Did Margaret Thatcher have a problem with the Irish? It seems a fair question after Peter Mandelson’s odd revelation the other day about meeting her after he had just been appointed Northern Ireland Secretary in 1999:
She came up to me and she said ‘I've got one thing to say to you, my boy’. She said, ‘you can't trust the Irish they're all liars’, she said, ‘liars, and that's what you have to remember so just don't forget it.’
With that she waltzed off and that was my only personal exposure to her he added.
This vignette is of a piece with what we know to be her attitude to Northern Ireland and Irish affairs more broadly; mistrustful, simplistic and, well, a wee bit bigoted.
In 2001 it came to light that Thatcher had suggested to a senior diplomat who was negotiating with the Irish government over the landmark Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 that Catholics living in Northern Ireland could be moved to live in southern Ireland instead. She made the suggestion to Sir David Goodall during a late night conversation at Chequers. He explained:
She said, if the northern [Catholic] population want to be in the south, well why don't they move over there? After all, there was a big movement of population in Ireland, wasn't there?
Nobody could think what it was. So finally I said, are you talking about Cromwell, prime minister? She said, that's right, Cromwell.
Cromwell’s policy of ‘To Hell or to Connaught’, forced Catholics to the less fertile lands on Ireland’s western-most province, forfeiting the land in the north and central parts of the country at the point of a sword in what we would now recognise as ethnic cleansing. Cromwell was also, in modern parlance, a war criminal too; butchering thousands of men, women and children as his forces cut a bloody swathe across the country.
To this quite glaring historical faux pas can be added the substance of what Thatcher did in office in relation to Northern Ireland. The "dirty war" which raged throughout the 1980s culminated in the notorious murder of solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989, killed by loyalists in his own home in front of his wife and children with the connivance of elements of the security services.
The Pat Finucane Centre for Human Rights and Social Change this week republished a handwritten note from Thatcher in 1979, found in the National Archive, which shows her mixing up the terrorist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) with the Ulster Defence Regiment (then the largest infantry regiment in the British Army) – inadvertently praising the former’s "valiant work."
Meanwhile, her intransigence during the 1981 hunger strikes, when ten republican prisoners starved to death in a dispute over their political status, may have shown what her admirers regard as her iron resolve in refusing to accede to their demands, but she effectively granted them all a short time afterwards.
In the current edition of Prospect magazine, the Independent’s esteemed Ireland correspondent David McKitterick offers a more generous assessment, arguing that Thatcher paved the way for the peace process by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the southern government a consultative role in the affairs of the north for the first time, to the chagrin of unionists. However, given Thatcher’s own strident unionism, this is something of a back-handed compliment, as she herself later regretted signing it.
So what shaped Thatcher’s jaundiced view of Irish affairs? Was it merely the loss of her close colleagues Airey Neave and Ian Gow in republican bombings and her own near miss at the hands of the IRA in Brighton in 1984? Or is it simply that a Grantham girl remembered Cromwell fondly, (perhaps because his first successful battle of the English Civil War was to capture the town from Crown forces?)
Or was she merely echoing Churchill’s equally exasperated view of the Irish: "They refuse to be English."