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. Her rhetoric certainly 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.