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"Her Irish policy failed miserably" - Thatcher's Irish legacy

The Conservative Prime Minister had a troubled relationship with Northern Ireland

"Her Irish policy failed miserably" - Thatcher's Irish legacy
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Stephen McNeice
17:19 Monday 8 April 2013

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, she showed little interest in dealing with the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. However, it wasn't long before she was forced to confront the issue. She had barely settled into office before the Queen's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten and other family members were assassinated by IRA members in Sligo.

In 1980 and 1981, ongoing protests by paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland culminated in a series of hunger strikes. Prisoners of the Maze Prison, including MP Bobby Sands, refused food to try and gain improved living conditions and a return to 'political prisoner' status. Thatcher was unwavering in her refusal to negotiate, issuing her infamous declaration that "crime is crime is crime; it is not political". The major hunger strike that began in 1981 led to the death of ten of the strikers, including Sands.

The impact of the hunger strikes saw increased levels of violence in Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people lined Sands' funeral route. Thatcher said of Sands that he "was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims." In 1982, Sinn Féin's Danny Morrisson referred to Thatcher as "the biggest bastard we have ever known."

In 1984, there was an assassination attempt on Thatcher when an IRA bomb exploded at a Conservative Party conference in the Grand Hotel Brighton. Four delegates were killed and many others injured, but Thatcher survived the attack. Her uncompromising viewpoint was only strengthened by the assassination attempt, and she continued to show a hardline response when dealing with dissident Republicans. The picture below shows the Brighton hotel following the bombing:

1985 saw Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement - one of the first official documents to acknowledge the minority wish in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland. The Agreement also granted the Irish government an advisory role in the North. It was voted in by the largest parliamentary majority Thatcher enjoyed during her three terms as Prime Minister. While it was one of the first steps in the process towards the Good Friday Agreement, it was largely rejected by both Unionists and Republicans.

Speaking later of the backlash experienced as a result of the Agreement, Thatcher expressed regret at signing the document, reflecting that "our concessions alienated the Unionists without gaining the level of security co-operation we had a right to expect. In the light of this experience it is surely time to consider an alternative approach".

Northern Irish tensions continued to escalate during Thatcher's years in office. 1987 saw the death of eleven civilians in the Enniskillen bombings, six months after SAS soldiers shot dead eight members of the IRA.

Following these and other events, Thatcher and her government introduced the 1988 broadcasting ban on broadcasts from Sinn Féin. Speaking about the ban, Thatcher said that "we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend." The British media often got around the ban by showing video interviews with prominent republican figures, only with another voice dubbed over the footage. This can be seen in Gerry Adams' interview with Jon Snow below:

Margaret Thatcher's death today has seen a mixed response from Irish politicians. Gerry Adams released a statement reflecting on Thatchers' role in Northern Ireland: "Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice... Her Irish policy failed miserably."

Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson, meanwhile, has called Thatcher "one of the greatest political figures of post-war Britain."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has also responded with a statement, writiting that "Mrs Thatcher was a formidable political leader who had a significant impact on British, European and world politics...her period of office came at a challenging time for British-Irish relations, when the violent conflict in Northern Ireland was at its peak, Mrs Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which laid the foundation for improved North-South cooperation and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement."

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