Margaret Thatcher touring the British Occupied North of Ireland in 1981 wearing a beret of the UDR, an infamous British Army militia responsible for scores of terrorist attacks during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s
As a citizen of Ireland there is only one Margaret Thatcher that I remember. From the archives of the Guardian newspaper:
“Margaret Thatcher horrified her advisers when she recommended that the government should revive the memory of Oliver Cromwell – dubbed the butcher of Ireland – and encourage tens of thousands of Catholics to leave Ulster for the south.
A year after she was nearly killed in the IRA’s 1984 Brighton bomb, the then prime minister expressed dismay at Catholic opposition to British rule when they could follow the example of ancestors who were evicted from Ulster at the barrel of a Cromwellian gun in the 17th century.
Lady Thatcher’s extraordinary solution to the Troubles has been disclosed by her advisers at the time of the negotiations on the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement.
Sir David Goodall, then a diplomat who was one of the most senior British officials negotiating with the Irish government, told a BBC four-part documentary, Endgame in Ireland, that Lady Thatcher made the “outrageous” proposal during a late night conversation at Chequers.
“She said, if the northern [Catholic] population want to be in the south, well why don’t they move over there? After all, there was a big movement of population in Ireland, wasn’t there?
“Nobody could think what it was. So finally I said, are you talking about Cromwell, prime minister? She said, that’s right, Cromwell.”
Lady Thatcher’s “outrageous” plan did not stop at reviving the memory of Cromwell.
Sir Charles Powell, then her private secretary, told the programme that she also called for Northern Ireland’s border with the republic to be redrawn.
“She thought that if we had a straight line border, not one with all those kinks and wiggles in it, it would be easier to defend,” he said.
The zigzag border is notoriously difficult to patrol. But Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, then cabinet secretary, told Lady Thatcher of the folly of her idea.
“It wasn’t as simple as that because the nationalist communities were not all in one place, not all in Fermanagh and Tyrone and South Armagh and so on,” he told the programme.
“There were many in Belfast, and the idea of partition in Belfast or moving large numbers of population didn’t seem to be very attractive.”
However, she would not abandon her idea and called for a “security zone” on both sides of the border to help the British army and the RUC to chase IRA terrorists who used to slip over the border after attacks in the north.”
Over on Bloomberg News Timothy Lavin offers an analysis of the effects on Ireland of Thatcher’s premiership:
“…the conflict did not bring out the best in her.
It showed how the character traits for which she is best remembered had some very dark consequences, and how her celebrated “resolve” often came at a brutally high human and moral cost. In Northern Ireland, in fact, that resolve directly obstructed the cause of peace.
The most illuminating example is the hunger strike in the Maze (or Long Kesh) prison from 1980-1981. In many obituaries published today, the story goes that Thatcher “faced down” Irish Republican Army hunger strikers, as the BBC put it. By “faced down” they mean “let them starve to death.” This is often treated as a victory of democratic determination over terrorism.
But history shows quite the opposite: Thatcher’s uncompromising treatment of the hunger strikers led only to an increase in terrorism and the ascension of the IRA as a potent political force.
Violent deaths related to the conflict rose to 101 in 1981 from 76 the year before, including 44 members of the security forces. Injuries rose to 1,350 from 801. Shootings increased to 1,142 from 642, and bombings reached nearly 400 that year. Far from demonstrating that the IRA’s struggle was a lost one, Thatcher only intensified its opposition to rule by what it considered an ever more brutal occupying force.
The other significant consequence of Thatcher’s unyielding position was that public sympathy for the hunger strikers quickly morphed into political support for Republicanism. Bobby Sands, one of the strikers, was elected to the British House of Commons for Fermanagh-South Tyrone while imprisoned. His victory “undermined the entire shaky edifice of British policy in Northern Ireland, which had been so painfully constructed on the hypothesis that blame for the ‘Troubles’ could be placed on a small gang of thugs and hoodlums who enjoyed no community support,” wrote David Beresford in “Ten Men Dead.”
In 1983, Sinn Fein — the IRA’s political wing – gathered 13.4 percent of the Westminster vote in Northern Ireland, compared with 17.9 percent for the moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Gerry Adams, then Sinn Fein’s vice president, was elected in West Belfast over the moderate Gerry Fitt. For the British government, these were ominous omens. Today, Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist bloc in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the fourth-largest party in the parliament of the Irish Republic.
Still, “a crime is a crime is a crime,” Thatcher insisted at the time. “It is not political, it is a crime.”
This was to deny reality, especially as international sympathy for the strikers surged. But Thatcher never took a particularly realistic approach to the hunger strike, or to Northern Ireland generally.
[she was] …someone who could occasionally show a staggering indifference to human suffering.”
As Levine continues in the Comments underneath:
“…it isn’t hard, in this case, to differentiate between what violence is “political” and what isn’t. The men in the Maze prison didn’t become political prisoners because they went on a hunger strike. They became political prisoners because they were arrested — often without trial — for violence or activism intended to overthrow what they viewed as an oppressive political order and an illegal occupation.
Let me be clear: This doesn’t make violence a legitimate response.
But the fact that the political order in Northern Ireland at the time violated Catholic civil rights on a grand scale is beyond dispute. And the IRA itself was an objectively political organization: Its terrorism, although reprehensible, was intertwined with a legitimate movement for Catholic civil rights and a party, Sinn Fein, that adhered to an overt platform of political objectives. (Roughly the same platform, as it happens, that Irish revolutionaries had been asserting for 800 years.) Most crucially, the IRA’s intended targets were the military and security forces of occupation and other paramilitaries — not civilians.”
My own feelings on hearing of her passing are best summed up in this post by Football Clichés and another by author Terry Glavin. Like other British leaders who brought war to Ireland she has passed but we the Irish people have endured.