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. 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser