The Anglo-Irish accord: diverting attention from the real issues ... [ cf. ... or changing the political landscape in Northern Ireland? ]
THE Anglo-Irish agreement was signed Nov. 15, 1985, in the village of Hillsborough, near Belfast, by the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland. London agreed to allow Dublin an official if powerless advisory role in the affairs of Northern Ireland in exchange for formal recognition that the statelet would not be reunified with the rest of Ireland unless a majority of its residents wished this so, and increased their cooperation in fighting the Irish Republican Army. After three years it has come up for ``review,'' and it is worthwhile assessing the impact of the accord at this point. Ulster Protestants overwhelmingly opposed the arrangement from the beginning, declaring it the first step on the road to a united Ireland and interference by Dublin in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. Irish nationalist critics asserted it was a cynical attempt to placate the 40 percent of the population in the North which is Roman Catholic, promising reforms such as better housing and jobs to wean them away from the IRA. The moderate Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in the afflicted area staked its fortunes to the treaty and benefited from the promises of a better life under the British government. Now, three years later, a new survey by the ``unionist'' (pro-British) Belfast Telegraph finds that two-thirds of Protestants and Catholics do not believe the agreement has helped the minority in any significant way and that most of both sides agree it has not helped Protestants, either.
Indeed, it is difficult to find tangible positive results that are clearly due to the accord. Many Catholics hoped that the juryless Diplock courts would undergo changes that would make them fairer to the accused. But the only difference has been the dropping of ``supergrass'' trials, those using paid informers, which was bound to happen anyway, since most of their testimony was too weak to be sustained on appeal. Unemployment for adult Catholic males is still close to 40 percent, but the new promises to carry out anti-discrimination in employment legislation are the result of the MacBride Principles campaign in the United States, which seeks to withdraw state pension fund investments from companies practicing discrimination in Northern Ireland, a movement Britain is seeking to offset.
Despite a new line of security posts along the border, major dragnets for arms caches north and south, and dramatically increased security cooperation between Ireland and Britain, the IRA and other guerrilla groups have increased their activity. The loyalist paramilitaries have been killing innocent Catholics at an alarming rate, the Irish National Liberation Army went through a bloody internal feud, and the IRA has launched a new wave of attacks this year on British soldiers (as opposed to locally recruited security force members). The IRA's hope is that the coffins sent home will remind the public of the costs of keeping troops in Ireland. Several were killed this year in attacks outside Ireland, and within the North there were two major bombings, which took the lives of six, then eight, the largest number in single incidents in a decade.
Britain has counterattacked, sending new troops and forming a third brigade to patrol even more closely the border with the rest of Ireland. In the village of Loughgall in May 1987, eight members of the IRA (and a civilian) were ambushed and killed. Three IRA leaders were shot to death in Gibraltar this past March, and an attack on their funeral in Belfast by a loyalist resulted in three more deaths. The most shocking event since the Hillsborough treaty was the killing of 11 civilians by an IRA bomb Nov. 8, 1987. Britain rushed to turn this into a propaganda coup, depicting the IRA as terrorists with no concern for innocent people. The IRA responded that it regretted the tragedy but that the bomb was triggered by a British Army electronic device, something that has happened on other occasions. Britain denied this, and the claim was widely discredited.
Support for the treaty in the Republic of Ireland has also lessened partly because of one of the consequences: the extradition of Irish prisoners accused of rebelling against the northern state (the treaty also resulted in the revision of the extradition rules between the US and Britain). The rejection of the appeal of the so-called Birmingham 6 in Britain gave credence to the view in Ireland that there is no chance of a fair trial for an Irish prisoner in Northern Ireland or Britain proper.
There has been a lot of political ferment in other areas as well, ranging from the decision of Sinn Fein, the pro-IRA political party, to go after seats in the Dublin Parliament and its discussions with the SDLP about forming a united nationalist front, to the British government's imposition of new censorship laws and to an accused person's right to silence.
The treaty will not be repealed, because the British and Irish governments have invested too much of their prestige in it, even if it seems paralyzed between the pressure of loyalists and nationalists to result in any nonsecurity benefit. But the agreement is really a diversion and irrelevant, because it is based on the illusion that the presence of British soldiers in Ireland will become acceptable if Catholics are appeased with reforms that do not threaten the Protestants. This seriously misjudges Irish nationalism.
Irish Republicans, as they are known, argue that the loyalist majority is the result of an undemocratic gerrymander, a veto over the wishes of most of the 60 million people of both islands. They are willing to take the risk of a loyalist backlash and send the troops home, perhaps replaced by United Nations soldiers, banking that loyalist concerns about a united Ireland will come to be seen as baseless. Until that analysis is accepted, the IRA will fight on.