How Margaret Thatcher's 'Resolve' Failed Northern Ireland

Violence in Northern Ireland revealed how the character traits for which Margaret Thatcher is remembered had some very dark consequences. 

In Margaret Thatcher's long career, violence in Northern Ireland provided an unrelenting soundtrack. And the conflict did not bring out the best in her.

It showed how the character traits for which she is best remembered had some very dark consequences, and how her celebrated "resolve" often came at a brutally high human and moral cost. In Northern Ireland, in fact, that resolve directly obstructed the cause of peace.

The most illuminating example is the hunger strike in the Maze (or Long Kesh) prison from 1980-1981. In many obituaries published today, the story goes that Thatcher "faced down" Irish Republican Army hunger strikers, as the BBC put it. By "faced down" they mean "let them starve to death." This is often treated as a victory of democratic determination over terrorism.

But history shows quite the opposite: Thatcher's uncompromising treatment of the hunger strikers led only to an increase in terrorism and the ascension of the IRA as a potent political force.

The hunger strikers' main demand was that the British government restore their status as political prisoners. Ten men died as Thatcher publicly refused to yield. Finally, when it became clear that the families of the remaining strikers would intervene when they lost consciousness, the strike ended on Oct. 3, 1981. On Oct. 6, James Prior, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, conceded to almost all the prisoners' demands.

So what had Thatcher's steely resolve accomplished?

Most visibly, it boosted Republican terrorism. Violent deaths related to the conflict rose to 101 in 1981 from 76 the year before, including 44 members of the security forces. Injuries rose to 1,350 from 801. Shootings increased to 1,142 from 642, and bombings reached nearly 400 that year. Far from demonstrating that the IRA's struggle was a lost one, Thatcher only intensified its opposition to rule by what it considered an ever more brutal occupying force. The horrific campaign would culminate in the IRA's attempted assassination of Thatcher herself at the Conservative Party Conference in 1984. The prime minister narrowly escaped, but five others were killed.

The other significant consequence of Thatcher's unyielding position was that public sympathy for the hunger strikers quickly morphed into political support for Republicanism. Bobby Sands, one of the strikers, was elected to the British House of Commons for Fermanagh-South Tyrone while imprisoned. His victory "undermined the entire shaky edifice of British policy in Northern Ireland, which had been so painfully constructed on the hypothesis that blame for the 'Troubles' could be placed on a small gang of thugs and hoodlums who enjoyed no community support," wrote David Beresford in "Ten Men Dead."

In Long Kesh, on hearing the news, IRA prisoners chanted "Bhi An Bua Againn," or "Victory is Ours." It was only a mild exaggeration: Two other Long Kesh prisoners were elected to the parliament of the Irish Republic that year.

In 1983, Sinn Fein -- the IRA's political wing -- gathered 13.4 percent of the Westminster vote in Northern Ireland, compared with 17.9 percent for the moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Gerry Adams, then Sinn Fein's vice president, was elected in West Belfast over the moderate Gerry Fitt. For the British government, these were ominous omens. Today, Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist bloc in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the fourth-largest party in the parliament of the Irish Republic.

Still, "a crime is a crime is a crime," Thatcher insisted at the time. "It is not political, it is a crime."

This was to deny reality, especially as international sympathy for the strikers surged. But Thatcher never took a particularly realistic approach to the hunger strike, or to Northern Ireland generally. As the strikes dragged on, her advisers mulled a plan to "brain wash" a hunger striker to persuade him to give up the cause and upend Republican propaganda. To the larger question of spiraling violence in Northern Ireland, Thatcher proposed a "Cromwell Solution" to her advisers in 1985, in which Catholics in the North would apparently move en masse to the Irish Republic. She also mooted the possibility of redrawing the border separating Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic in a "straight line" to make it easier to defend. These are not the ideas of a realist. They're the ideas of someone who could occasionally show a staggering indifference to human suffering.

The policies her government actually did implement in Northern Ireland were little more coherent. Most obvious was a decree whereby members of Sinn Fein and several other organizations were banned from speaking about the conflict in media broadcasts. Thatcher claimed this would deny terrorists "the oxygen of publicity." In reality, it led to a ludicrous situation in which Sinn Fein members could be seen speaking on British television, but their voices were overdubbed by actors.

Thatcher's most lasting contribution to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland was one about which she remained at best ambivalent. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the government of the Irish Republic an advisory role in Northern Ireland for the first time. "It was not an achievement of which Margaret Thatcher was proud," the BBC wrote today, and it infuriated Northern Ireland's unionists, who felt abandoned by the British government. But it set peace negotiations on a trajectory for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

That accord was hammered out by politicians who were less averse to compromise than the Iron Lady was, and whose resolve was perhaps a touch less "steely." It also ended the Troubles.

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