For Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland wasn’t just a political minefield but a personal tragedy. Just months before she took office in 1979, her close friend and ally, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave, who led her campaign for the Conservative Party Leadership, was killed when a bomb, planted by republican terrorists, went off from under his car as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster.
For Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland wasn’t just a political minefield but a personal tragedy.
Just months before she took office in 1979, her close friend and ally, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave, who led her campaign for the Conservative Party Leadership, was killed when a bomb, planted by republican terrorists, went off from under his car as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster.
And it was in 1984 that that the IRA so famously and tragically killed five and injured 34 as they bombed the Grand Hotel has Thatcher was preparing for her party conference speech. Arguing, however, that terrorism should not be allowed to succeed, Thatcher insisted in continuing with the conference, declaring in no uncertain terms the next day that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”.
Yet despite these event, together with the 1981 Maze Prison Hunger Strike and a number of other high profile murders at the hands of republicans, such as the killing of the Queen’s second cousin Lord Mountbatten, there was always a sense of Northern Ireland being one of those issues in the background and never quite at the top of Thatcher’s in tray.
Giving his assessment, Kevin Connolly, the BBC’s former Ireland Correspondent, observes:
“Margaret Thatcher…came to office as British prime minister with Ireland nowhere near the top of her list of priorities. But she found that somehow Irish affairs demanded her attention, helped to define the age she dominated and were to play a role in determining how history remembers her. Republicans saw her as an enemy from the very start.
“The great irony of her period in office is that she managed to alienate unionists too, even though she will probably turn out to be the last prime minister of the UK to have had old-fashioned unionist instincts. She was always ready to point out that the official title of the party she led was “Conservative and Unionist” – just as she was herself. This was a woman to whom Northern Ireland was every bit as British as her Finchley constituency.
“Whatever narrative thread you follow through her years in office – radical economic change, her struggle with trade unionism, or the battle for the Falklands and the fallout from that – events in Ireland are always there in the background.”
However, although reluctant to get too embroiled in the murky world of Northern Ireland politics, she did take one significant step on the road to peace, which for all intents and purposes sowed the seeds for the Good Friday Agreement.
Against all her instincts as a staunch unionist, in 1985 she signed the Anglo Irish Agreement, a significant agreement that gave the government of Ireland an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
It provided for regular meetings between ministers in the Irish and British governments on matters affecting Northern Ireland and outlined cooperation in four areas: political matters; security and related issues; legal matters, including the administration of justice; and the promotion of cross-border cooperation.
But ultimately, in death she continues to prove as divisive in Northern Ireland has she did in life. Declaring her to be a “transformative” prime minister, DUP Leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson has provided a fulsome tribute, responding:
“It is with great sadness that I have learned of the passing of Baroness Thatcher, our former prime minister. Margaret Thatcher was a transformative and powerful prime minister. She was undoubtedly one of the greatest political figures of post-war Britain and she changed the face of our United Kingdom forever.
“As our first female prime minister, she made history and as ‘The Iron Lady’ she was at the front-line of winning The Cold War as well as ensuring the freedom of the Falklands Islands. Whilst we disagreed over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mrs. Thatcher was committed to the Union and later described the Anglo-Irish Agreement as one of her greatest regrets. Although relations were frosty at that time, I had a private social lunch with her in more recent years in much more convivial and positive circumstances.
“The passing of Baroness Thatcher draws to an end a remarkable life devoted to the service of the United Kingdom. She was one of a kind: tough, possessed of a supreme intellect and driven by conviction. The entire country is indebted to her for all that she achieved. I know that her accomplishments will not soon be forgotten by a grateful nation.”
However, in what is tantamount to a bitter analysis of her impact on Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams accused the former PM of inflicting severe hurt on the nation. Commenting on her death he declared:
“Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister.
“Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.
“Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.
“Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.
“Her failed efforts to criminalise the republican struggle and the political prisoners is part of her legacy.”
“Her Irish policy failed miserably.”Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.