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.

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  • Paramo

    I see that the Richard O’Rawe claim is aired again here. It was unsurprisingly given a prominent role in Henry McDonald’s write up of Thatcher and northern Ireland.

    In December 2011 state papers relating to the Hunger Strikes were released. They indicated that intense negotiations that took place prior to the death of Joe McDonnell, something that had always been known. They also clearly indicated that no firm offer was ever made by the British Government. Commenting on this for the BBC, the historian Eamon Phoenix stated
    “This seems to contradict former H Block prisoner, Richard O’Rawe’s claims in his book of a clear British offer around 5 July.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16355142

    Despite this, however, O’Rawe’s claim is continually brought up, if not as the ‘truth’ then at least to create some form of ambiguity. The historical record, in the form of government documents, suggests that this ambiguity did not exist.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ambiguity IS the right word. The furtherest I ho is to say there is evidence Thatcher engaged heavily with more than one channel. Nothing more.

  • Dixie Elliott

    Paramo grasping at straws here, throwing up Eamon Phoenix as an expert on the 1981 Hunger Strikes when the likes of Brendan Duddy aka The Mountain Climber who was the conduit between the Foreign Office and Adams during the Hunger Strike stated that Richard O’Rawe told the truth.

    Blanket Men who were in cells next to Richard and Bik publicly stated they heard both men say there was enough in the British offer on July 5th to end it.

    After Duddy stated that Richard was telling the truth Bik changed his story from…”There was no offer whatsoever” on 28 February 2005 in a UTV interview with Fearghal McKinney:

    To…

    “Something was going down,” McFarlane said. “And I said to Richard (O’Rawe) this is amazing, this is a huge opportunity and I feel there’s a potential here (in the Mountain Climber process) to end this.” 4 June, 2009

    So we’ll begin here. Please explain how Phoenix is correct while people who were there were wrong when in fact by going public they forced Bik to change his story.

  • MF. As I write, the UTV doc ‘Thatcher’s Ireland’ is halfway through and Thatcher was on claiming that it was the hunger strikers and leadership, not her, who were being intransigent, and that they should take responsibility for their actions. But she herself in that rant herself, refused to take responibilty for her inaction, her decision to let them die which was a deliberately malicious act in itself so she forfeits the moral ground seen by history.

  • Reader

    danielsmoran: But she herself in that rant herself, refused to take responibilty for her inaction, her decision to let them die which was a deliberately malicious act in itself so she forfeits the moral ground seen by history.
    You said ‘malicious’ – are you suggesting that *you* would *always* give in to a hunger striker, whatever the cause?

  • MrPMartin

    If child murderers in England went on hunger strike and died would the people of England suddenly start to support parties that supported infanticide?

    I never bought this theory that Thatchers hard line fanned the flames of Sinn Feins support. The pathetic fact is that many nationalists were itching to vote SF and they jumped on the bandwagon

  • Reader That not a conclusion which could be read from that post. I would at least try to come to a reasonable compromise after assuriing the bona fides of who I was dealing with. Thatcher just couldn’t have cared less.

  • Dixie Elliott

    MrPMartin said…

    “If child murderers in England went on hunger strike and died would the people of England suddenly start to support parties that supported infanticide?”

    MrPMartin are there actually parties in England which support infanticide or is that, as I would believe likely, a figment of your own sick mind?

  • Mick Fealty

    Can we try to keep this civil, please?

    Daniel,

    It is worth going back to that exchange on Prime Time from Monday. Prof Fanning recalled giving a class a document relating to the hunger strike whilst it was in progress.

    The students railed for about an hour (or may be half an hour) until he informed them it was Dev talking about hunger strikes in the 40s. Neither hugely differed.

    I was not the greatest fan of the woman, but I think we ought not to fall for a sleight of hand just because we don’t like her.

    That strike was devastating in its effects partly because Sands organised it like that.

  • Reader

    danielsmoran: I would at least try to come to a reasonable compromise after assuriing the bona fides of who I was dealing with. Thatcher just couldn’t have cared less.
    But who would have decided what was a *reasonable* compromise – the strikers, the IRA leadership, or the Government?
    By the way, there’s a fairly fundamental disconnect here. I believe that the responsibility for the deaths of the hunger strikers lies with the strikers themselves, and anyone who encouraged them in their plan, or who deceived them into persisting. So far as I can see, the whole martyrdom thing just doesn’t work on unionists. Have you any idea why you would abandon your own beliefs just because someone else gives a convincing demonstration of the strength of their own? I don’t get it.

  • Zig70

    Reader, would you concede that Thatcher’s lack of political intelligence handed the hunger strikers a victory. You would abandon your own beliefs it you saw it do more harm to you achieving your goals, not to do so is stupidity.

  • BluesJazz

    Ian Brady also went on hunger strike. He was of the same mentality as Sands and co. No big deal if they commit suicide. Why didn’t all the criminals in the Maze follow the same route. Would have saved the taxpayers a lot of money. They hadn’t the balls to follow it through.

  • Dixie Elliott

    BluesJazz…

    http://www.britisharmykillings.org.uk/page/113/The-Issuess

    “Lawyers representing 192 Iraqis asking for a public inquiry into British detention practices in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 submitted an 82-age document detailing the numerous allegations of abuse, including extra-judicial killings and torture.

    “The court heard of an eight-year-old girl shot dead as she played in a street with her friends in daylight,” reports the London Evening Standard. “A man was also shot dead as he queued for petrol, a teacher was hooded and abused in front of his son and his subsequent death was officially described as “natural causes” and there were a number of drownings.”

    In a sense, it’s amazing it has taken this long for the crimes of British forces to be revealed and highlighted. US troops have their own wretched stories of murder and torture of innocents.”

    http://beforeitsnews.com/eu/2013/01/british-troops-habitually-torture-and-murder-innocent-civilians-2506134.html

  • Reader

    Zig70: Reader, would you concede that Thatcher’s lack of political intelligence handed the hunger strikers a victory. You would abandon your own beliefs it you saw it do more harm to you achieving your goals, not to do so is stupidity.
    She should have had a plan, and it should have been adaptable. But I was responding to danielsmoran who asserted that she was morally wrong. She wasn’t, of course. She initially chose principle over realpolitic and I can’t condemn her for that.

  • FDM

    Margaret Thatcher tried to WIN a war in Northern Ireland.

    This was against the military advice that was given to her.

    She employed every facet of the state to do so. Nothing was sacred. No act was too low for her.

    She removed freedom of speech.
    She removed the right to life.
    On her watch members of the legal profession who were thorns in the side of the state were murdered by her assets.
    She had no moral compass. Her will was her moral compass.

    Her military strategy failed. The army admitted that in their own review of the military operations here when they explained frankly that they failed to defeat the armed insurrection.

    She initiated the AIA mostly as a security measure and a means of stifling the political rise of Sinn Fein.

    The fact that we have relative peace is absolutely nothing to do with her time in power. Moreover I would say she extended the conflict by 15 years. Movement politically only happened when Thatcherism finally left office with Major losing power. She was arguably one of the biggest recruiters for armed republicanism.

    Sinn Fein, who politically she tried to down at birth with the AIA, are actually at the heart of government now in this region. With current trends they are likely soon to be the largest party in the region.

    If you look at her NI policies starkly, she tried to:
    1. Defeat the IRA. The army said they failed to do so.
    2. Kill Sinn Fein politically. Their electoral success and position of rising power underlines that this was a failure.
    3. Restore normalcy to a region under her control. Normalcy only started to arrive AFTER her departure.

    If positive moves politically happened after Thatcher, they were nothing to do with what she tried to achieve.

    She abjectly failed in Northern Ireland. To say that a war monger like her actually KNOWINGLY initiated [or assisted] the peace process here is laughable.

    All she brought was the sword, death and Englands name.

    Tragically repetitive.

  • Mick Fealty [10.38] ‘…..we ought not to fall for a sleight of hand just because we don’t like her’
    True, but by the same token she shouldn’t be given carte blanche with pardoning her for no matter what just because we do like her, and that’s revisionism that’s going on with unionist posters who are supporting her despite her open contempt for them, seen in her signing the AiA over their heads. She begrudged any funding for NI and complained bitterly to her SoS Atkins about funding for sport facilities.

  • @FDM,

    “She initiated the AIA mostly as a security measure and a means of stifling the political rise of Sinn Fein.”

    Actually, it was Garret FitzGerald, then taoiseach, who sold Thatcher on using the AIA as a means of stifling the political rise of Sinn Fein–and it worked for some time. See FitzGerald’s memoirs for the election result figures following the AIA. Sinn Fein’s numbers stopped rising after 1985 and leveled off at about a third of the nationalist electorate in the North, whereas before the AIA they had hit 40 percent. Thatcher did see the AIA mainly as a way of encouraging cooperation between the Garda and the RUC and British army, which was already pretty good. The problem with security cooperation was mainly in extradition of security suspects from the Republic to NI and that was an issue at the political level, mainly caused by Haughey when he was in power. Sinn Fein began to rise again politically after the conclusion of the GFA in the June 1998 election. But by then the war was over with.

  • OneNI

    FDM but the British did defeat the IRA. Their goals are unmet and they have disarmed and disbanded.
    The beginnings of their end came when Thatcher upped the British military effort so much in the 1980s and inflitrated the Republican movement so heavily that by the late 1980s leading members of SF/IRA were able to sell the idea that they could not win and must pursue other means.
    With agents such as Donald Donalson, Scap and Others they were able to isolate opposition and drag Republicanism into politics.
    Looks like defeat, sounds like defeat.
    Did you think the aim of Thatcher was Simply to have an Army only strategy? Of course they used their agents to achieve their goals – given the opportunity for SF to dress things up and save face was clever tactics and saved lives

  • OneNI

    ‘Sinn Fein, who politically she tried to down at birth with the AIA, are actually at the heart of government now in this region. With current trends they are likely soon to be the largest party in the region.’

    A toothless and incompetent Assembly that has less power, direction and influence than many a County council.

    SF have the trappings of power but have achieved nothing in policy terms. Partly because of the system but also partly because beyond a very smplisitic nationalism and a juvenile understading of economics they have no policies.

    SF are locked in to the status quo in the North and so are increasingly focused in the 26 counties