class in terms of how much wealth and economic power they held, but these were key decision makers within government, very much part of the British state.

From the beginning of these negotiations Goodall went out of his way to find out the views of senior figures in the security forces. The then head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir John Hermon, told him he saw, in the long term, the only solution being Irish unity. It was clear too that there was a general acceptance that the Ulster Defence Regiment, made up of part-time volunteers and almost entirely Protestant, was too sectarian towards the Catholic, nationalist population.

Inside and outside the loop

In Goodall’s account there is no mention of MI5 and MI6 involvement, but I suspect that was deliberately excluded, and that while the two were involved, infighting over who was responsible for Northern Ireland, they would have been closely connected, and probably bugging the phones of the Irish negotiators.

When I say the negotiations were carried out by a closed circle of men, that did not include in Goodall’s account any attempt to include figures from the opposition Labour Party. While John Hume was very much involved on the Irish side, the British decided early on to exclude both the main Unionist parties, because they could not trust them not to wreck any talks. The White House was also kept in the loop, because the Americans were pressurising the British to do something about Northern Ireland.

Of course, there is one figure who was central to the whole process, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The job of Armstrong and Goodall, backed up by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, was to persuade her that the Agreement was worth achieving, despite the fact it went against her basic instincts which were unionist and extremely hostile to Irish nationalism.

The two men had to drop talk about how the nationalist population were alienated from the Northern Ireland state, because mention of the word alienation drove Thatcher livid. She saw it as a Marxist term.

She was also being lobbied by two close friends, the staunchly pro-unionist Treasury Minister, Ian Gow (who would resign over the Agreement in 1985 and five years later was assassinated by the IRA), and by Enoch Powell, by then a Unionist MP. Thatcher obviously had no problem with his racism, but he became so livid in his opposition to the Agreement that she began to suspect he was slightly insane.

The Northern Ireland Office was also opposed to the Agreement because it did not want to alienate the unionists in any way, by giving the Republic the slightest influence over Northern Ireland matters. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time the Agreement was finally agreed, Tom King, tried to amend it out of existence, getting an angry response from Goodall, the only time in this account he lost his cool.

Armstrong and Goodall succeeded in winning Thatcher over. She herself was on rather good terms with the then Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Garret Fitzgerald. He led a coalition made up of his own party, the centre-right Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Thatcher hated the leader of the opposition Fianna Fail, Charlie Haughey, not because he was corrupt, but because he had ‘betrayed’ her over the Falklands war when he was in office.

What the book does not mention is that the bulk of the negotiations took place as the 1984-1985 miners’ strike was taking place. Perhaps Goodall was single minded in concentrating on these negotiations, but that crisis must have dominated Thatcher’s time.

Irish contexts

The eventual agreement was a very modest affair, giving the Republic very little say over how Northern Ireland was governed; at the time it was under Direct Rule from London. Nonetheless, the very presence of Irish civil servants within Northern Ireland provoked angry demonstrations by the unionists, and in November 1986, a year after the Agreement was signed off by Thatcher and Fitzgerald, the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, launched Ulster Resistance at a 3000 strong rally in Belfast’s Ulster Hall with his deputy, Peter Robinson, appearing in a red beret and military fatigues.

Robinson promised a further rally in Enniskillen:

‘Thousands have already joined the movement and the task of shaping them into an effective force is continuing. The Resistance has indicated that drilling and training has already started. The officers of the nine divisions have taken up their duties.’

Later the organisation would co-operate with the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force in smuggling in modern weapons provided by apartheid South Africa. By then, Paisley and Robinson had dissociated themselves from the group.

When Goodall died in 2016, Michael Lillis, then a senior civil servant in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, remembered how he was asked by the Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald, to whom he was Diplomatic Adviser, to broker talks with the British to secure a role for the Irish government in Northern Ireland. He recalled:

‘In September 1983, as an official at Foreign Affairs, I invited David Goodall to join me in an afternoon walk in Dublin. On Garret Fitzgerald’s instructions, I argued that the alienation of the Northern nationalists from the system of government had reached such a venomous point that the British had no resource left to begin to address the problem on their own. I said the only possible mitigant would have to involve Ireland’s military, police and judiciary directly on the ground in Northern Ireland.’

When Goodall reported back, there was considerable suspicion of Lillis, who was seen as too nationalist, and doubts that he was really representing Fitzgerald’s views. Eventually it was established that he did.

Armstrong and Goodall, supported by Howe, pressed Thatcher to pursue this initiative. It would prove no easy task. The Irish sent in senior diplomats to help secure support in British ruling circles, and Goodall describes a campaign,

‘in the clubs of St James’s (and the grouse moors of the north), using charm and cogent advocacy to win support for the concept of Dublin-London cooperation to address the political crisis in Northern Ireland among the often sceptical grandees of the Conservative Party and their backroom henchmen…’ (p.138).

Much of the negotiations between the diplomats and senior civil servants on both sides took place in London, not just in Downing Street, Chequers, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but in the clubs and restaurants of St James’s. In Dublin it was a similar story.

Eventually the Agreement was reached, and the British side faced down the stormy unionist protests. For Goodall and Armstrong, this would be their shining achievement, but not for Thatcher. She would live to regret betraying her unionist instincts.

Looking back, the Anglo-Irish Agreement might seem an obscure historical event, but it was a stepping stone to the eventual Good Friday Agreement, and it marked a shift in the British stance by giving the Republic some say in Northern Ireland matters, and by facing down the unionists.

What is most fascinating about this book, nonetheless, is the glimpse it gives us of our rulers at work.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.