THERE ARE SO few politicians around that court controversy and adoration like Margaret Thatcher. In Ireland, we tend to think of her as either the prime minister who let the hunger strikers die or the pragmatist who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. These two opposing narratives have been on display since the announcement of her death, with Gerry Adams speaking about how her policies caused hurt to the people of Ireland throughout the 80s and Enda Kenny recognising her role in bringing about the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But is this not a narrow way to look at the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century?
Let’s take her approach towards dealing with the Troubles. We often view Thatcher as the ultimate enemy of Republicanism as she refused publicly to give political status to prisoners in the H-blocks. The failed attempt to assassinate her at the 1984 Conservative Party conference, leading to her defiant speech the following day, plays into this theme of the combative prime minister attempting to take on the IRA.
The consequences of Thatcher’s uncompromising attitude
Let me be clear from the outset; the British government woefully mishandled the Hunger Strikes. Thatcher’s uncompromising attitude ultimately ensured that any political solution to the violence would be harder to achieve – and actually had the effect of draining support away from moderate nationalists. Yet viewing the entirety of her Northern Ireland policy through this prism alone neglects any consideration of some major successes such as the signing (albeit reluctantly) of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Despite vociferous opposition from within Unionism and scepticism within her own party, she stuck with the agreement.
What this entire episode revealed was that Thatcher was not actually Ulster Unionist but really an English Nationalist. She strongly rejected Garrett Fitzgerald’s attempts to secure European Funds for Northern Ireland telling him ‘more money for these people? Why should they have more money? I need that money for my people in England.’ Gone out the window was her earlier statement that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”.
Britain: ‘the sick man of Europe’
Yet this over-riding belief in her country had its strengths when it came to dealing with Britain’s economic problems. It is hard to imagine now, but in the 70s Britain was described as ‘the sick man of Europe.’ The country suffered from high inflation, prolonged strikes and the humiliation of having to seek an IMF bailout in 1976. Things were so bad by the time Thatcher came to power that the motto in the Treasury was overseeing the ‘orderly decline of the British economy.’ Not only did she banish this statement from ever being uttered again in the corridors of Whitehall but removed the notion that Britain was a nation in decline. This message, along with a hapless Labour opposition and the Falkland’s war, helped her win successive election victories during the 80s.
But what made Thatcher remarkable in so many ways was not her uncompromising views as a politician but her contradictions. She wanted to be the prime minister who rolled back the frontiers of the state, yet public spending in all but two of her years in power actually rose. She came to be known as the most Euro-sceptic of all the British Prime Ministers, yet she was a key advocate of the Single European Act which represented one of the biggest transfers of sovereignty in the EEC’s history. She wanted to shrink the power of the unions, yet she was very cautious about the moment she attempted to do it. Then she preached democracy – and yet sided against Nelson Mandela.
The legacy of the Iron Lady
Thatcher was the epitome of a ‘destiny politician’. But the problem with this type of politician is that they end up producing black-and-white perspectives of their periods in power and – what this article has attempted to show – is that nothing is ever as simple as that.
There were people upon hearing the news of Thatcher’s passing who held a party. This is one party I will be giving a miss. Before people start popping the champagne corks, they should remember that the death of any person, no matter what their political creed, is a sad event. I will not be celebrating her death, nor will I be taking part in anything that seeks to make her anything bigger than she actually was in life. Rather I just want to simply pause for a moment to remember that a political era ended on Monday and that is how I feel we should all remember the legacy of the Iron Lady.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.