Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

Margaret Thatcher: IRA's No 1 target

File photo dated 10/2/05 of Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Churchill Museum Opening, Cabinet War Rooms, London
File photo dated 10/2/05 of Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Churchill Museum Opening, Cabinet War Rooms, London
Visit of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at St. Angelo Airport outside Enniskillen where she is pictured inspecting the 39 Field Regiment of Royal Artillery who presented her with a beret by Col Kit Faith, 6th March 1981
IRA prisoners on hunger strike, November 1980
File photo dated 29/05/1987 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, waist-deep in blackcurrent bushes, bringing the agricultural scene into focus during a visit to Appleford Farm, Rivenhall, near Witham, East Anglia
Hunger strike demonstration on the Falls Road, Belfast in 1981
File photo dated 09/11/1959 of Baroness Thatcher, with her children Mark and Carol, aged 6, at their home in Farnborough, Kent
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI, wearing his Saturn hat, greets former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 27, 2009
File photo dated 11/05/83 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher receiving Soviet writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn at No 10 Downing Street, London
British politician Margaret Thatcher talks to a policeman outside the House of Commons, where she is taking her seat as the Member of Parliament for Finchley, 20th October 1959. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British politician Margaret Thatcher outside the House of Commons, where she is taking her seat as the Member of Parliament for Finchley, 20th October 1959. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
File photo dated 14/11/04 of Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair during the annual National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph, London
File photo dated 22/5/89 of Margaret Thatcher fielding questions with Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe (background), at a press conference, in London
File photo dated 04/05/1979 of Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher ariving at Tory Headquarters in London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 10/06/1983 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waving to well-wishers after her election win. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 24/10/2000 of former Conservative Prime Ministers Sir Edward Heath and Baroness Thatcher check their watches as they listen to the debate at the Conservative Party Conference annual conference in Bournemouth. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 12/08/1987 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis walking on the Trevose golf course, Cornwall, on the first day of their summer holidays. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 13/07/1950 of Margaret Hilda Roberts, the Conservative candidate for Dartford, on her way to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, in London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
Baroness Thatcher in Downing Street...Prime Minister David Cameron helps Baroness Thatcher as she leaves Downing Street
File photo dated 04/05/1979 of Margaret Thatcher waving from the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. 24th January 1950: When not engaged in her political work in Dartford (Kent) where she is standing as Tory candidate, Miss Margaret Roberts, youngest candidate for the general election, is busy with her work as a research chemist. Margaret Roberts went on to become Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. 7th December 1962: Conservative MP Margaret Thatcher has fun on a ski run in Battersea Park with instructor Joe Hoki. (Photo by Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. circa 1950: Conservative candidate Margaret Roberts accompanies four voters on the piano in a sing-song after a brief political argument in the bar of The Bull Inn, Dartford. (Margaret Roberts married Denis Thatcher and went on to become Prime Minister.) (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. November 1976: Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher makes a 'victory' sign outside her home in Chelsea, London. (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. October 1985: British prime minister Margaret Thatcher looking pensive at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, London, at the start of her third term in office. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher covering her face with her hand at the 1985 Conservative Party Conference. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. Conservative politician and future prime minister Margaret Hilda Thatcher, wiping dishes whilst a nurse looks on. (Photo by Chris Ware/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. Margaret Hilda Thatcher, nee Roberts, as the Conservative candidate for Dartford, Kent, and before she married husband Denis. (Photo by Chris Ware/Getty Images)
1980: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. British Conservative politician and first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher speaks at the Tory Party Conference on in Brighton, East Sussex circa 1980. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
File photo dated 4/1/79 of Margaret Thatcher in an inter-ship jackstay for her high-speed shortcut across the Pool feature of the 25th London International Boat Show which she opened at Earls Court in London
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 04, 1979: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. Margaret Hilda Thatcher, nee Roberts (b 1925), with her husband Denis Thatcher (1915 - 2003), waves to the crowds outside the Conservative Party headquarters on May 4, 1979 in London, England. (Photo by John Minihan/Getty Images)
1984: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with American President Ronald Reagan, at No. 10 Downing Street, on June 5, 1984 in London, England. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1985: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. Please refer to the following profile on Getty Images Archival for further imagery. http://www.gettyimages.com/Search/Search.aspx?EventId=108930459&EditorialProduct=Archival British prime minister Margaret Thatcher holds a chimpanzee in 1985. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
File photo dated 08/11/05 of Margaret Thatcher at the memorial service for former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, at Westminster Abbey in central London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 8/12/07 of Baroness Thatcher who joined Falkland Islanders and former servicemen in London to honour all those who lost their lives in wars in the South Atlantic
20/6/2001 Baroness Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, seated in the House of Lords, London, for the State Opening of Parliament
File photo dated 04/05/2000 of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sitting beside her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
Libray filer dated 23/11/2001 of the head of the puppet Margaret Thatcher on display at a Sotheby's auction of Spitting Image puppets
Library filer dated 10/11/00 of Sir Denis Thatcher (left), accompanied by his wife and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (centre), after receiving his first honorary degree from the University of Buckingham in Buckinghamshire
File photo dated 12/10/77 of Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher with 16 year old Rother Valley schoolboy William Hague, after he received a standing ovation from delegates at the Tory party conference in Blackpool
Library filer dated 8/6/1988 of Margaret Thatcher standing in the shell of London's old Battersea power station, when she renamed the site 'The Battersea'
File photo dated 21/2/07 of Former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher in front of a bronze statue of herself, inside the Palace of Westminster, London
File photo dated 13/9/07 of Gordon Brown with Baroness Thatcher as she leaves her old official residence at 10 Downing Street
File photo dated 04/05/2000 of former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher sitting alone as she waits for the start of the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 06/12/1990 of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with former US President Ronald Reagan at Claridges, in London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
File photo dated 12/10/84 of the upper floors of the Grand Hotel Brighton, severely damaged in the aftermath of an IRA bomb, which was planted during Tory Party conference week. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
Library filer dated 3/5/1989 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street, in London, with her son Mark, daughter-in-law Diane, and two-month-old grandson Michael
Library filer dated 26/1/1990 of Margaret Thatcher toasting Julie Goodyear and the cast of Coronation Street when she visited the Rovers Return at Granada Television Studios in Manchester
LONDON - 2006: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON, ENGLAND - 2009: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON - JUNE 8: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON - 1987: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON - 2005: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON - 2006: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON, ENGLAND - 2009: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON - 2008: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
1987: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 1: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher poses inside Number 10 Downing Street in London, England on April 01, 1984. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)
1967: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke. Conservative politician and future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speaking at a party conference on Octobe 21, 1967 in England. (Photo by Harry Dempster/Express/Getty Images)
1983: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her German counterpart, Helmut Kohl, at a press conference at Number 12 Downing Street on April 22, 1983 in London, England. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1951: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke. Margaret Roberts, Conservative candidate for Dartford, Kent and youngest woman candidate in the election, talking to dustmen during her election campaign in October 4, 1951 in England. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
1986: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. Nancy Reagan, the wife of US president Ronald Reagan, meets British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at Number 10, Downing Street on July 22, 1986 in London, England. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 10 NOVEMBER: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. (L-R) Liberal Party Leader David Steel, former Labour Leader James Callaghan and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher carrying wreaths of poppies during a Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph on November 10, 1980 in Whitehall, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I used to dread Margaret Thatcher coming to Northern Ireland because it meant 12 hours in the company of the IRA's No 1 target.

She was pleasant enough, but always businesslike. No small talk. She would smile and nod in acknowledgement as we climbed aboard the helicopter before pulling on a headset to drown out the noise as the big Wessex rose into the darkness above RAF Aldergrove, 15 miles north of Belfast.

Her arrival from London, usually the day before Christmas Eve, was always unannounced. In the aftermath of the 1981 hunger strike republicans wanted her dead, and paranoid loyalists claimed the right to distrust her when she signed off the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which they claimed weakened the constitutional link with the rest of the UK.

But the hostility and the threat to her life never seemed to faze her as we crossed the South Armagh countryside, or headed west to touch down at some military outpost close to the border with the Irish Republic where the IRA frequently engaged the enemy in lengthy and ferocious gun battles.

A small team travelled with her. In later years it was headed up by her private secretary, Charles Powell. There was her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, a gruff Yorkshireman, and there would be Northern Ireland's secretary of state at the time.

Also with her would be a Downing Street typist hammering away on the keys of a portable typewriter balanced on her knee, two plain-clothes Metropolitan Police detectives, and a soldier who rarely left her side.

The latter was small with sharp features and dressed in combat gear with a red beret pulled to one side and the badge of the Parachute Regiment on each shoulder. He carried a gun in a holster, but never spoke - not even to exchange seasonal greetings.

Mrs Thatcher just sat there, back to back, her eyes closed, cat-napping without a worry in the world. Or so it seemed - just feet from where another soldier positioned himself at an open door, his finger on the trigger of a belt-fed general purpose machine-gun on a tripod with the barrel pointed downwards.

A second helicopter with a full compliment of passengers followed behind, and then were was a third some distance away.

It was referred to as a "decoy". But there was never an explanation as to its precise role.

A seat was always reserved for a representative from the Press Association on the VIP helicopter and every year without fail I drew the short straw.

It was always a hairy ride. We once flew to Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, skimming the treetops of the Clogher Valley because of the fear of being hit by one of the surface-to-air missiles which the IRA had smuggled in from Libya. It was just a few days before she resigned.

Mr Ingham disembarked, clearly relieved the party had landed safely. He called me aside and remarked just loud enough for his boss to hear: "That's the first time I've ever flown underground... Even the cows ducked."

There was a trip before that to Forkhill, South Armagh. The helicopter swayed from side to side on our approach before dropping like a stone into a heavily fortified military base where we had to run, heads down, to a bomb-proof shelter for fear of missiles being fired over the high perimeter fence. Here was the prime minister and her entourage sprinting for cover.

Afterwards her obedient husband, Denis, complained when he discovered oil stains on his tweed jacket. Nobody was sure how they got there.

The dictatorial and quick-tempered Sir John Hermon, the chief constable at the time, was terrified she would be harmed on his watch, especially after the October 1984 bombing of Brighton's Grand Hotel.

The day following that attack on the prime minister and delegates at the Conservative Party conference, I was summoned to west Belfast to take delivery of the statement confirming the IRA's involvement which included the words: "Remember we have to be lucky just once."

The man who handed me the folded note - it was typed on pinkish coloured paper - is still walking the streets. We meet from time to time, occasionally over coffee, but that secret encounter just off the Falls Road all those years ago remains just that.

Curiously, neither Downing Street nor the police ever discussed it with me either.

Mrs Thatcher always had a handbag on her arm as she strode out ahead of everybody else. She could be thoughtful and charming when visiting wounded soldiers at Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast, or comforting and respectful while commiserating with widows and families of murdered police officers in a side room at RUC headquarters in Belfast.

She was visibly upset when she attended a church service in the aftermath of the IRA's Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in November 1987.

She had to be pulled away from grieving relatives because a flight was waiting to take her on to Paris for a meeting with French president Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace that night.

Apart from the day she left Downing Street for good, it was the only time I witnessed her show emotion.

Everyone, particularly military commanders, seemed to be in awe of the Iron Lady.

She called to be briefed, sometimes wearing a beret belonging to whichever regiment was hosting the visit.

 But how the IRA despised her. She was a figure of hate, blamed for allowing 10 republicans to die on hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1981.

Sir John Hermon was fascinated by her. They respected each other. She stood by him through some difficult times, especially when he was under serious pressure over claims that his men were involved in a state sanctioned so-called shoot to kill policy against the IRA which may have extended far beyond the shores of Belfast Lough.

Was the murder of two RUC detectives shot dead by the Provisionals inside the Liverpool Bar in the city's docklands in August 1987 what prompted a chain of events which ended with SAS soldiers killing three IRA volunteers planning to detonate a car bomb in Gibraltar the following year?

Was the surveillance operation against the Gibraltar trio directed from Whitehall?

What did Mrs Thatcher and the Chief Constable in Belfast really know about that particular security operation, which haunted the IRA for years?

A demanding media in Belfast frequently challenged her grasp of Northern Ireland's political complexities. which sometimes tended to baffle and bewilder other visiting British ministers.

But not her. She had the measure of all of us, even the aggressive Eamonn Mallie, who famously confronted her with his microphone early one afternoon at a room overlooking the gardens at Stormont Castle.

Not so much an interview, more a vicious exchange, and her dislike of Downtown Radio's then political editor was obvious.

She could be equally dismissive of those who were supposed to be on her side. It was Christmas 1982, just before she was due to fly back to London after making a live televised teatime address to an audience in despair at a growing political and security crisis.

Jim Prior was secretary of state at the time and keen to get her public backing for a new political initiative, inviting nationalists and unionists to sit down together at Parliament Buildings.

But she either forgot, or deliberately failed to mention his plans - he called it a Constitutional Convention - leaving Mr Prior incandescent.

It was getting late after another long and tense day.

Some of the Downing Street staff were beginning to show signs of weariness and I had a wife and two young sons waiting patiently at home getting ready for Santa's arrival.

The prime minister liked a stiff Scotch at the end of every Northern Ireland visit but before she could raise the tumbler she was handed after emerging from a makeshift TV studio in an adjoining room at Aldergrove, Mr Prior let rip.

His face was a puce. "How could you?" he thundered.

"How could you? How could you go through with that and not talk about the Convention? I can't believe you did that..."

She fired him a withering look of such intensity no-one who was there that night dared respond - not even her husband, who eventually broke the silence to inquire if she had enough soda water in her Bell's whisky.

"Yes, Denis," she replied. "I'll just take another dash if you don't mind, a small dash will do."

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Nightlife Galleries

More

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz