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The warrior who confounded friends, foes ... and feminists

I t was long held as an article of feminist faith that women in power would be the peaceable sex, reluctant to engage in violence, or go to war.

That dogma was shattered by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 when she emerged as the warrior queen who so resolutely led the country to war in the Falklands.

When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, the world community turned to the United Nations to arbitrate on the matter.

Mrs Thatcher's own Cabinet was rattled by the invasion and several of her senior ministers, including defence secretary John Nott and foreign secretary Lord Carrington, were against any direct action. Others counselled caution.

More significantly, as the 30-year archives have just disclosed, the French were wobbly - they were technical advisers to the Argentines - and the Americans were reluctant.

On economic matters, Ronnie Reagan might have been Thatcher's best friend, but when it came to South America, that was his own backyard. So long as Latin America didn't go communist, the Americans wouldn't favour an anti-Argentine policy.

Thatcher was initially taken by surprise by the Argentine action, but her instinct was to fight back. Force must be met with force. The vacillating males around her were countered by one strong supporter, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, the head of the Royal Navy.

Within 48 hours, a British taskforce was steaming towards the South Atlantic: Newsweek ran a memorable front cover echoing a popular movie of the time, The Empire Strikes Back.

I remember it all well. Feminists wrung their hands over this startling disproof that women were the unwarlike sex. Here was a female leader in full Boadicea mode.

Leftists also wrung their hands: on the one hand, the military excursion to the South Atlantic was being dubbed "imperialistic" by much of Latin America and some of North America. (India had seized Goa from the Portuguese in 1961, and this had been accepted as inevitable. Hong Kong was being returned to the Chinese and Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe: European imperialism was over.)

On the other hand, General Galtieri, the Argentine leader, was an odious dictator with a lamentable record on human rights. Thousands of citizens, including many women and children, had simply disappeared under his regime. In Ireland, ambivalence reigned. Some Catholics might have turned to Thomas Aquinas for guidance on the terms of the Just War, but the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, while initially backing Ireland's position of supporting the European Union in condemning the Argentine invasion, also indulged in the old reflex to disoblige the Brits.

As April wore on, Haughey's policy was to move away from the European call for sanctions and towards condemnation of British actions, particularly after the sinking of the General Belgrano, over which there was a question mark on its territorial position. Haughey was not alone: 'Malvinas Argentinas' parties were held in Dublin - one in my own home where, among some merriment, the Argentine cause was upheld and fiercely argued over.

Being Anglophobic just for the hell of it isn't a sensible foreign policy, but the context of the time is relevant: 1981 had been a terrible year for Anglo-Irish relations, with the death of Bobby Sands and the burning of the British embassy in Dublin.

Margaret Thatcher, for her part, had been insensitive and under-informed about Ireland.

During the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher invited me to parties at 10 Downing Street three times and, while she was always cordial in conversation, she absolutely refused to talk about Ireland.

She refused because she didn't have much of a grasp of the situation, as exemplified by her silly remark that "Ulster was ... as British as Finchley".

There will always be questions over the conduct of any war - and the sinking of the Belgrano is still an unresolved ethical issue.

Yet the Falklands War was won mostly by one woman's iron determination not to accept a situation passively, but rather to rally her troops and - like Joan of Arc - put mettle into the men around her. The Falklanders felt their democratic rights were upheld. And an undoubtedly positive outcome was that Galtieri fell and the dreadful injustices of his regime were brought to light.

Territorial disputes never really go away, and 'Malvinas Argentinas' is still a view widely held in Latin America.

But there won't be another war about the South Atlantic islands for a long time. And the feminist doctrine that women are always the pacifists and men always the warmongers can never again be advanced.