Belfast Telegraph

Margaret Thatcher: Leader who united Catholics and Protestants... in enmity

By Ivan Little

It was undoubtedly one of the most poisonous ovations which Belfast's Grand Opera House had ever experienced as scores of people roared their approval for a song which celebrated Margaret Thatcher's death even though she was still very much alive.

Back then in May 1989, Elvis Costello, the English-born son of an Irish musician had just released Tramp The Dirt Down on a new album and few of us in the Opera House that night had heard it before he came on stage.

But if the singer had any reservations about performing it to a mixed audience of Protestants and Catholics, they were well and truly dispelled by the enthusiastic and collective response to the lyrics, the gist of which was that Costello hoped he would live long enough to stand on Thatcher's grave and tramp the dirt down.

Fourteen years later, I also remember from personal experience that Belfast audiences in the same theatre were applauding more anti-Thatcher lines, this time in a play.

I know because I said them in The History of the Troubles (Accordin' To My Da) and never once in the 11 years the play has been running has anyone from either side of the divide here complained about my character's rant, which was written by Martin Lynch, not me.

It's hardly a definitive survey of public opinion, of course, but it's an illustration that Thatcher managed to unite Protestants and Catholics here – in their enmity towards her.

In death, however, politicians here were divided about her. Unionists lauded her. Not so nationalists and republicans.

However, a quick trawl of social media here revealed that many non-aligned posters were quite happy in the hours after her passing was announced on Monday to ignore the social norms of not speaking ill of the dead.

And there were even calls for people here to party in the wake of the demise of the former Prime Minister, who when she was setting her sights on Downing Street in 1979 gave few indications that Northern Ireland was one of her major political interests.

One politician who knew her at the time said: "I think her aim was to carve out a niche for herself on the world stage as a world leader. She thought she had bigger political fish to fry than Northern Ireland."

However, an INLA bomb shattered any hopes Thatcher might have had that Ireland would take a back seat during her premiership. Her Tory friend Airey Neave was killed by the booby-trap device under his car at the House of Commons in March 1979 just two months before Thatcher became Britain's first woman Prime Minister.

The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed by the Kremlin, soon realised that Northern Ireland, and particularly the IRA, couldn't be ignored.

But echoing Neave's philosophies, she made up her mind to take a tough stand on security and there's long been talk of how, in pursuit of revenge, she ordered the SAS to strike back ruthlessly after IRA spectaculars like the killings on the same day in August 1979 of Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint.

The Provos' onslaught also shaped her implacable opposition to granting political status to republican prisoners and her decision to let 10 hunger strikers die in the Maze in 1981, though there have been subsequent claims she had been prepared to do a deal, which was rejected by republicans on the outside.

But after the deaths of the hunger strikers, the IRA resolved that Thatcher should die. And they came within a hair's breadth of murdering her with a bomb that exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the time of the Tory conference in 1984.

Unionists who had praised Thatcher for standing up to the IRA even after coming so close to losing her own life were stunned the following year when she and Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Dublin government more of a say than ever before in the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland.

"We had seen her as something of a hero, even though Ian Paisley once accused her of selling out for a silver teapot which she was given by Charles Haughey in 1981," said one former unionist politician. "We preferred to remember her comment that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley And in 1984 she reassured us even more with her 'Out, Out, Out' Press conference in Downing Street after a British-Irish summit when she said no to unification, a confederation and to joint authority.

"So it was a massive shock to find out that despite all the denials in the run-up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement that she had done a deal." Thousands of unionists took to the streets to protest and Ian Paisley made his famous 'Never, Never, Never' speech at Belfast City Hall, where he shared the platform with Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux.

While they lambasted Thatcher in public, some prominent unionists privately believed that Thatcher wasn't a willing architect of the Agreement and insisted that she had been badly advised. She later admitted that she hadn't been told the full strength of unionist opposition to the Agreement and ignored warnings from some of her closest allies that she was making a mistake.

She also admitted that she regretted going ahead with the Agreement. She never spoke of any similar misgivings about the way she dealt with republicans, who still see her as one of the most divisive individuals ever to grace British and Irish politics.

One former republican said: "It's hard to find anything particularly positive to say about Thatcher and the way she handled things here. She was guilty of stalling progress towards peace rather than accelerating it. There's no doubt she gave the word for the police and the Army to take punitive action against the IRA after a number of incidents."

Few Tories were as trusted by Thatcher as Ian Gow, whom she appointed as her first Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1979, but he was vehemently opposed to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and told the Prime Minister so in no uncertain terms before he resigned from the Government. Five years later the IRA killed him with a bomb, citing his political relationship with Thatcher as the main reason for his murder.

Some observers say Thatcher's lasting legacy in Northern Ireland will be her 1985 Agreement with Dublin which paved the way for the Good Friday accord, which ironically came about 15 years ago this week. But one analyst said that republicans believed her legacy was death.

"Republicans are convinced that her stubbornness and vengefulness encouraged collusion and a series of State-approved killings which should never have had any role in a supposedly civilised society."

Thatcher was also responsible for the broadcasting ban, a ham-fisted attempt to keep politicians linked to the likes of the IRA and UDA off the airwaves, but was sidestepped by media organisations who paid actors to say the words instead.

Belfast Telegraph


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