Analysis: while the 1984 report provoked Margaret Thatcher's infamous 'out, out, out' remarks, it also had some important long-term consequences

Earlier this summer, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) launched its New Ireland Commission. Signalled last year by the party leader, Colum Eastwood, the Commission's stated goal is to 'engage with every community, sector and generation on this island’ to establish a consensus on Ireland’s future constitutional arrangements. The Commission’s first panel includes experts drawn from a variety of civic society roles, North and South of the Border, as well as three Irish senators and four SDLP elected representatives.

Whilst the SDLP favours a united Ireland at some juncture, Eastwood is nevertheless emphatic that the Commission should not be accused of ‘pre-determining’ matters under discussion, or regarded as simply another ‘nationalist talking shop’. He is hopeful that the less politicised nature of the panel structure might prove attractive to unionist voices or, at the very least, that the Commission’s deliberations can provide the basis for subsequent engagement by sections of both political and civic unionism on future constitutional questions.

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From New Ireland Commisson, how the Commission plan to bring together civic, faith, community and business leaders to fuel the debate on the constitutional future of this island

Given the increased tensions within sections of Northern Ireland’s population as a consequence of Brexit, most would wish the new Commission well in its current endeavours. From an historian’s perspective, though, this venture is redolent of another important SDLP-inspired initiative from the early 1980s: the New Ireland Forum.

Constitutional republicanism versus paramilitarity nationalism

Garret FitzGerald’s two periods as Taoiseach in the 1980s were overshadowed by continuing violence in the North and tragic security repercussions south of the Border. Worse, from FitzGerald’s perspective, the aftermath of the 1981 republican hunger strike saw substantial growth in support for Provisional Sinn Féin within the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. He feared that should the Provisionals eclipse the SDLP electorally, it could embolden the Provisional IRA to increase the tempo of their violent campaign, prompting a similar response from ultra-Loyalist groupings, and thus elevate the conflict to civil war levels.

In response, FitzGerald adopted two broad, and somewhat contradictory, approaches. Firstly, he sought to soften Unionist perceptions of constitutional republican politicians on the island, so as to increase Unionist amenability to a negotiated settlement. Secondly, he aimed to strengthen the position of the SDLP in Northern Ireland, and to undercut support for violent nationalist organisations.

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From RTÉ Archives, Caroline Erskine profiles the politial career of Garret FitzGerald for RTÉ News in 1987

After coming to power, FitzGerald declared his intention to lead a ‘Republican crusade’. He sought to review legislation and overhaul the Constitution, so as to divest the State of its more overt Roman Catholic influences, and make Ireland a ‘genuine Republic’ with a pluralist outlook. Aside from the inherent benefits he believed would accrue to society, FitzGerald further hoped it would make the possibility of a future association with – or within – the Irish Republic a more attractive option for Northern Protestants.

His crusade proved stillborn. A divisive abortion referendum in 1983, contentious (though successful) legislation to increase access to contraception in 1985 and a failed referendum to allow for civil divorce in 1986, appeared to signal that Ireland was becoming more, rather than less, conservative during this decade. So much for persuading Northern Protestants of a more ‘welcoming’ republic!

The New Ireland Forum

However, FitzGerald's second approach would bear more fruit. In May 1983, following discussions with the leader of the SDLP John Hume, the Irish Government established the New Ireland Forum in Dublin. The Forum’s ultimate goal was to aid reconciliation of the two traditions (nationalist and unionist) in Ireland, and secure peace and stability.

The Forum's deliberations helped to give the southern Irish population a greater insight into unionist perspectives

All parties who were committed to the principle of non-violence, and with representation in the Oireachtas or the Northern Irish Assembly, were invited to participate. From the Republic, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party sent delegates. The Workers’ Party (formally Official Sinn Féin) declined to attend, claiming the absence of unionist parties would make it too ‘narrow’ in focus.

From the North, only the SDLP took part. The unionist parties (the UUP and the DUP), together with the Alliance Party, officially rejected the invitation, on the basis that the Forum presupposed the emergence of an ‘all-Ireland’ political entity. Due to its support for the IRA’s violent campaign, Provisional Sinn Féin was not invited.

What happened next?

Chaired by NUI Galway’s Prof. Colm Ó hEocha, the Forum met more than 40 times between May 1983 and February 1984, and received submissions from a variety of groupings within Irish and Northern Irish society, including economists, political scientists, women’s organisations, and the main churches. Whilst the political parties present were all nationalist, some unionist politicians made submissions in a personal capacity. Consequently, the Forum’s deliberations helped to fulfil one of FitzGerald’s long time objectives: to give the southern Irish population a greater insight into unionist perspectives.

The Forum was reasonably successful in increasing the southern population’s appreciation of the complexity of issues relating to Northern Ireland. Aside from a level of rhetorical grandstanding by some Fianna Fáil delegates – which the other parties regarded as unhelpful – it did establish a level of consensus within nationalism with respect to a common approach. Just as importantly, it signalled a formal recognition on the part of nationalist Ireland that the Protestant unionist people had a distinct culture, a British identity, and legitimate political aspirations that must be respected.

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From RTÉ Archives, John Bowman reports forToday Tonight on the New Ireland Forum's report in May 1984

Published in May 1984, the Forum report included three possible models for a future relationship between the two parts of Ireland: a united Ireland (with one government); a federal or confederal state (under which the North retained a regional government, but within an all-island structure); and a joint authority model, which would see the sovereign states of Ireland and the United Kingdom take equal responsibility for governing Northern Ireland.

'Out...out...out!'

In the immediate period after the report came out, it did seem as if FitzGerald’s energies might have been wasted. Predictably, unionists rejected the report outright and deprecated any proposals that would ‘threaten’ their constitutional status within the United Kingdom. This situation was not helped by then Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey’s effective declaration that only the ‘unitary’ option was acceptable, and that the other models were not viable.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher also dismissed all three proposals in her infamous ‘Out! Out! Out!’ press conference following a meeting with the Taoiseach. The manner of Thatcher’s public rebuff was widely seen as a major embarrassment for FitzGerald, and generated significant negative commentary of the prime minister herself.

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From RTÉ Archives, Today Tonight's covers British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's "out, out, out" press conference in November 1984

Counterintuitively, however, it was exactly what FitzGerald needed to propel the process of direct negotiations with the British government. Prior to Thatcher’s interview, she and FitzGerald had already agreed that none of the three Forum options would work. Rather, it was accepted that the less publicised section of the Report, inserted at FitzGerald’s insistence, outlining the Forum parties’ preparedness to discuss ‘other views that may contribute to political development’, would be the rubric under which the governments engaged.

When Thatcher recognised the level of anger she had stirred within the Republic with her apparent (if unreal) mistreatment of FitzGerald, she was eager to make amends. Certainly, it increased her willingness to find a political accommodation with the Taoiseach vis-à-vis Northern Ireland. Arguably, it also made her more amenable to Irish concerns during the negotiations that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. This accord bolstered SDLP support in Northern Ireland, and was something which Hume regarded as the progenitor of the peace process.

It may be too much to expect the New Ireland Commission of today to match the ultimate success of its 1980s ancestor. However, we can assume that the SDLP, at least, are hopeful of a little positive history repeating itself.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ