Alban Maginess: Mrs Thatcher's stubborn stance on Ireland only served to boost support for the 'armed struggle'
The opening of the Pandora's box of secret British and Irish government papers has taken place for the year 1988. These declassified state records provide intriguing material for journalists, commentators and historians alike, delving into the twists and turns of government policy 30 years ago.
However, what is most striking in reading the published extracts, is the appalling lack of empathy that Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister had with the situation in Ireland and her arrogant demands of the Irish government led by the Taoiseach Charles Haughey. He countered her demands by pointing out the sense of injustice that Irish people had in relation to the way in which the British government was managing their affairs.
He highlighted the huge sense of injustice felt by the Irish people regarding the unjust treatment of their fellow citizens in England. He raised the infamous case of the Birmingham Six, who had scandalously been jailed for life in 1974 for terrorist murders, that they had never committed.
Subsequent revelations would confirm the common opinion at that time, that these unfortunate Irish people were framed by the police and the establishment in Britain.
Thatcher responded, without compassion or sensitivity, simply saying that she had read the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the Birmingham case and was extremely impressed by it. She was horribly wrong.
Her lack of empathy for Irish affairs is most startling. Of course we should not be surprised, as only seven years earlier she had grossly mishandled the British response to the hunger strikes in the Maze Prison and contributed enormously to the massive escalation of that protest.
Her political hard line and intransigence fed into the Provo propaganda machine and allowed the IRA to ruthlessly exploit the hunger strikes to their advantage. The avoidable death of republican prisoner Bobby Sands (the elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone) was a catastrophic mistake. Her refusal to be flexible and reasonable with the prisoners and their not unreasonable five demands, provided a huge propaganda coup to the republican movement at a time when they were politically floundering in an unwinnable campaign against the British Army. Their support before the hunger strikes was minimal and their so-called armed struggle was very unpopular with the nationalist community.
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By allowing the republican prisoners to needlessly die, Thatcher inflamed nationalist opinion not just in the north, but throughout Ireland. Indeed internationally Britain took a lot of serious criticism for their insensitive handling of the situation. At the end of the hunger strikes, the republican movement, and in particular Sinn Fein, emerged politically strengthened and reinvigorated with a clear political trajectory in which to travel. All this was thanks to a politically insensitive and historically illiterate Margaret Thatcher, who should rightly be described as the midwife of Sinn Fein.
In particular Thatcher seemed oblivious of the continuous damage that she was doing to moderate political opinion with her tolerance of the 'shoot to kill' policy of the British Army and the RUC.
Little regard was given by Thatcher, whenever the Irish Minister of Justice, Gerry Collins, had at a special meeting of the Anglo-Irish Inter-governmental Conference in February 1988, bluntly stated: "It is impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of the shoot to kill policy."
Despite the alarming implications of the Stalker/Sampson inquiry set up by the British government itself, nothing was ever done to bring to justice those in the security forces, who were responsible for breaking the criminal law. Prosecutions were dropped for reasons of national security.
Through the unlawful actions of the security forces, the rule of law was undermined and the reputation of the RUC diminished in the eyes of the nationalist community. Yet Thatcher chose to turn a blind eye to all of this and preferred to scold the Irish government for the alleged lack of professionalism of the hard pressed Gardai.
For many Irish nationalists, Thatcher is a repulsive figure who, ironically, despite signing the ground breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, did much to thwart moderate political development in Ireland. In truth, the Anglo-Irish Agreement probably owes more to the forward thinking of Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and the Foreign Office than to Thatcher herself.
Her dismissive attitude to the Republic and its leaders, treating them as inconsequential, was a major misunderstanding of how much the world was changing in the late 1980s and the growing importance of Ireland within the European Union, which she loathed. Indeed today she would feel very much at home with the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg.
Sadly, for such a distinguished politician, with her formidable qualities and international reputation, when it came to Ireland she was disastrously pig-headed.