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. 

Getty
Show Hide image

This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496