In addition to the death of Margaret Thatcher, last week marked the fifteenth 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 is appropriate. The conflict in Northern Ireland cast a long shadow over Thatcher’s premiership. Her time at Downing Street was effectively book-ended by the killing of two close colleagues – Airey Neave in 1979 and Ian Gow in 1990 – by Irish republican paramilitaries.
Thatcher’s career may have been closely linked to the Troubles, but she never really understood – or tried to understand – the complexities of Ulster politics. Certainly her rhetoric left little space for nuance. The IRA, she declared, 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 problem, 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 Tory Prime Minister hadn’t intended to concede so much to the nationalists 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 Thatcher as a “wicked, treacherous, lying woman,” while Enoch Powell, then the Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Down, warned that “the penalty for treachery is to fall into public contempt.”
But attitudes seem to have softened considerably since then. Shortly after the news of her death broke, I visited Sandy Row, a staunchly loyalist area of south Belfast, and spoke to one of its residents, a retired scaffolder named Robert McKie. “I was among the 200,000 people who protested outside Belfast City Hall against the [Anglo-Irish] Agreement,” Mckie told me. “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 on Monday afternoon, the former Northern Irish first minster described Thatcher as “great” on eight separate occasions. Of course, Paisley has good reason to feel grateful towards Thatcher. One consequence of the Agreement was to encourage a shift in the support of working-class loyalists away from the moderate UUP and towards the Paisley’s own, more radical, Democratic Unionist Party, now the largest single party at the Stormont Assembly.
But less than a mile west of Sandy Row, on the republican Falls Road, anti-Thatcher sentiment remains as widespread and intense as ever. Within 24 hours of her death, someone had daubed the words ‘Iron Lady? Rust in peace’ on the front wall of the Royal Victoria Hospital, a paediatric centre located a few hundred yards from Sinn Fein’s West Belfast constituency offices. “The appropriate word is ‘brutal’,” care-worker Gerry Hughton told me. “That would sum up her style and the style of her party. To us, she was simply brutal.”
The hatred was reciprocated. Although recent reports have suggested that Thatcher considered agreeing, in 1981, to some of the hunger strikers’ demands, her eventual refusal to grant political status to IRA prisoners ultimately sealed the fate of Sands and nine of his comrades. Matters were not helped by the insensitive pronouncements she then made on the controversy: “Mr Sands was a convicted criminal,” she told the Commons shortly after Sands’ death. “He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims.” Her contempt for nationalist opinion reached fever pitch when, echoing Oliver Cromwell, she suggested an exodus of northern Catholics to the Republic might 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 SDLP. In a recent interview, Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, acknowledged Thatcher’s role in facilitating the rise of Sinn Fein. “With hindsight, what she did led to the growth of the IRA,” Purvis said. “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 those of previous British governments: state expenditure was used to support a large public sector on the assumption that spending cuts would further undermine social cohesion.
Yet Northern Ireland was far from immune to her broader liberalising project 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 another feature of Thatcher’s Ulster legacy. Above all, the ‘Iron Lady’ will be remembered by nationalists and unionists alike for having managed to unite them – however temporarily – in shared enmity against her. That is a feat only a politician of Thatcher’s peculiar talents could achieve.