Talking about Northern Ireland

Tom Wilson

  • All in a Life by Garret FitzGerald
    Macmillan, 674 pp, £25.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 333 47034 6

It has often been said that the Irish tragedy can be ended only by political means. In this political autobiography, Dr Garret FitzGerald gives a fascinating account of his own attempts to contribute to this end. It was a role for which he seemed better-equipped than any other party leader in the Republic. His political lineage as a nationalist was impeccable: both his parents had been engaged in the struggle for national independence. When British rule came to an end and civil war broke out within the Irish Free State, his father took the side of the new government, in which he subsequently became Foreign Minister. Through his mother, an Ulster Presbyterian by origin, he also acquired contacts in the North quite unusual among Dublin politicians. To the experience of growing up in a distinguished political and literary family, he could add his own experience as an administrator and an academic.

He went into politics committed to the building of a just society – and justice was to extend to Northern Ireland. Irish unity must be by consent. Admittedly he also endorsed the familiar counter-factual statement that ‘history has created in the island of Ireland one nation.’ But he has always stressed that there are ‘two traditions’, and tradition is, after all, at the heart of nationalism. When the people of each tradition cannot agree to membership of any state acceptable to the other, it cannot seriously be held that they constitute a single nation, but FitzGerald may have come as close to reality in his use of such terms as is consistent with political survival in the Republic.

The author recognises that, as a condition for unity by consent, the Republic should ‘provide the same civil liberties in the whole island as at present exist in the North’. He refers in particular to the sale of contraceptives and to divorce. The first point has now been substantially met, but his own attempt to liberalise the law against divorce in 1986 by means of the necessary referendum was defeated by quiet but pervasive clerical resistance. Moreover, although opinions and attitudes have changed in the South – perhaps to a greater extent than is appreciated in the North – there has been no loosening of the tight clerical grip on schools and hospitals. Thus the Republic remains an unattractive place to liberal-minded people in Ulster – or anywhere else.

A united Republic would encounter immense economic difficulties. For these reasons, as well as the conflict of national traditions, unification will not be on the cards for an indefinitely long period. FitzGerald has accepted this fact, but has sought to shape constitutional change in Northern Ireland in ways that would not only be conducive to his long-term objective but would meanwhile, with consent to unity lacking, give the Republic an important say in the affairs of the North. He does not seem to have perceived that pursuit of the interim objective might provoke bitter resentment which would make it harder to achieve his ultimate goal. All of this is illustrated by the contribution he made to the two major ‘initiatives’ since the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972: first, power-sharing with an Irish dimension in 1973-4, and secondly, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. His interesting account of the first can be compared with those given by Brian Faulkner and by Merlyn Rees respectively. No one else has so far given a comparable account of the second.

‘Power-sharing’ has been a confusing term, for it suggests that the Catholic minority in Ulster had been denied normal political rights. Its meaning is more specific and local. The Unionist Party had always had a strong majority in the old provincial parliament because the dominant issue at every election was the continuing existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. In fact, as it happened, the number of seats held reflected votes cast much more accurately than in Great Britain, but this was cold comfort to the representatives of the Catholic minority, who had no chance of forming a government. Faulkner had therefore proposed, belatedly, that there should be three parliamentary committees, with the chairmanship of two guaranteed to the opposition: but the SDLP decided at that time to boycott Stormont. In 1973, a year or so after the old parliament had been prorogued, the new Secretary of State (Whitelaw) proposed not only PR in elections to a new Assembly but also what amounted to PR in the composition of an Executive – double-barrelled PR or permanent coalition government. This is what is meant by ‘power-sharing’ in the Ulster context.

Although the Unionist Party was split, Faulkner had enough support to allow him, together with the SDLP and the Alliance, to bring this unusual scheme into operation. In its origin, the idea owed much to FitzGerald, at that time Foreign Minister in a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. Like any form of coalition government, it was bound to encounter special difficulties, but the new scheme seemed, nevertheless, to work quite well during its short life. (As a member of the advisory Economic Council, I was in a position to observe how Faulkner and Hume were working together in the difficult area of industrial development.) Moreover, there appears to have been reasonable public support initially, even from the Protestant majority. But disillusionment and bitterness were soon to follow.

First, the IRA wanted power, not power-sharing. The terrorist campaign was therefore intensified – a response which FitzGerald does not discuss, although he grumbles a great deal about the British Army. To make matters worse, the Republic had not signed the European Convention against terrorism and was also refusing to extradite suspected terrorists. As Faulkner observed, ‘it did not make much sense to people in Northern Ireland to see murderers set free by Dublin courts.’ FitzGerald seriously underestimates the political importance of extradition. He is also inclined to play down the importance of the Republic as a training ground and refuge for terrorists which, though not safe, is safer than Ulster.

Secondly, the Dublin Government and the SDLP insisted on a new expression of the Irish dimension in the form of a Council of Ireland which, with a unanimous vote, could exercise some executive powers, and also an Assembly of deputies from North and South. FitzGerald pressed for a wide range of duties, extending to Police matters; he omits to mention that the Republic’s security forces were, and are, forbidden to hold any direct communication with the ‘foreign’ British Army. Conor Cruise O’Brien warned that this Council would be a mistake. Power-sharing was a sufficiently difficult, if also promising experiment, and it would have been far wiser at this stage to have concentrated on that. The Unionist Party had previously expressed some support for a consultative council, but the ill-defined proposal which emerged from the negotiations seemed to suggest a gradual but indefinite extension of the Republic’s role in Ulster affairs.

Thirdly, the hostile reaction thus provoked in Ulster would have been much weaker if the Republic had removed from its constitution the claim in Articles 2 and 3 that its territory extends to the whole of the island, regardless of the wishes of the Northern majority. Haughey never had scruples about endorsing this harsh claim. John Hume maintained that these articles only expressed a harmless aspiration, of which no one took much notice, but would not concede that the Council of Ireland would bring these clauses to the forefront of attention. FitzGerald was sufficiently sensitive to recognise that these articles were counter-productive, but was doubtful about the outcome of the referendum that would be needed to revise or remove them. The British did not press the point.

The Irish and British Governments had signed pledges that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status could be changed only with majority consent, but the Irish pledge was soon stripped of meaning. For it was challenged in court in Dublin as being inconsistent with Articles 2 and 3, and the Government was obliged to deny that it affected ‘the right of the Irish parliament and Government to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of the national territory’. As FitzGerald admits: ‘Politically, in its impact on unionist opinion, [this defence] was totally disastrous.’ Thus the old challenge to Ulster’s constitutional stability, which had for so long been an obstacle to the normal development of party politics, was loudly proclaimed once more. If the British negotiators, led by Heath, had known what they were about, they would have made the Council of Ireland conditional upon the revision or deletion of Articles 2 and 3.

In the light of all these facts, it will not do to imply – as is now so often done – that power-sharing was destroyed by a general strike in Ulster, simply because Protestants would not share political power with Catholics. To stress the need for a more balanced explanation is not, however, to justify the strike, still less the intimidation used to enforce it. It proved, of course, to be a political disaster.

FitzGerald complains bitterly and understandably, as did Faulkner, that the new Secretary of State (Merlyn Rees) should have taken faster and stronger action to resist the strike. Rees has explained the difficulties, especially with regard to electricity supply. If the strike could have been suppressed, then clearly it should have been, for it was an anarchical challenge to lawful authority. But it would also have been wrong to forge ahead regardless with the Council of Ireland. For the suppression of a protest that had wide popular support would not have been consistent with the move towards Irish unity by consent, which is FitzGerald’s own objective. It is not clear from his memoirs that he has seen this point.

The strike caused consternation in Dublin. For it was feared that the British Government, disgusted by their defeat, might decide to withdraw altogether from Ulster. FitzGerald records that ‘our diplomatic efforts were directed to ensuring that it did not occur.’ He even suggested to Kissinger that the President should dissuade the British from leaving Northern Ireland. For the Government of the Republic, this may be seen as the moment of truth.

In the following decade three attempts were made to establish devolved government by agreement. By 1984, a new Assembly was in being but with only an advisory role. The British Government thought it a prudent move to allow the parties themselves to devise a mutually acceptable constitution, but the hardline Unionists did not like power-sharing and the SDLP boycotted the Assembly. Progress was not made any easier by the fact that the new SDLP leadership, under John Hume, was more committed than ever to Irish nationalism. The British Government then swung to the other extreme and decided to negotiate an agreement with the Irish Government which would simply be presented to the Ulster people without consulting their political leaders. FitzGerald was then Taoiseach, and his role in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 is widely regarded as the high point in his political career. He now gives much the most detailed account of the negotiations that has yet appeared.

If the high-handed British policy of excluding the Ulster parties was to have any chance of success, it was crucial that it should be applied consistently to all alike. This is not what happened. For Hume was consulted by FitzGerald throughout the entire negotiations and was one of the main authors of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Some of the other SDLP leaders were also consulted. The British negotiators seem to have been fully aware that this was happening, but they made no protest and did not attempt to consult the Ulster parties themselves. It was scarcely a convincing demonstration of the diplomatic skills of the British Foreign and Cabinet Offices. A better course could scarcely have been found if their true aim had been to provoke a furious reaction in Ulster which would further discredit the Ulster cause. Of the few politicians outside Ulster who resigned in protest at this procedure, one was Senator Mary Robinson and another was the late Ian Gow.

It would have been a notable act of statesmanship on FitzGerald’s part if he had refrained from consulting the leaders of one of the Northern Ireland parties so long as the others were being kept in the dark. As for Hume, he would have vindicated his growing reputation as a statesman if he had refused to take an unfair advantage over the other Ulster leaders. Both FitzGerald and Hume failed to respond in this way, and their failure contributed to the failure of the Agreement that finally emerged. As could have been anticipated, this massive snub caused widespread indignation in Ulster. With so bad a start, Ulster was bound ‘to say no’ and hard positions were taken up from which it would subsequently be difficult to withdraw.

The new Conference established by the Agreement consists of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Foreign Minister of the Republic. All the Ulster party leaders are excluded from its secret sessions, but the SDLP continues to maintain a close relationship with Dublin. Thus the inequitable manner in which the Agreement was negotiated has become a permanent feature of its implementation. The Conference can range widely over the affairs of the Province but its role, in Mrs Thatcher’s eyes, was to be advisory, with British sovereignty not infringed. FitzGerald explains that he had hoped for a more executive role which would have been a long step towards a condominium. A condominium may indeed seem an attractive way of dealing with conflicting nationalist aspirations, but unfortunately, the locus of responsible authority would tend to be obscured and this could lead to weak government. Institutionalised consultation seems as far as it is sensible to go, although, admittedly, the borderline between consultation and joint decision-making can be blurred.

The Agreement was asymmetrical in two respects: first, in giving the Republic some say in the affairs of part of the UK without giving Britain any say in the affairs of the Republic; secondly, in allowing the Irish Foreign Minister to express and champion the views of the SDLP while the Secretary of State is expected to stand above the party conflict and not to favour the Unionists. Equity would be better served if all the Ulster parties were represented directly at meetings of the Conference.

Once again the Irish dimension was introduced with no change in Articles 2 and 3. FitzGerald records that he was prepared to risk a referendum, but the British, who seemed to have learned little, were lukewarm. Once again both Britain and the Republic pledged that Ulster’s constitutional position would not be altered without the consent of the majority. Once more the Irish pledge was challenged, first in the Dail and later (1990) in court. On the later occasion the court ruling was even more disastrous, for it was laid down that ‘there was a constitutional imperative on the Government and the Republic’s citizens which meant it was their duty, as loyal citizens, to seek the integration of the national territory.’ The IRA can now claim that it is only acting as loyal citizens should do. As new negotiations are carried on in 1992, it must surely be accepted that reconciliation requires the removal or drastic revision of the two ill-fated articles in the Irish Constitution.

In the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Irish dimension came before devolution, whereas it had been the other way round in 1973-4. But the two governments are under an obligation to seek to establish devolved government, whether or not the Ulster people want it. Indeed the Conference was to be used as a lever to persuade the unionists to accept devolution with some unspecified form of power-sharing assembly. For the matters devolved would then be removed from the business agenda of the Conference. So far, six years after the signing of the Agreement, this strategy has not succeeded. Moreover, the Agreement gives the leadership of the SDLP little incentive to compromise in the search for devolution, since they have more power as informal advisers to the Irish Foreign Minister than they would have in a devolved administration, even with power-sharing.

People in Ulster were astounded that Mrs Thatcher should have been a party to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There is a puzzle here which is not likely to be fully solved until an answer is given by someone in Britain who, like FitzGerald, has access to the records. FitzGerald explains that Mrs Thatcher revealed uncharacteristic doubt and anxiety after the deed was done. He also explains that President Reagan had been privately asked by him to put pressure on her.

There is another puzzle. A hard-bitten Irish nationalist could feel satisfied with the outcome of the Agreement because the Unionists have been wrong-footed once again and have lost much of whatever sympathy remained to them in Britain after the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974. But with FitzGerald himself it must be an entirely different matter. For the Agreement has signally failed to foster the reconciliation he desires or to lead on to true Irish unity – unity by consent – which has always been his basic objective. Two other objectives have been better served. First, he was concerned lest terrorism should return to the Republic, and this has not happened. Secondly, he feared a rise in Sinn Fein’s share of the Catholic vote, and the reverse has happened. But full credit cannot be claimed for the Agreement, because the big drop in the Sinn Fein share had already occurred before it was completed. (In any case, when the ballot box disappoints, the IRA simply makes greater use of the bullet and the bomb.)

FitzGerald had always expressed deep concern about civil rights in Northern Ireland, and he continued to do so during these negotiations. The security forces must act fairly and be seen to do so in order to make their presence acceptable in Catholic areas. His proposal for local unarmed supplementary police forces was, however, rejected, which is scarcely surprising. (Their members would have been eliminated if they had interfered with the terrorists’ rackets.) Nor did he obtain acceptance for his proposal for joint courts to be manned by judges from both sides of the Border – part of his strategy for securing a role for the Republic in decision-making in the North. His more realistic plea for three Ulster judges instead of one was also rejected, with high legal opinion divided on grounds of principle. Feasibility would depend upon the number of senior counsel available for promotion, and he gives evidence to show that this difficulty may be exaggerated. But he passes over the fact that all judges – especially Catholic judges – are prime targets for the IRA. Moreover he is in error in claiming that the Conference led to the abandonment of supergrass trials: these had already been rejected by the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions.

The basic problem for any free society is how to defeat well-established terrorists who can evade conviction by threatening to kill all hostile witnesses. Mr Patrick Cooney, a former Fine Gael Minister of Justice, has recommended detention, both in the North and in the South, with the successful experience of 1956-62 in mind. But that would mean an infringement of civil rights. It is a cruel dilemma, and one which FitzGerald does not confront in these pages.

Violence in Ulster has continued and increased. It is sad to turn back today to the Hansard record of the debate in the House of Commons in November 1984, when the overwhelming support for the Agreement reflected above all a belief that this was the road to the peace so much desired by these decent, ill-informed Members of Parliament. That, tragically, is not what has happened, and no one should have expected it. Predictably the IRA rejected the Agreement out of hand, but they could regard it as further evidence that British resolve was weakening and that their campaign should therefore be intensified.

Yet this terrorism is self-defeating, because its persistence is one reason why Britain cannot abandon Northern Ireland. Britain is in any case bound by the treaty to make no constitutional changes without majority consent in Northern Ireland – a crucially important fact to which the Unionists have given strangely little weight. This condition is unlikely to be satisfied in the foreseeable future. Demographic trends (not analysed by FitzGerald) cannot now be expected to lead to a Catholic majority for many years – if ever. Moreover polls repeatedly suggest that the vast majority of the Northern Catholics have no desire to exchange their present position for the high tax-rates and inferior public services of the Republic. In the Republic itself, what desire there is for Irish unity seems to relate to a vague and distant future. Indeed there would be consternation at the social and economic problems that would follow if the North had to be somehow absorbed. As FitzGerald explained to Mrs Thatcher, people in the Republic have been inclined to say: ‘Stop talking about Northern Ireland; we want tax down, we want unemployment cured, and we do not want to be involved in Northern Ireland.’ Hardly evidence of strong national sentiment!

So what are the immediate political imperatives? One of the most important is to find some means of demonstrating this underlying stability in the constitutional position. For Britain cannot govern effectively while giving the impression of looking backwards from the threshold of an already open door. One improvement would be to end the ‘temporary’ twenty-year-old procedure for handling Northern Ireland affairs in the House of Commons by means of Orders in Council, and to replace it by normal procedures, including a Committee in Northern Ireland Affairs. Secondly, the Government should use the existing statutory power to hold regular ten-year polls. One was held in 1972 but boycotted – for obvious reasons – by the SDLP. None was held in 1982, and none has been announced for 1992. A poll of some kind ought now to be held, however much the SDLP may dislike the prospect.

For Dr FitzGerald, who so sincerely desires genuine Irish unity, it is a tragedy that the gulf between the people of this island has been widened and deepened as never before, over the past two decades. But he has not chosen to express in these memoirs the sorrow and deep disappointment he must now feel. He adds only a few comments about the consequences of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, moves on to other matters, and ends the book on a quiet note.