Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher led the United Kingdom during turbulent times, typified best by the interaction between her government and the Irish republicans (supporters of a united Ireland) such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). While not having any real involvement in Northern Irish politics before she became Prime Minister, in the months before her election she very quickly adopted an antagonistic and resistant relationship with the Irish. It was an era of Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Thatcher herself saw the IRA as being the root cause of all problems there.
In the lead-up to the 1979 UK federal election, Thatcher’s mentor, ally and friend was assassinated. Airey Neave, who was poised to gain control over Northern Ireland upon a Conservative election victory, died in a car explosion as he left the parliamentary car park on March 30. The Irish National Liberation Army quickly claimed responsibility. The death of Neave marked the beginning of a truly hostile relationship leading to bombings, martyr-like deaths and assassinations over the course of Thatcher’s decade-long Prime Ministership.
On the Irish side, during a prison protest within Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, ten IRA-members died while undertaking a hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, who campaigned for greater rights for political prisoners. During the hunger strike, Sands had contested a local by-election for the newly-formed Anti H-Block Party. Nearly 90% of the region turned out to vote, and Sands was elected into British parliament with a very slim margin. Although he died a mere 26 days after his election victory, the IRA had a listed member, jailed by the British government of which he was a representative. His Belfast funeral was attended by over 100,000, and the international attention that he drew saw an increase in IRA membership over the next few years.
For the deaths of the hunger strikers, Irish republicans tended to blame the British government outright. With Thatcher as its figurehead, she soon came to realise that her actions of not granting the wishes of the ‘terrorists’ ensured that she had become the number one target of an IRA assassination attempt.
Sure enough, the assassination attempt eventually came. The night before a 1984 Party rally, the Grand Hotel in Brighton in which she and her Cabinet ministers were staying was bombed. After much deliberation, the event continued as planned for later that day, with Thatcher declaring that by showing up it would be “a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” (Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, 1993)
While Thatcher stood defiantly against what she saw as an international threat to democracy rather than a reaction to decades-old British policy, the IRA responded with stinging rhetoric. Peter Taylor’s 2001 book Brits: The War Against the IRA records the quote “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”
With such rhetoric, it quickly became clear just how much vicious anger there was between the IRA and the British government. After being directly blamed for the deaths of the hunger strikers in Maze Prison, together with the later assassination attempt, it seems that Margaret Thatcher found it very hard to disentangle herself from her experiences. Eventual attempts to reach peace agreements over Northern Ireland with Irish Taoiseach (leader) Garret FitzGerald fell through, partly due to her person hatred of Irish republicans.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 attempted to put an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The document attempted to ensure that the Irish government would be able to have greater input into politics within Northern Ireland, although no-large scale changes could occur unless a majority of citizens there agreed to it via referendum. This advisory role given to Ireland ended up having two opposite and incendiary outputs: the Irish republicans believed it was insufficient and that the British government was toying with them, while those in the north who were still loyal to Britain believed that any change was just a concession to the IRA’s reign of terror. What no one predicted was that this would lead to an increase in bombings by the IRA, and the militarisation of Northern Irish unionists.
By the time that Thatcher resigned in 1990, over a decade of sporadic and intense violence had occurred throughout the British Isles in the name of an ideally united Ireland. The IRA saw Thatcher as responsible for the deaths of their members, and she saw the IRA as a terrorist group that was one small battle in the war over democracy. Thatcher refused to concede any ground to them, and the Troubles lasted nearly another decade after her. The two existed in mutual hatred, with Thatcher herself recording that “the IRA are the core of the terrorist problem … [and] there is no excuse for the IRA’s reign of terror.” (Downing Street Years)
Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War Against the IRA. London: Bloomsbury Publishers, 2001.
Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Images retrieved from Wikimedia Commons:
Adams, Gerry. Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland. Dingle: Brandon, 2003.
Sands, Bobby. One Day in My Life. Cork: Mercier Press Limited, 1983.
Shanahan, Timothy. The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.