Is the proof of Margaret Thatcher’s Northern Ireland policy the prosperity of modern Sinn Fein?

So Gerry Adams is persisting with the idea that Margaret Thatcher’s policy failed in Northern Ireland in his piece for the Guardian yesterday (longer version here at Leargas).

In fact Thatcher’s policy was little different from her predecessors. It was Merlyn Rees who introduced the idea of criminalising political prisoners, not Thatcher. It was mostly dictated, as Gerry Collins noted on Prime Time by her military advisors, since the military threat posed particularly by Republicans at that stage was very real.

The primary aim of both governments was to contain political violence to acceptable levels.

In March 1979, Baroness Thatcher lost her NI spokesman Airey Neave to an INLA car bomb in the House of Commons, possibly because he favoured a harsher military line, or perhaps just to send a message. In late August the IRA scored two spectaculars on a single day with the assassination Louis Mountbatten and the evisceration of 18 soldiers in a transborder ambush at Warrenpoint.

If the IRA expected her to roll over they were badly miscalculating. When the second hunger strike came, despite engaging in protracted and detailed negotiations, she let them take their own lives until the surviving men’s families intervened to take them off.

It’s true that the immediate effect was to create a groundswell of opinion in favour of the strikers. Famously Bobby Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. But as Gerry Collins who worked at the Department of Foreign Affairs Haughey’s government noted on Monday night’s Prime Time:

When she came into office in the late 70s acts of terrorism were happening every our of every day and people were being murdered. And Mrs Thatcher believed then that the only answer to this mayhem was a military one, a security answer. And she went down that line, I presume her security forces were giving her that line, blindfolded if you like, hoping at the end of the day that this would ease away the problem.

But of course that was a big mistake from day one, and it took her some time to realise that this was a mistake. It took constant efforts on the part of the Government of Ireland on different occasions in the period leading up to the Anglo Irish Agreement to try to get her to understand that there also had to be a political answer that there also had to be an answer that would be acceptable to both sides.

And it’s worth adding this little addendum from Ronan Fanning:

One of the great Republican complaints against Margaret Thatcher was the hunger strikes. Now I am not saying that Margaret Thatcher planned this but it was because of Margaret Thatcher’s hardened line on the Hunger Strikes – and because of the way that polarised opinions – one of the ironies of history – that won support for Sinn Fein and that got Sinn Fein into the political process and they decided that perhaps they wouldn’t abstain from the legislative Assemblies.

This is the critical irony. Whatever the arguments about who let those ten men die, the hunger strike failed in its main objectives. After a couple of years of ramping up operations and kills in 1981 and 1982 and a short resurgence in 87/88 the IRA was never again able to achieve the intensity of their campaigns of the 1970s.

Margaret Thatcher did get political in the Anglo Irish Agreement. It played well for constitutional nationalist politicians and gave them a relevance they had been struggling to find as SF’s romancing of the ballot went from strength to strength. It was later to provide some of the key framework for Sinn Fein’s own enigmatically named TUAS strategy document of 1994.

Adams himself once said that “I like to judge it, because it’s convenient to do so, in a 40-year span. And 40 years in a lifetime is huge but in history it’s only a blink.”

Well, quite. Mr Adams, in the IRA or at the head of Sinn Fein, has been negotiation with the British on and off ever since that famous meeting back in 1972. He’s been in a leadership position since that stormy convention of 1986 when the transformation of the party to democracy began in earnest.

As Fanning’s historian colleague Diarmuid Ferriter notes in the Irish Times today:

The path towards power sharing was long and winding precisely because both sides needed to make it so; unionists because of divisions in their ranks, and republicans because, in the words of historian and Trimble adviser Paul Bew, “how could a revolutionary movement settle for such a prosaic, even dull outcome, which fell so drastically short of its stated objectives? Perhaps this helps to explain the IRA’s consistent compensating adventurism in this period” (including the spy ring at Stormont, and the Northern Bank robbery).

The hunger strikes launched Adams as a real player in the Republican movement, much to the irritation of Dublin headquarters. It is also clear that despite his protestations to the contrary, Mrs Thatcher lavished time on the issue of resolving the hunger strike issue, taking care to make her own amendments to a public text that was in end not agreed to.

And as Mitchell Reiss noted many years later, negotiation was something that Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness acquired a taste for…

These were highly intelligent, relentless men not above invoking the specter of IRA violence as a bargaining chip. Senator George Mitchell took their measure almost immediately: They were “natural-born chiselers”, he said, always demanding one more concession.

So what of the claim that Thatcher’s policy failed? Well, it seems clear that the British even before Thatcher had learned the lessons of the very first disastrous years of the Troubles, when the British Army at times ran amok.

From Thatcher on, kill rates of both state and anti state actors are taken right down. Operations are tight, highly focused and often, as in the case of Gibraltar and Loughall deadly and effective. And most of militarist rebels of the 1970s have taken to using peaceful means.

Clearly the events of that terrible summer thirty two years ago still rankle with Adams. But he might, perhaps, be careful not to be seen to protest quite so much.

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