Thatcher was pivotal in helping pave way for Belfast Agreement

Paradox of how her inflexibility on hunger strikes served Sinn Fein's political ambitions

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 07:00

The Northern Assembly set aside 30 minutes to allow politicians pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher yesterday evening. It wasn’t all tributes, of course. The only Sinn Féin contribution was from Derry MLA Raymond McCartney who read out the statement Gerry Adams made earlier yesterday about the former British prime minister.

He read into the Hansard record of proceedings the Sinn Féin president’s summation that “her Irish policy failed miserably”.

But that isn’t accurate. Whether by accident or design Mrs Thatcher, the Tory leader who saw Northern Ireland as “British as Finchley” – also inaccurate – was a pivotal figure in creating the conditions for the Belfast Agreement which will be 15 years in existence tomorrow.

Naturally, unionist leaders such as Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt were quite effusive in praising Mrs Thatcher in the Assembly chamber.

Unionists haven’t quite forgiven her for the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement but they took solace that she later said she regretted signing that accord and recognising Dublin had a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The most dispassionate comments in the Assembly therefore came from the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. Curiously he also was reading a statement from former SDLP leader John Hume.

[CROSSHEAD]Few friends
[/CROSSHEAD]He spoke of how she was a controversial and “extremely divisive figure”, and how her “hardline, belligerent, uncompromising” approach to the 1981 hunger strikes “won her few friends among nationalists”.

“However, with the help of significant American influence she had the strength in the middle-80s to stand up to unionist intransigence and endorse the Anglo-Irish Agreement,” he added. “This was a very significant move and a key foundation stone in beginning the peace process which culminated with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.”

While the failed Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 should perhaps be described as the key foundation stone for the Belfast Agreement there is no doubt that the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was a key stepping stone towards Good Friday April 10th 1998.

Without it there could have been no Belfast Agreement 15 years ago.

And to cement that stepping stone a strong leader was required. Many Irish politicians and people of a certain vintage will recall how Harold Wilson, the British Labour prime minister in 1974, caved in to unionist and loyalist opposition to the Sunningdale power-sharing administration.

In 1986 some 200,000 unionists stood outside Belfast City Hall to demonstrate their hatred of that accord.

Peter Robinson in the Assembly yesterday adverted to that strength of opposition by recalling how he was twice “thrown out” of the House of Commons because of his “unparliamentary” expression of hostility to Mrs Thatcher’s policies.

It took some coaxing and political scheming to get Mrs Thatcher to agree to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. More than a year earlier she declared “Out, Out, Out” to the three proposals of the New Ireland Forum, a united Ireland, a federal Ireland or joint authority.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was wise enough at the time not to go into a huff. He and others such as John Hume and foreign affairs officials Seán Donlon and Michael Lillis prevailed on American leaders Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill to persuade her great friend president Ronald Reagan to get her reluctantly over the line on the agreement, as he did.

And while she may have expressed regret later about that crucial deal, as was the case so often with her, she wasn’t for turning regardless of how often and how loudly “Ulster says No”. Unlike Wilson she didn’t fold.

It must be remembered here that Mrs Thatcher, a committed unionist, was acknowledging Dublin must have influence in Northern Ireland matters, and this just a year after the IRA almost succeeded in killing her in the 1984 Brighton bombing and just six years after the INLA killed her great friend, the Conservative MP Airey Neave.

[CROSSHEAD]‘Shameful role’
[/CROSSHEAD]People were generally well-behaved in the Assembly yesterday apart from when Sinn Féin’s Mr McCartney was reading out his leader Mr Adams’s lines, the volume rising most noticeably when he referred to “her shameful role during the hunger strikes of 1980 and 81”.

The general nationalist and Irish government view is that it was her impolitic inflexibility that prolonged the hunger strikes and led to the deaths of ten republicans. But even here there is an historical paradox. Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to bend to pressure during that fast in a sense created the “foundation stone” for Sinn Féin’s political success in Northern Ireland.

It persuaded the subsequent Adams-McGuinness leadership that there could be a political alternative to the IRA campaign of violence. While it took too long for the republican movement to accept the logic of politics over paramilitarism there is no gainsaying that Mrs Thatcher’s obduracy over the hunger strikes – certainly by accident rather than design – provided them with that political opportunity which they grasped so well.

Mrs Thatcher left her mark on British and world affairs but there is no doubting she has an important place in modern Irish history too.