Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Calculating, tactical and caustic... Margaret Thatcher's agenda was devoid of any consensus or consistency

The Anglo-Irish Agreement signing at Hillsborough between Mrs Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985
The Anglo-Irish Agreement signing at Hillsborough between Mrs Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1985

It won't be easy to put a clean spin on Margaret Thatcher's contribution to Northern Ireland, though many will want to.

She is regarded as a murderer by republicans who blame her for the deaths of hunger strikers, yet it is clear that while she talked down their demands in public she made overtures to reach a deal with them.

She said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley, yet outraged unionists by bringing the Irish Republic into the governing of the place.

Everybody had occasion to be angry with her.

Dublin was appalled by the "Out, Out, Out" response to the proposals of the New Ireland Forum, which made her look nothing but intransigent, right on the eve of her constitutional compromise.

That was the distinctive style of her, she could present herself as almost maniacally inflexible – "the lady's not for turning" – and then get away with compromises that weaker or more ameliorative leaders could not have pulled off.

While she was cutting and slashing in Britain, she endorsed several economic and social measures in Northern Ireland which plainly contradicted her philosophy. So we had an expansion in public housing while she was selling off council houses in England and Wales, and we had fair employment legislation while she was arguing for greater freedoms for employers to do as they pleased.

She was responsible for the broadcasting ban and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

She was gone from office before the real start of the peace process, but against all advice from unionists she had poured huge efforts into bringing stability here, both with security measures and attempts at political compromise.

Unionists in the two big parties, the Ulster Unionist Party led by James Molyneaux and the DUP by Ian Paisley, pooled their clout and suspended their rivalry in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

In unionist lore this is still regarded as a betrayal, but it was a stepping stone towards the peace process and the kind of compromises that would be required through it.

Then again, can one really imagine that Mrs Thatcher knew where it would lead? It's doubtful.

She said afterwards that she had expected the Agreement to bring security rewards, tougher action by the Irish police and army against the IRA. Yet there was nothing about security in it.

The defter thinking in Whitehall was that the Agreement would shore up the political prospects of the SDLP and stem the rise of Sinn Fein, which had been making electoral gains and taking seats in councils.

However, that plan may have relied on the hope that the SDLP, following the signing of the Agreement in Hillsborough, would enter the rolling devolution Assembly established by then-Secretary of State James Prior. It declined to, and that Assembly collapsed with Ian Paisley and others in the end being physically carried out by the RUC.

Yet some unionists realised that a change had come that would not be reversed without negotiation and compromise. These included the younger thinkers like Peter Robinson in the DUP and Frank Miller in the UUP, who two years later joined explorative secret talks with other parties in Duisberg in West Germany.

What none of them would have known then was that Germany would be changing a lot faster in the coming years than Ireland would. The Anglo-Irish Agreement provided for a British-Irish Secretariat at Maryfield in east Belfast and this became a focus for routine protest. This was not joint authority but it appeared to have the seeds of it, and the Irish government came to be consulted and to assume the right to have a voice on nearly everything.

Twelve years after the Agreement a key unionist demand, even while conceding cross-border bodies in the Good Friday Agreement, would be the abolition of the Maryfield Secretariat.

Tony Blair said in his memoirs that he misheard them and thought they were talking about the Murrayfield rugby ground, but that he would have been happy to scrap that for them, too, to get them on board.

The cross-border bodies were not a dilution of the Anglo-Irish Agreement but essentially a sign of the unionist reconciliation with Dublin involvement. And that had been made possible by Thatcher bringing Dublin in without even consulting them.

The very model of a three-stranded process of negotiation was shored up in the Anglo-Irish Agreement by Thatcher guaranteeing that no deal excluding Dublin and cross-border arrangements would ever be possible.

In that sense she laid a cornerstone of the peace process.

But was she an angel or a devil?

She was in power through the hunger strikes and though she sounded off with a contempt for the prisoners and a determination to let them die, she secretly opened channels to try to avert that.

She was enraged by many incidents, the murder of her friend Ian Gow and the attempt to wipe out her whole cabinet with a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.

Thatcher had a sense that Northern Ireland was important in part because she had felt the heat of the blast, yet she was more tactically political than vengeful.

She was in office when the solicitor Pat Finucane was murdered by the now-acknowledged collusion of security forces and a question hangs in the air about how much she knew about that.

Could the woman who had ordered the sinking of the General Belgrano when it was steaming away from the Falklands have given the nod to the murder of a solicitor who had family links to the IRA?

Infuriated by the Ballygawley bus bomb which killed eight soldiers, she introduced a ban on members of paramilitary organisations and their political associates being heard in the media.

That is remembered as a folly, for the voices were overdubbed by lip-syncing actors; yet the removal of that ban became a useful hand to play in the exchange of concessions with the IRA later on.

Margaret Thatcher's career at the head of Government was long enough for her to annoy everyone she had previously endeared herself to, including most of her ministers.

It is little surprise then that her record in Northern Ireland is so ambiguous.

She was an annoyance and a facilitator.

Caustic in her manner, she was at least tactical in her politics, more interested in outcomes than in the gut satisfaction of having crushed those who offended her.

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