Why did Margaret Thatcher have a jaundiced view of the Irish?

The revelation from Peter Mandelson that Thatcher told him the Irish are "all liars" is of a piece with her attitude to Northern Ireland and Irish affairs.

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."

A protester wearing a witch's hat holds republican and Irish flags during a demonstration against Margaret Thatcher in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Show Hide image

The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

0800 7318496