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Margaret Thatcher – She Came, She Saw, She Failed

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
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.

12 comments on “Margaret Thatcher – She Came, She Saw, She Failed

  1. hoboroad

    She also planned to introduce internment without trial in 1988. But her British Army Generals and MI5 chiefs talked her out of it.

    • Very true. Also note her repeated demands that the British Forces in the north-east of Ireland be allowed to cross the border in “hot pursuit” of “the terrorists”. At one stage was there not talk about investing Dundalk and seizing Irish citizens and suspected Republicans from their homes?

      Of course the way the British civil servants and generals dealt with her more homicidal instincts was to channel them into the murderous activities of the SAS, FRU and Special Patrol Group/SB. Not to mention the UVF, UFF, UR, RHC, etc.

  2. By chance I happened to read the introduction to this book (use the Look Inside feature) the other day. It goes some way to explain the mentality of MT and her rôle in perpetuating that mentality in the British ruling classes. Essentially it’s a WWII mentality both self-righteous and paranoid, which when it feels threatened strikes out viciously and sees any sort of accommodation as appeasement.

    • Now that is interesting. Talking to a British (or as he would insist, English) friend recently he was of the opinion that the WWI, inter-war and WWII generation of Britons were a lot less fearful of foreigners and foreign nations than those that followed. Yes, there was the imperial supremacism of Britain in the 1920s-1940s but amongst ordinary Britons the active dislike of non-Britons wasn’t as profound as today. He believes today’s generation of British youth are actually far more inward looking and intolerant/suspicious of foreigners, etc. despite having a far, far greater exposure to the world and global cultures. He call’s it the paradox of the global village.

      • There couldv’e been several reasons why thatcher’s advisers warned her agiainst the cromwell policy

        (a) It wouldv’e put a strain on relations with the americans(who didn’t prevent supplies to the RUC of course) especially when you consider the irish american lobby was pressuring the administration to cajole the governments in moving the peace process forward

        (b) International opinion wouldv’e isolated britain completely apart from the handful of regimes that she supported and eventually she couldv’e backed down

        • I wonder though. If a clearly militarily and politically insane exercise like the war in Iraq was possible then anything is possible. And this was the early 1980s before the internet and the ubiquitous mobile phone. There would have been no shaky video uploads to YouTube of people being forcefully evicted from their homes. And the BBC/ITV/ITN would have followed the governments agenda (as in Gulf War II).

          And if Bosnia could have happened in the 1990s why not ethnic cleansing in north-east Ireland in the 1980s?

          • I’m puzzled (but then I’m not Irish). The border was always intended to be renegotiated. The Tories I believe at one point seriously considered redrawing it in the RoI’s favour. Wouldn’t that have been a gain?

            Another thing that has always puzzled me. The troubles lasted for what 25 years or so, at least a generation. Most people move home two or three times over such a period. Since the republican population were considered (potentially) Irish citizens (the Republic claimed sovereignty over the whole island then) how was it they didn’t simply gradually drift south to the part of Ireland where they would no longer be a oppressed minority?

            • Many did “drift” south. The border for Nationalists in terms of moving throughout Ireland was no barrier. Quite the contrary. The Protestant part of my own family in terms of my grandmother’s folk fled the dictatorial state in the North in the 1920s which was as alien and illegitimate to them as to any Catholic family. Some went voluntarily, and many many more were driven out in the Northern Pogrom from 1918-1924.

              As for a greater movement of people one might ask why are there Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories? Or minority populations/communities anywhere else that experience oppression/persecution? Why don’t they flee en masse?

              And to turn the question on its head. If the British Unionist minority in Ireland view themselves as inalienably British and hostile to or rejecting all things Irish why not migrate to Britain? There they can be British and free of any taint of the natives back in Ireland.

  3. Thatch and Ireland.

    Her legacy in Iireland does also include low corpo tax (which we Irish copied from Biritan) something SF et al hold so dear – do you think Gerry will acknowledge that at the Ard Fheis?

    As someone who supported the hungerstikers – I think it fair to say that even from Thatch’s point of view( more or less the same as the standard Unionist postion ) i.e. defeating IRA ‘terrorism’ – her policy failed miserably and as the article above suggests she turned SF into a credible poltical force which inevitably and eventually placed the same ‘terrorists’ in government.

    She also signed the AIA which probably made peace possible years later and she should be given credit for that – she faced down Unionist opposition to political progress in Ulster – she Like Trimble with the GFA did the ‘heavy lifting’ even if like Trimble we might question their motives.

    She was a formidable and prinicpled politcal opponent to Irish repulbicanism who sought to defend what she saw as her own country against an insurgency and played a significant role both intentionally an unitentionally in bringing about what seems to have turned out as ‘peace’ and she should be viewed in that considered perspective rather than the emotional self-indulgence which is bring served up by her opponents and detractors.

    When we move off Ireland to Britain and the economy – the levels of hypocricy in condemning her coming from trendy lefty bandwagoning ‘socialists’ sitting prettyin post Thatch Britian is running on overdrive at the same time as hypocritical Tories (who stabbed her in the back) seek to deify her.

    A quality debate. Not.

    • Wow. That is almost a verbatim copy of the 2001 Guardian original, with some slight rewording.

      The Guardian:

      “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.”

      Belfast Telegraph:

      “Despite being told of the folly of her idea, Thatcher refused to abandon it and called for a “security zone” on both sides of the border to help the British Army and RUC prevent IRA terrorists slipping over the border after attacks.”

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