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. 

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.