Fight or flight: a British soldier stands guard near a republican mural in Belfast, 1982. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)
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The lady was for turning: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA by Thomas Hennessy

The extraordinary sequence of events now seems too far-fetched even for a British version of Homeland.

Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA (1980-1981)
Thomas Hennessy
Irish Academic Press, 488pp, £19.99

 

A senior member of the royal family is blown up on his yacht together with his 14-year-old grandson, another teenager and an elderly lady. Hours later, 18 soldiers are killed by two roadside bombs in an ambush on British soil. The following year, prisoners belonging to the terrorist organisation responsible begin the first of two hunger strikes, in which ten of them will die.

Riding on a wave of religion-infused nationalism, one of the strikers is elected as an MP as he starves himself to death. When his organs finally fail, an estimated 100,000 people attend his funeral and he is portrayed as a Christlike martyr. Meanwhile, a rookie UK prime minister maintains a defiant public stance – not giving in to the hunger strikers’ demands – but, under growing pressure from the United States and the Vatican, authorises secret communications with the leadership of the group.

This extraordinary combination of events may seem too far-fetched, even for a British version of Homeland. Yet they occurred in only a small window in the Northern Ireland conflict – from the killing of Lord Mountbatten and ambush of the army at Warrenpoint on 27 August 1979 to the ending of the hunger strike on 3 October 1981. The IRA gave Margaret Thatcher her first serious test as prime minister, before the Falklands war and the miners’ strike. And she was not without admiration for the resolve of her opponents. “You have to hand it to some of these IRA boys . . . poor devils . . . What a terrible waste of human life!” she recorded in personal notes uncovered by Charles Moore while writing his recent Thatcher biography. She added (archly?): “I don’t even remember their names.”

In the middle of the dramatic confrontation between these long-haired, young, male Irish ideologues and England’s austere “Iron Lady” – a conflict depicted in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger – it is sometimes easy to forget just how squalid and unromantic “the Troubles” were. Thankfully, Thomas Hennessey’s richly researched book about Prime Minister Thatcher’s battle with the IRA goes light on maudlin sentimentality and heavy on the evidence. Forgotten victims of the story, such as the 21 staff working in Northern Ireland prisons who were killed between 1976 and 1980, also have their place here.

Thatcher conforms neither to the IRA stereotype of the wicked colonial tyrant nor, indeed, to her self-image as an unflinching opponent of negotiations with terrorists. In July 1981, after four of the ten hunger strikers had died, she authorised a communication with the IRA leadership through an intermediary, the businessman Brendan Duddy (known to intelligence officers as “Soon” or “the Mountain Climber”).

What happened next is still an issue of great sensitivity to the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA. The former public relations officer for the republican prisoners, Richard O’Rawe, has accused the leadership (specifically Gerry Adams) of prolonging the strike unnecessarily in order to extract maximum political benefit – in effect, of putting “the struggle” before the lives of comrades. His central claim has been that the IRA Army Council rejected a deal from the British government which was acceptable to those on hunger strike.

The documents prove that O’Rawe is at least half right, and do nothing to prove he is wrong. The British proposal was for a statement, in which the government would offer more flexibility on prison conditions (without directly giving in to specific demands). Thatcher’s own edits were all over the draft, which was to be shown to the IRA and released only if it agreed that the terms were sufficient to end the strike.

At this critical point, when a viable deal was on the table, the IRA leadership outside the prison rejected the offer, apparently because of its “tone” rather than its substance. Thatcher and her then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, regarded this as the end of the matter. Those negotiating on behalf of the prisoners had calculated that it might be the start of a dialogue in which they could gain more concessions. In other words, they tried to play a game of brinkmanship, only for their channel to the government to be shut down. Six more prisoners died.

The next explosive claim that Hennessey deals with is that members of the family of one of the hunger strikers, Raymond McCreesh, urged him to continue his fast when he was considering ending it. Although the McCreesh family has repeatedly denied this claim, Hennessey reproduces accounts of prison officials who claimed that they stood listening at the door as the prisoner’s relatives surrounded his bed. They claim to have overheard members of the family, including one of his brothers, a Catholic priest, telling him that he was in a “concentration camp” and reminding him that he had made a commitment and that his comrades were staying strong.

The claims and counterclaims made about this tragic episode will go on and there is not enough in the state archives alone to put them to bed. It must be said, however, that the self-righteousness and egotism of the IRA in this period really was something to behold – a group invoking the Christian spirit of non-violent resistance and at the same time doing the lion’s share of the killing in a sectarian blood war. Ian Paisley’s attention-grabbing bellowing from the sidelines throughout, and the continued activities of loyalist paramilitaries, provide further reminder that the British state (or Thatcher), though far from perfect, was not the problem in Northern Ireland.

Having examined the state papers for the preceding and subsequent years, I do not quite agree with Hennessey’s claim that the Mountbatten murder and the Warrenpoint incident led to a “revolution” in the security approach of the British government, as many of the changes were already in place. He also slightly overstates the importance of the “supreme spook”, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who was appointed as the overall security co-ordinator for Northern Ireland in 1979. Oldfield (reputedly the model for John le Carré’s character George Smiley) was at the end of his career and mainly rubber-stamped previous decisions to give the police primary responsibility for counterterrorism operations and reduce the role of the army. Indeed, the position of security co-ordinator was deemed surplus to requirements within a couple of years.

But Hennessey is right on the funda­mental point that intelligence was to be, as Oldfield predicted, the “ultimate match-winner” in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein used the hunger strike as the platform to establish itself as an electoral force. By that stage, however, the British intelligence services had their tentacles on, and in, the organisation. This meant Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics could be encouraged, but that the ideals the hunger strikers died for were never realised. It is this realisation that motivates the self-appointed inheritors of the hunger strikers’ cause, who, under the banner of the New IRA, sent seven parcel bombs to army recruitment offices across England last month.

John Bew is an award-winning historian and a contributing writer for the New Statesman

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.