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Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Charles Haughey at 10 Downing Street. Photo by: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The Irish have mixed memories of “The Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Charles Haughey at 10 Downing Street. Photo by: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ reaction to the death at the age of 87 of Baroness Margaret Thatcher was hardly surprising. He delivered a scathing assessment of her political legacy in Ireland.

He said Britain’s first woman prime minister, who died on Monday following a stroke, did great hurt to the Irish and British people.

“Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering,” Adams said in a statement.

He accused her of embracing censorship, collusion and the use of lethal force in covert operations. 

“Her failed efforts to criminalize the Republican struggle and the political prisoners, is part of her legacy,” he added.  “It should be noted that in complete contradiction of her public posturing, she authorized a back channel of communications with the Sinn Fein leadership but failed to act on the logic of this.”

Adams insisted, “Margaret Thatcher will be especially remembered for her shameful role during the epic hunger strikes of 1980 and ‘81.  Her Irish policy failed miserably.”

There were street parties in parts of Derry and Belfast on Monday celebrating Thatcher’s passing, but Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of the North, called for the celebrations to end.

McGuinness tweeted, “Resist celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher. She was not a peacemaker but it is a mistake to allow her death to poison our minds.”

The Democratic Unionist Party strongly opposed Thatcher’s decision to give the Republic of Ireland a greater role in Northern Ireland affairs with the signing of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, but its current leader Peter Robinson still hailed her as a defender of the Union.

Robinson said, “Whilst we disagreed over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mrs. Thatcher was committed to the Union and later described the Anglo-Irish Agreement as one of her greatest regrets. Although relations were frosty at that time, I had a private social lunch with her in more recent years in much more convivial and positive circumstances.”

Thatcher has long been vilified by Republicans and Nationalists over her involvement in Northern Ireland, in particular her handling of the IRA hunger strikes inside the Maze prison. She was a top target of the IRA, which nearly succeeded in killing her in the deadly Brighton bomb blast of 1984.

In the months before Thatcher took office in 1979, an INLA car bomb killed her close political ally Airey Neave, a Conservative Party spokesman on Northern Ireland, as he drove out of the underground car park at the Palace of Westminster.

Neave, a former intelligence officer who once escaped from the Nazi prison camp at Colditz, believed in taking much tougher security measures against Republican paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It was a view that fitted in with Thatcher’s own and may well have helped to shape it.

As she was settling into office, a series of IRA murders claimed the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, in 1979, and the same day killed 18 British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

As Republican prisoners starved themselves to death in prison in the early ‘80s in search of political status Thatcher was uncompromising.  “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political,” she said.

Following the Brighton bomb, which killed four Conservative Party delegates and injured many others, Thatcher moved to persuade the government in Dublin to improve security cooperation and extradition arrangements. That led to her signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

It was against her political instincts, and alienated Unionists, but it led to improved relationships that eventually gave birth to the peace process.

This was despite her infamous “out, out, out” public response to three main findings of the New Ireland Forum report.  The then Taoiseach (prime minister) Garret FitzGerald considered Thatcher’s outburst gratuitously insulting but he eventually persuaded her to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement, despite also having to repel many of her security recommendations like “look out towers” on the southern side of the border, and talk of “hot pursuit” for the security services in each direction across the border.

FitzGerald and others such as SDLP leader John Hume and foreign affairs officials Seán Donlon and Michael Lillis prevailed on American politicians Senator Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O’Neill to persuade Thatcher’s great friend President Ronald Reagan to get her reluctantly over the line on the agreement, as he did.

The agreement was easily the most significant development in Anglo-Irish relations since the Treaty of 1922 and many observers believe that Thatcher deserves a great deal of credit for that, despite her reluctant involvement. Her commitment to the deal was a diplomatic triumph for FitzGerald and the high point of his period as taoiseach.

Relations between Thatcher and another taoiseach, Charles Haughey, developed surprisingly well after he presented her with a silver Georgian teapot at their first meeting in 1980 in Downing Street.

But they soured considerably over the next 18 months when Haughey was deeply angered by what he saw as Thatcher’s complete intransigence in dealing with the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland.

Haughey’s anti-British stance during the Falklands War, when Ireland supported moves at the UN to end sanctions against Argentina, provoked fury on Thatcher’s part, and any chance of a deal on the North while Haughey remained in office was lost.

Some commentators have observed that Thatcher’s intransigence on the hunger strikes, and a series of subsequent political twists and turns, placed Gerry Adams in Leinster House in Dublin and Martin McGuinness in Stormont in Belfast as a result of growing Sinn Fein popularity and a deterioration of SDLP strength.

This week, Irish politicians paid tribute to Thatcher for her contributions to politics on the global stage but, apart from Adams, chose their words carefully when talking about her and Ireland.

President Michael D. Higgins said that as Britain’s first female prime minister, Thatcher’s place in history was secure.  He said the policies of her government in regard to Northern Ireland gave rise to considerable debate. 

However, her key role in signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be recalled as a valuable early contribution to the search for peace and political stability.  

Taoiseach Enda Kenny described Thatcher as a “formidable political leader who had a significant impact on British, European and world politics.”

He added, “While her period of office came at a challenging time for British-Irish relations, when the violent conflict in Northern Ireland was at its peak, Mrs. Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which laid the foundation for improved north-south cooperation and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.”

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