Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Thatcher's warning rightly kept a secret

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

Editor's Viewpoint

the revelation that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned Sir John Hermon, the then Chief Constable, that she would no longer "send her boys over in waves to be killed" reminds us of the important truth about the release of State papers under the 30-year rule.

Sir John, not surprisingly, was said to be upset at the "neo-colonial connotations" and "World War overtones" of Mrs Thatcher's dressing-down.

This occurred after eight soldiers, aged between 18 and 21, were killed and a further 28 injured when a massive IRA roadside bomb was detonated as an unmarked vehicle carrying members of the Light Infantry passed by Ballygawley on August 20, 1988.

This case clearly illustrates the inherent tension between the demand for open government, and the need to govern effectively on a day-to-day basis.

Forget, for a moment, the obvious self-interest of the campaigners for "open government".

Can anyone not imagine the propaganda which the Provisional IRA would have made from such a basic split over security at the highest level?

Indeed, on what principle of utility could such a contemporaneous disclosure have been justified, given that it hinted at the Prime Minister's wish for a unilateral end to Operation Banner after 20 years? It was to last another 18.

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What greater recruiting sergeant could the Provisional IRA have had, than the knowledge that the then RUC would be expected to withstand its murderous onslaught without Army support?

Many historical revelations would have been simply embarrassing, or at worst scandalising, to the government of the day. This had the potential to give succour to the enemies of Northern Ireland and to the United Kingdom at large.

However, to state this is not to call for a blanket ban on all reference to the rancorous row between Margaret Thatcher and John Hermon. In fact, this is not what we have. On the contrary, we have the proper release of the relevant government documents, in large part unredacted, which allow historians and other interested parties to place the events of 30 years ago in their proper historical perspective.

We now have a generation, turning 26 this year, who have little or no experience of the Troubles. The problems we have experienced since then do not compare with the daily battle for survival of democracy between 1969 and 1994.

The only people who could have benefited from the premature disclosure of the Thatcher-Hermon split, and other significant developments, were the enemies of democracy.

It is right and proper that they were not given the opportunity to do so.

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