Brutalism of the Iron Lady
In addition to the death of Margaret Thatcher, last week marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and 32 years since the election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This confluence of dates seems appropriate: the conflict in Northern Ireland cast a long shadow over Thatcher’s premiership. Indeed, her time at Downing Street was effectively book-ended by the killing of two trusted colleagues – Airey Neave in 1979 and Ian Gow in 1990 – by Irish republican paramilitaries.
Thatcher’s career may have been intricately linked to the Troubles, but it’s doubtful she ever really understood – or tried to understand – the complexities of Ulster politics. Certainly her rhetoric left little space for nuance: the IRA was out to “destroy democracy”; republican violence was either “criminal” or “terrorist”; divisions in the region pitched “extremists” on one side against, simply, “the rest” on the other. Ultimately for Thatcher – whose instincts were those of a traditional law and order Tory – Northern Ireland represented a security challenge, not a political one, and required a security response.
In 1981, Thatcher provocatively declared Ulster “as British as Finchley”, her constituency in north London. Yet just four years later, in the face of intense unionist resistance, she put her signature to the Anglo-Irish Agreement granting, for the first time since the 1920s, formal British recognition of Dublin’s interest in the governance of the Six Counties. The Agreement – a crucial first step on the road to the Belfast peace deal of 1998 – is widely cited as Thatcher’s greatest Northern Irish achievement.
In reality, the intractable Conservative prime minister hadn’t intended to concede so much to the forces of Irish nationalism (constitutional or otherwise) and later admitted her regret at having done so. The Agreement was the result of an earlier tactical blunder. Thatcher’s belligerent dismissal of the three alternative proposals for a northern political settlement presented by the New Ireland Forum in July 1984 – unity with the Republic, a federal/con-federal state and joint British/Irish authority – handed the Irish government a moral advantage, which it used to full effect in subsequent negotiations.
Unionists were furious. Speaking in the House of Commons, Ian Paisley denounced the Tory leader as a “wicked, treacherous, lying woman”, while Enoch Powell, then an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP for South Down, warned that “the penalty for treachery is to fall into public contempt”. But attitudes seem to have softened considerably over the ensuing years. Shortly after the news of her death broke, I visited Sandy Row, a staunchly loyalist area of south Belfast, where one resident, a retired scaffolder named Robert McKie, told me, “I was among the 200,000 people who protested outside Belfast City Hall against the Agreement. I didn’t like it. But Mrs Thatcher stood up to the IRA, a terrorist organisation. On balance, her legacy is a very positive one for this community.”
Paisley himself appears to have reached a similar conclusion. In a statement issued last Monday afternoon, the former Northern Irish first minster described Thatcher as “great” on eight separate occasions. Of course, he has good reason to be thankful for the impact Thatcher had on Ulster. One consequence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to encourage a shift in the support of working-class loyalists away from the moderate UUP and towards the Reverend’s own, more radical, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now the largest single party at the devolved Stormont Assembly.
Less than mile west of Sandy Row, on the republican Falls Road, anti-Thatcher sentiment remains as widespread and as intense as ever. Within 24 hours of her death, someone had daubed the front wall of the Royal Victoria Hospital, a paediatric centre located just a few hundred yards away from Sinn Fein’s constituency offices, with the words ‘Iron Lady? Rust in peace’. Care-worker Gerry Hughton expressed a view typical of the people I spoke to there: “The appropriate word is ‘brutal’. That would sum up her style and the style of her party. To us, she was simply brutal.”
Often it seemed as though the hatred was reciprocated. Although recent reports have suggested Thatcher considered agreeing, in 1981, to some of the hunger strikers’ demands, her eventual refusal to grant political status to IRA prisoners appeared deeply callous and, ultimately, sealed the fate of Sands and nine other of his comrades. Matters were not helped by the insensitive pronouncements she made on the controversy: “Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims”, she told the Commons at one stage. Her disregard for nationalist opinion reached fever pitch when, echoing Cromwell, she suggested (albeit privately) that an exodus of northern Catholics to the Republic could provide a solution to the Troubles.
Thatcher’s conviction that the IRA should be defeated at any cost was consolidated when a bomb attack killed five and injured more than 30 at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party conference. But in the long-run her uncompromising approach only played into republican hands. Northern Irish politics became increasingly polarised from the 1980s onwards until, finally, the appeal of Sinn Fein to mainstream Catholic voters eclipsed that of the constitutional nationalists in John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In a recent interview even Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), acknowledged the role Thatcher had in facilitating the rise of Sinn Fein: “With hindsight, what she did led to the growth of the IRA. They say Ian Paisley was the best recruiting sergeant the IRA had. Margaret Thatcher could be thought along the same lines.”
Thatcher had a profound effect on the development of Northern Irish politics, but the influence of Thatcherism in Ulster is harder to measure. Her administration’s funding strategy for the region didn’t differ radically from that of previous British governments: state expenditure was used to support a large public sector on the assumption that spending cuts of the sort being implemented elsewhere in the UK would further undermine social cohesion. Yet Northern Ireland was far from immune to her broader project of de-industrialisation and, today, the consensus at Stormont – one which encompasses even nominally socialist Sinn Fein – draws heavily on the Thatcherite principles of low-tax and light-touch regulation.
The fact that large areas of urban Northern Ireland, notably west Belfast and Derry, rank among the most deprived in Britain, with chronically high levels of unemployment and child poverty, is perhaps another feature of Thatcher’s Ulster legacy. Above all, though, she will be remembered by nationalists and unionists alike for having, on more than one occasion, managed to unite them both in shared enmity against her. That is a feat only a politician of Thatcher’s formidable – not to say peculiar – talents could achieve.