Giant but divisive figure left her mark
Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday, will be remembered as one of the great figures of British politics, capable of being spoken of in the same breath as Gladstone, Disraeli or Churchill. But more than any of them she will be remembered as a figure who stirred emotions more than any other prime minister. She was adored by many and reviled by equal numbers. For she was above all a conviction politician, a woman who was prepared to stick by her principles.
She certainly had a profound impact on politics on this side of the Irish Sea. She was an implacable enemy of republicans and her refusal to intervene to end the 1981 hunger strike at the Maze won her few friends, even among moderate nationalists. But she had good reason for her antipathy towards republicans. They killed her good friend Airey Neave and almost killed her and many of her Cabinet at Brighton.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says her Irish policies were disastrous, but that is an opinion viewed through a very narrow prism. While the hunger strikes may have been a great recruiting sergeant for the IRA and helped prolong the Troubles, Mrs Thatcher arguably can be hailed as an architect of the peace process which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement 15 years ago and today's power-sharing Executive.
She recognised that the conflict in Northern Ireland was not simply about two warring tribes. Its roots, and therefore its solution, lay in relationships between the UK and the Republic. By signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement – which meant she was hated as much by unionists as republicans – she transformed the political dynamic and started the almost inevitable drive towards a solution. But if persuasion failed to get any of her policies implemented, Mrs Thatcher was not afraid to physically face down her opponents. The police were deployed in huge numbers to confront and beat the miners and when Argentina invaded the Falklands she immediately deployed a massive seaborne task force to retake the islands.
Yet she could also be charming. US President Ronald Reagan fell under her spell and even the Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev was able to do business with her. And while she is often recalled for her confrontational policies, she was also the prime minister who gave ordinary people a greater stake in society by allowing them to buy their own council homes and to buy shares in privatised utilities. And her monetary policies made the City of London a vibrant financial hub.
Enoch Powell once famously said that all political careers end in failure, but Mrs Thatcher won three terms as prime minister and only left Downing Street when forced to go by what she termed the treachery of the men in grey suits.
She did things her way, seldom compromised and wrote herself indelibly into the pages of history. Hardly a failure.