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Thatcher at Her Most Divisive

Harri Holkeri remains something of hero in Northern Ireland. When he went there as a peace negotiator he knew that he would be firefighting. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher the anti-British flames reached an all time high and ”The Troubles” were at their bloodiest.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1980s I experienced Thatcher at her most divisive. When she was elected as the British Prime Minister in 1979 I was seven years old and dreaming with tears in my eyes.  Belfast was smouldering under a sectarian sky and religious tensions were high. In my naivety I thought that Thatcher would become the boon to humanity and peace which would have brought much needed stability to the political situation in Northern Ireland. I thought that “The Troubles” would be the event to reshape her no nonsense cast of mind. Instead, her tactics set in motion a series of events that almost wiped out her entire cabinet and left Northern Ireland a more divided statelet than it was before she came to power.

At the time I didn’t really know much about Thatcher except that she was a “conviction politician” and a sour faced “milk snatcher” – she removed free school milk for the over 7s when she was Education Secretary. Politicians in Northern Ireland were of a different breed: Snuggled up to Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries who weren’t much more than hit squads and protection rackets for their own communities. There were also characters like Roy Mason, the bullying dwarf who officially defended torture with creepy excuses like, “terrorism” must be stopped, lives are at stake, the “ticking bomb” must be intercepted. The problem was that Thatcher was not one for negotiating with terrorists.

By the early 1980s, I could see that people on both sides of the conflict were becoming weary of the cycle of blood, and the pointlessness of the violence was clear. Of all modern prime ministers, Thatcher was the most sympathetic to the Unionists, and it was therefore paradoxical that she should have been responsible for negotiations that led to Irish Republicans having more of a say in the affairs of North. Every time there was a new IRA atrocity she appeared less nervous about the whole enterprise of shared government. In public at least I saw that the escalation in violence only seemed to make her more determined not to alter her course of action. I watched her puff out on TV like the ruff of some great cat in her enthusiasm for a right and it wasn’t long before she got one.

After the deaths of Bobby Sands and the other nine Republican hunger strikers in 1981, some rights were restored to paramilitary prisoners, but not official recognition of their political status. It was obvious to me that there was going to be a reaction. After the Brighton bomb exploded on October 12th 1984 the IRA issued a chilling statement: “Mrs. Thatcher will now realize that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.” Such a near death experience would have perturbed many, but it didn’t even prickle the hairs on the back of Thatcher’s neck.

In 1985 I became wholly convinced that she would be never be suited to deal with Northern Ireland, as some had been warning for years. In an attempt to bring an end to “The Troubles” the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Thatcher and the Irish Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald. The idea was to give the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland’s government while confirming that there would be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people agreed to join the Republic. The Agreement failed to bring an immediate end to political violence in Northern Ireland; neither did it reconcile the Protestant and Catholic communities, who continued to see Thatcher as a divisive figure. Ian Paisley, the then leader of the hard line Democratic Unionist Party, didn’t mince his words: “Where do the terrorists operate from? From the Irish Republic! That’s where they come from! Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary? To the Irish Republic! And yet Mrs Thatcher tells us that that Republic must have some say in our Province. We say never, never, never, never!” Although years of political sterility followed, the Anglo-Irish Agreement did help to lay the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998. It continues to hold the power sharing government in place.

In 1988, as part of Operation Flavius, Thatcher sent the SAS to Gibraltar to arrest an IRA active service unit, who were there to kill members of a British military band with a car bomb outside the Governor of Gibraltar’s official residence. The operation ended with the SAS shooting and killing Danny McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell on sight. I remember watching the Death on the Rock, the controversial television documentary which accused the Thatcher Government of a cover-up and spreading disinformation. The British tabloid press told lies about a huge car bomb being defused and about the three suspects having died in a gunfight. This further infuriated Republicans.

It is a truism of politics that policies often have consequences different from those that are expected. In Thatcher’s case the discrepancy was exceptional. What really put my nerves on edge was the far reaching change in life in Northern Ireland that created a society different from any she envisioned or desired. During her 11 year rule, she never gave up on the aim that the British government should devolve power back to Northern Ireland politicians. Instead she brought the society to the brink of collapse. Her stature abroad was not matched by her success at home.

I have come to think of Thatcher as an ideology unto herself, someone who fits neatly into the category of dire politics, a realm of peril and woe where the “Iron Lady” was an arch-villain who plotted to make things worse. Years before D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” would enter the charts to give me a morsel of hope, I pictured another bomb going off every time Thatcher said something about her intentions for Northern Ireland. The price of her errors was always horrific.

Small faults are forgivable, but Thatcher’s reshaping of the British political landscape left huge rifts that still flow with a brand of politics and a set of convictions which resonate in Northern Ireland to this day. As I sit here years later and reflect on Thatcher’s legacy a rodent slowly stirs in my viscera: It’s the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on the issue of power sharing she may have been right. And despite her making peace all the more difficult to achieve, the efforts of Harri Holkeri and the other negotiators did ultimately lead to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Gareth Rice lives in Helsinki.

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