Margaret Thatcher may have the distinction of being a ‘great’ leader in some parts of Britain. In Ireland she was less ‘well got’ as we say. And the Anglo Irish Agreement is the dividing line. Unionists hated her for it. ]
They even hated the RUC for protecting Irish diplomats based in their fortified headquarters at Maryfield, just outside Holywood.
It was a tense period the sordid details of which many professional politicians may prefer to forget today, with a number of policemen being forced from their homes by threats from Loyalists.
For most nationalists it represented something of a limited rapprochement.
Limited in the sense that she cut an unattractive Boudiccian figure who quickly almost mythic proportions. What she did at home was too close and too uncomfortable to redeem her earliest impersonation of the Iron Maiden when ten Hunger Strikers went to their deaths on her watch.
But there’s some sense in which most on the island of Ireland have made their peace with her legacy:
– Enda Kenny, Taoiseach is fulsome:
While her period of office came at a challenging time for British-Irish relations, when the violent conflict in Northern Ireland was at its peak, Mrs Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which laid the foundation for improved North-South cooperation and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.
– Peter Robinson, First Minister in Northern Ireland:
Whilst we disagreed over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mrs. Thatcher was committed to the Union and later described the Anglo-Irish Agreement as one of her greatest regrets. Although relations were frosty at that time, I had a private social lunch with her in more recent years in much more convivial and positive circumstances.
The passing of Baroness Thatcher draws to an end a remarkable life devoted to the service of the United Kingdom. She was one of a kind: tough, possessed of a supreme intellect and driven by conviction. The entire country is indebted to her for all that she achieved.
– Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail:
“In the coming days and weeks, there will inevitably be much discussion of Mrs Thatcher’s political legacy.
“It is important that such discussion take a balanced account of her approach to Irish affairs. While I or the Fianna Fáil party would have had little in common with the politics of Mrs Thatcher, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the long journey towards the peace and respect that we enjoy between Britain and Ireland today, took its first faltering steps in the bilateral discussions between Mrs Thatcher and former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
“However the British Prime Minister’s hard-line approach to an increasingly violent situation in the North was one of a number of factors which limited the potential of those early initiatives. Unfortunately her uncompromising approach to the escalating crisis in the early 1980s may actually have acted as a major boost for the recruitment efforts of the Provisional IRA at that time.
– Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP:
“Baroness Thatcher was a colossus of conviction politics. Whilst we in the Ulster Unionist Party would not have agreed with her on everything, particularly the Anglo Irish Agreement, Northern Ireland has reason to be eternally grateful for her stance against terrorism, not least during the hunger-strikes when Northern Ireland was on the edge of something catastrophic.
– Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader:
“Margaret Thatcher was a controversial and divisive figure in the political landscape on our shores. Her politics and approach left her a hostile figure within nationalism.
“The SDLP disagreed fundamentally with Baroness Thatcher’s politics and approach to the north and my colleagues clashed many times with her.
“However, with significant assistance from America, she helped deliver the Anglo Irish Agreement which set the scene for the Good Friday Agreement and the much improved circumstances we find ourselves in today.
“Baroness Thatcher made history. Opinion on that history will divide. Recognition however must be given to the fact that she was the first female British Prime Minister at a time when that was largely inconceivable.
– An uncommitted note from Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore of the Irish Labour Party currently in Turkey:
“Baroness Thatcher was a hugely influential figure in British and global politics. Always controversial, her legacy is now for the historians. Today, I wish to extend my sympathies to her family and friends.”
– And Jim Allister of the TUV:
While many will remember her shameful decision to support the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the extent to which she regretted this in later life was to be welcomed.
“It is without question that there has been no Prime Minister of her strength since she left office. Who else would have stood with such iron will in defence of the Falklands?
It’s noteable that SF’s statement was released under Gerry Adams’ byline as party leader rather than the deputy First Minister, but it is the only resort on the day to unreconstructed rhetoric of the pre GFA past:
“Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British Prime Minister.
“Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.
“Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.
“Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.
“Her failed efforts to criminalise the republican struggle and the political prisoners is part of her legacy.
“It should be noted that in complete contradiction of her public posturing, she authorised a back channel of communications with the Sinn Féin leadership but failed to act on the logic of this.
“Unfortunately she was faced with weak Irish governments who failed to oppose her securocrat agenda or to enlist international support in defence of citizens in the north.
“Margaret Thatcher will be especially remembered for her shameful role during the epic hunger strikes of 1980 and 81.
“Her Irish policy failed miserably.”
It’s also notable as the only senior party statement on the island that attempts to play politics on the former British premier’s demise.
Given the controversial (and still red raw) dealings of the winter and spring of 79/80 Sinn Fein, it would seem, is the last major party remaining to be reconciled to Thatcher’s tough Irish legacy.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty