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6 key moments that defined Margaret Thatcher's relationship with Ireland

Assassination attempts, the Hunger Strikes, and historic agreements were just some of the events involving Britain and Ireland that took place during the Iron Lady’s 11 years as Prime Minister.

MARGARET THATCHER’S RELATIONSHIP with Ireland was never easy during a time of great unrest in the North and considerable uncertainty about its future.

In her eleven years in 10 Downing Street she would deal with three Irish taoisigh – Jack Lynch (briefly), Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald.

With the latter she would sign the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement but it was with Haughey – who a British diplomat once described as ‘Ireland’s answer to JR‘ - that she would spend much of her time discussing and disagreeing over Anglo-Irish matters.

Here are six key moments that defined the Tory Prime Minister’s relationship with Ireland…

1. The assassination of Airey Neave

There can be no doubt that Thatcher’s position on Northern Ireland was greatly influenced by events in the weeks just before she arrived at Downing Street.

On the afternoon of 30 March, her spokesman on Northern Ireland, Airey Neave, was assassinated in a car bomb at Westminster, an attack which the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) later claimed responsibility for.

The mangled remains of the blue Vauxhall car in which Neave was travelling out of the underground car park in the House of Commons (PA Archive)

Just over a month later she swept to power in a general election and found herself having to address the issue of Northern Ireland in a way she perhaps did not anticipate prior to Neave’s death.

He had been widely expected to instigate a tough crack down on Republican paramilitaries, much more so than the previous Labour government had he become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Undeterred by his death, Thatcher was concerned more with ensuring security forces cracked down on dissent in the North rather than focus immediately on achieving a lasting peace.

2. The Hunger Strikes

Thatcher spent much of her first few months in office having to deal with the Northern Ireland issue with the IRA murdering Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, in Co Sligo. But her belief from the start was that any solution to the conflict would need to involve a victory for the security forces over the IRA.

Then came the Hunger Strikes in 1981 which would test the resolve of the Iron Lady. Bobby Sands and his fellow prisoners in the Maze argued that they should be given prisoner-of-war status. But Thatcher was in no doubt that they were not prisoners of war.

“Crime is crime is crime. It is not political, it is crime,” she said but her inflexibility and the deaths of 10 of the hunger strikers would strengthen the feeling of hatred towards her among republicans.

YouTube: irelandinschools

State Papers released under the 30-year rule have subsequently suggested that Sands had offered to end the strike just a week before he died but that Thatcher’s government rejected the offer. Republicans say they have never heard of such an offer being made.

3. The Falklands War

Anglo-Irish relations worsened and Thatcher-Haughey relations were damaged irreparably by the sinking of the Argentine ship the Belgrano during the Falklands War in the summer of 1982.

Initially Thatcher sought out the help and support of Ireland - which happened to be sitting on the UN Security Council that year – in isolating Argentina and its ruling military junta.

Haughey in London meeting Thatcher at 10 Downing Street for talks about Northern Ireland during the 80s

But days after the sinking of the Belgrano, in which 368 Argentines lost their lives, Ireland’s attempts to bring about an immediate meeting of the security council in order to secure an immediate ceasefire drew the ire of diplomats and the British public.

Thatcher’s government was incensed by this, seeing it as an attempt to keep the Falklands in Argentine control while a diplomatic solution was worked on. It was a state of affairs that was unacceptable to a Prime Minister whose eventual victory in the war would secure her a landslide general election win the following year.

Speaking last year, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Noel Dorr, described the 4 May 1982 statement, which had called for an immediate meeting of the security council, as the “greatest single controversy in Anglo-Irish relations for a decade”.

4. The Brighton Bombings

Having made her their number one target, the IRA attempted to assassinate Thatcher at the Conservative Party conference in the English seaside city of Brighton in 1984.

Debris in Thatcher’s Napoleon suite bathroom on the first floor of the Grand Hotel, Brighton.

A bomb detonated at The Grand Hotel in the early hours of 12 October killed five people including one Conservative MP and injured dozens including Trade Secretary Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret, who was permanently disabled as as result of her injuries.

The IRA claimed responsibility almost immediately for the attack but it did not deter Thatcher from pursing a policy of cracking down on the IRA and republican terrorism. The day after the bombing she was in typically robust form:

YouTube: MrToryEdward

5. The Anglo-Irish Agreement

If it was expected that Thatcher would adopt an even stronger stance against republicanism after the Brighton bombing it surprised many that she agreed to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 along with Ireland’s then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

The agreement broadly gave the Irish government an advisory role in the North’s government while at the same time confirming there would be no change in the constitutional position of the North until such time as there was a want for it amongst the majority of people there.

FitzGerald, left, and Thatcher sign the controversial Anglo-Irish agreement at Hillsborough House, near Belfast in November 1985 (AP Photo/Peter Kemp)

This led to considerable criticism of Thatcher from unionists who saw the signing as giving the Republic a role it had not previously had and which, in their eyes, would set the North on a path towards reunification with the Republic. Reverend Ian Paisley said that Thatcher had left unionists as “sacrificial lambs to appease the Dublin wolves”.

As a result, Thatcher stood as a figure of hatred among nationalists and unionists. Despite this the agreement is widely thought to have paved the way for the peace process and ultimately the current, relatively peaceful situation in Northern Ireland.

6. The broadcasting ban

Despite criticism from unionists, Thatcher’s belief in being tough on republicans and terrorism never wavered. Ministers talked her out of reintroducing internment of republicans but instead she introduced the broadcasting ban to, in her words, “deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity on which they thrive”.

The ban actually affected 11 loyalist and republican organisations but Sinn Féin was the main target with Gerry Adams replaced with an actor’s voice both in radio and TV broadcasts.

The ban lasted until the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and included this Adams interview – in which his voice is dubbed with that of an actor – with Jon Snow from Channel 4:

YouTube: Joseph Dwyer

Though Thatcher departed office without having resolved the Northern Ireland issue her actions would play a part in the eventual Good Friday Agreement.

But in equal measure her attitude towards the North, particularly during the Hunger Strikes, cemented her position as someone who was and always will be looked in an unfavourable way by republicans.

VIDEOS: 10 pivotal moments from Margaret Thatcher’s time in power

Read: Gerry Adams has harsh words for Margaret Thatcher

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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