Lesson 3: 1981-87 Anglo-Irish Approaches

Lesson 3: 1981-1987
Anglo-Irish Approaches

This lesson looks at how the British and Irish Governments were motivated to work together to produce the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.


In 1980, the British and Irish Governments, with the encouragement of the SDLP, began discussions which led to the announcement that they would commence ‘joint-studies’ to develop proposals on the future governance of the North. This reflected in particular John Hume’s belief that any future arrangements should involve both governments and not just the political parties in the North. Following the election of several hunger strikers in 1981, Sinn Féin made the decision to contest elections in the north on a sustained basis. In what became known as the ‘Armalite and Ballot Box’ strategy, the party stood candidates whilst the Provisional IRA continued its armed campaign. When the discussions between the two governments failed to produce any tangible results by 1983, the Irish Government were lobbied by John Hume to convene stakeholders from across the island to develop proposals for the future governance of the island of Ireland. The main proposals of this ‘New Ireland Forum' were: Irish unity; Joint-authority of the North by the two governments; Federal arrangements between the two states on the island of Ireland. These were all rejected by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During this same period, the growth of Sinn Féin had culminated with the party winning 59 local government seats in the 1985 council elections in the North. Whilst the SDLP took more seats overall in the same election, the results encouraged the republican movement to contemplate ending its abstentionist policy towards taking seats in the Irish parliament. This potential move particularly concerned the Irish Government and other opposition parties in the 26-counties who saw the potential rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral threat to their own support base. All of the above factors saw Margaret Thatcher being intensely lobbied by the SDLP, Irish Government and US administration to develop new proposals to assure northern nationalists, whose alienation from the Northern state had increased further as a result of the Hunger Strikes, that their concerns were being addressed. Thatcher agreed to pursue a new initiative on the basis that any new agreement would also increase co-operation between the two governments to hamper the IRA’s campaign.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald on 15th November 1985. The main elements of the agreement were: Acknowledgment by both governments that the North would remain within the jurisdiction of the British Government unless the majority of its people voted otherwise. To give the Irish Government an advisory role in how the British Government governed the North through the newly established Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The Conference allowed officials from the Irish Government to raise concerns on political, legal, cross border and security issues which were having a negative impact on the nationalist population in the North. To give British officials the ability to propose agreed tactics to the Irish Government to hamper the IRA’s activities in both their jurisdictions. The agreement was supported by a majority of politicians in both governments. Of the main parties in the North, it was supported only by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party.

Opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement

The initial reaction of the unionist population was shock, as they had been kept entirely in the dark as the Anglo-Irish Agreement was being developed. They opposed the Agreement because: It gave the Irish Government a formal say in the affairs of the North which they viewed as a threat to the North’s constitutional position. Unionists would be excluded from power until they accepted a new devolved power sharing government as an alternative to the Agreement Republicans opposed the Agreement because it saw the Irish Government now accept the North’s status as part of the UK. They felt that the formal recognition of the partition of Ireland outweighed the benefits of any consultative role given to the Irish Government. The IRA continued its armed campaign as a consequence. The Agreement was welcomed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) whose leader John Hume had played a key role in its development. In their view it would hamper Sinn Féin's electoral challenge to the party by giving northern nationalists a peaceful way to raise their concerns about discrimination, policing and wider British policy in the North through the Irish Government. It also saw the British Government accept that the Irish Government had a key role to play in the future governance of the North, a key demand of the SDLP since its formation in 1970. They also welcomed the fact that the British Government was recognising that the Irish Government had a role to play in the North’s affairs which ruled out any internal political settlement which could be exploited by the unionist majority in the North.

‘Ulster Says No’

Within weeks of its announcement, unionists began a mass protest campaign against the agreement. Under the slogan ‘Ulster Says No’, a public rally outside Belfast City Hall on the 23rd November 1985 attracted over 100,000 people. It was addressed by DUP leader Ian Paisley and his Ulster Unionist Party counterpart Jim Molyneaux. A petition against the agreement also received 400,000 signatures. Furthermore, in December of 1985, 15 unionist Members of Parliament resigned from the British House of Commons. In the coming year a range of strikes, boycotts and other protests were held with the support of the main unionist parties and the paramilitary UVF and UDA.


For northern nationalists, the agreement had little short-term impact. It also failed to attract the support of most unionists and republicans for the reasons outlined above. Nevertheless, it did improve co-operation between the British and Irish Governments and remained in place until the Good Friday Agreement was implemented after April 1998.



"Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?"
Danny Morrison, Director of Publicity for Sinn Féin, speaking at the 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.


“The only feasible way to break out from our isolation, to make political gains and win support for our policies is by approaching people at the level they understood.”
Gerry Adams, addressing the Sinn Fein motion to end abstentionism towards the Irish parliament, 1986.


“Where do the terrorists operate from? From the Irish Republic! That's where they come from! Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary? To the Irish Republic! And yet Mrs Thatcher tells us that that Republic must have some say in our Province. We say never, never, never, never!”
Democratic Unionist Party Leader, Ian Paisley, 23rd November 1985.


“The formal recognition of the partition of Ireland... [is] a disaster for the nationalist cause... [it] far outweighs the powerless consultative role given to Dublin”.
Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams.


“I started from the need for greater security, which was imperative. If this meant making limited political concession to the South, much as I disliked this kind of bargaining, I had to contemplate it.”
Margaret Thatcher in her autobiography The Downing Street Years (1993).


“I had come to the conclusion that I must now give priority to heading off the growth of support for the IRA in Northern Ireland by seeking a new understanding with the British Government, even at the expense of my cherished, but for the time being at least clearly unachievable, objective of seeking a solution through negotiations with the Unionists.”
Garret FitzGerald in his autobiography All in a Life (1991).


“We have a generation of young people who have known nothing but violence and armed soldiers on their streets and who, when they reach the age of eighteen find themselves in the highest unemployment in our history. 40% of our population are under 25, If that is not a time bomb for the future, what is? I commend this Agreement to this House, Mr President, not because I think it offers an instant solution but because it offers an opportunity to democrats to begin the process of breaking down the divisions of Ireland.”
John Hume, European Parliament 12/12/1985.

Learning Activities

Activity: Create a document with two columns that show Unionist arguments against the agreement on side, and republican arguments on the other. In a separate box beneath, explain why you think that the British & Irish Governments signed the Agreement despite such opposition.

Discussion: What were the main factors which influenced the two governments to develop the Ango-Irish Agreement?

Digital Task


Students will manipulate an image to communicate Unionist opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement . Students will research suitable images. Choosing 1 image, students will edit it and add text to explain why Unionism opposed the Agreement.


Images and information will be sourced from the internet and designed in the form of a sketch.

Students will be supplied with search terms by the teacher and source appropriate images and text from the internet – ask students to consider the reliability and objectivity of the information they find. Advise students that it is best to try and source medium/large images.

Students will identify and select images/text to use and save them appropriately in a dedicated folder with a meaningful filename.

Students will keep an account of the sites they have visited in a saved document.


Students will import their sourced image into the software and use the colour/filter tools to add an effect to the image. Some students may use these tools in conjunction with the selection tools to highlight areas of the image. Students will then insert the quote/information they sourced by using the text tool. Students will complete their piece of work by exporting it in a suitable file format (e.g. JPEG).

Encourage students to consider the size and style of fonts, the colour/filter style and the tools available to them within the software package.

Remind students to save their work in a dedicated folder with an appropriate filename.


Give students the opportunity to view each other’s work. This may be done by displaying the best work on the whiteboard or students may circulate the room.

Taking other students' feedback into account, ask students to justify their choices and decisions, including any difficulties they encountered in the creation of their image. This may be completed in the form of a saved document.

Explore Lesson 4: 1988-1997