Margaret Thatcher leaves mixed legacy in Ireland

The late British prime minister's blunt style and politics were not well received in either the Republic or Northern Ireland, which she once famously declared 'as British as Finchley.'

Rob Taggart/Reuters/File
Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher exchange documents after signing an Anglo-Irish agreement at Hillsborough Castle in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, in November 1985.

The legacy of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher isn't confined to the United Kingdom. Leader of the country from 1979 to 1990, she launched the Falklands war against Argentina to reclaim the south Atlantic islands, railed against the European Union, and, standing beside Ronald Reagan, sought to undermine the Soviet Union.

Nowhere was her international presence felt so strongly, for better or worse, as in Ireland.

A staunch advocate of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, she stated in 1981 that "Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley," referring to the district of London that she represented.

Others disagreed. It was under Mrs. Thatcher's reign that Irish republicans brought their war to Britain, moving their campaign from the streets of British-administered Northern Ireland to the towns and cities of England itself.

Ben Tonra, professor at the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin, says the negative Irish view of Thatcher was multifaceted: The Irish disliked both her style and her policies.

"She was straight, she didn't compromise. She didn't tack to the wind, she came at you teeth-bared, head first. That kind of Anglo-Saxon bluntness doesn't go down well in Ireland," he says.

But this style also expressed itself in the politics that Irish people found difficult to swallow.

"She saw the [Northern Ireland] policy in very straight terms. She didn't get the concept of identity politics as an organizing principle of politics, whether it was coming from [Irish] republicans or nice, moderate nationalists. The state for her came first, and she didn't see anything like former terrorists becoming prime ministers."

Her steely determination on Irish politics, which included tough policies of increased militarization, may have been informed by personal tragedy in her life: Shortly before becoming prime minister her close friend and adviser Airey Neave, a World War II hero who had escaped from the Colditz POW camp, was assassinated by a car bomb in the parking lot of the House of Commons.

The bomb, planted by the communist Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), was an act that not only horrified, but also terrified, the British establishment. The INLA disbanded in 2009, announcing it would pursue its politics via its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party.

Thatcher herself had a narrow escape from death at the hands of militant Irish republicanism when, in 1984, the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England.

The attempt on her life recently became an election issue for comic writer and Labor party by-election candidate John O'Farrell. Mr. O'Farrell was condemned in the press for writing "In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of excitement at the nearness of her demise and yet disappointment that such a chance had been missed" in his comic memoir "Things Can Only Get Better."

The assassination attempt, which resulted in five deaths and more than 30 injuries, occurred during the British miners' strike, a highly divisive time in British politics when Thatcher's government sought to directly take on the power of organized labor.

Irish republicans in particular blame her for the hunger strike deaths of 10 Irish republican prisoners, who were demanding to be recognized as political prisoners rather than criminals.

A hunger striker recalls

Former Irish Republican Army hunger striker Tommy McKearney, now a community worker, says Mrs. Thatcher's legacy, in Britain or Ireland, is not something to celebrate.

"I have mixed feelings," he says. "You always have to look beyond the individual, even though Margaret Thatcher personifies of much that I disagree with, not just in Ireland, but in her attacks on organized labor."

More mainstream figures in Irish politics also often took a dim view of the "Iron Lady's" dealings with Ireland, and it wasn't until she left the political stage, to be replaced by John Major and, in 1997, Tony Blair, that Anglo-Irish relations could be said to have fully defrosted.

But it wasn't just republicans seeking Irish reunification who came to take a dim view of the prime minister. Her natural allies, Northern Irish unionists, came to denounce Mrs. Thatcher as a virtual traitor when, in 1985, she and her Irish counterpart Garret Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement – which gives the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Irish government.

Unionist politicians and Protestant church leaders slammed the agreement, saying it was a first step in the abandonment of the British claim of sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Today, the agreement is seen as an early, faltering step toward the peace process that resulted in cease-fires, disarmament, demilitarization, and the Good Friday Accord of 1998.

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