‘She did not hate the Irish, she hated the terrorists,’ says Thatcher’s official biographer

Charles Moore claims dementia to blame for comments to Mandelson


In the days after her death, Labour’s Peter Mandelson recounted how Margaret Thatcher had cornered him one night after he had become Northern Ireland Secretary to warn him “never to trust the Irish”.

The exchange confirms the picture held by many of Thatcher. However, it is not accurate, argues her official biographer, Charles Moore, who has published the first of two volumes on the life of the former British prime minister.

“In one sense, I wouldn’t take the story very seriously. I don’t mean it is not true, but what I mean is that you have to distinguish very strongly between the Margaret Thatcher in retirement and the Margaret Thatcher in office,” Moore said.

“The one in office was the more genuine because in old age she was more disinhibited and just tending to fire off things,” he said. He said Thatcher, like many of her generation, was inclined to utter mildly anti-Irish comments in private: “‘Typical Irish’, that sort of thing.

“It means something but it isn’t profoundly hostile,” said the former Daily Telegraph editor, whose book published this week covers Thatcher’s time in office up to the Falklands War. It was agreed it would not be published until after her death.

The deterioration in her mental state, which ended in dementia, had begun by the time of the 1999 encounter with Mandelson: “Her dip was already beginning then. Because she had run things for so long she was still firing on all cylinders.

“She was a bit like a car that is not in gear. You press the accelerator, it makes a great noise but it doesn’t go anywhere. She was slightly playing to the gallery: there was an element of humour in all this,” he said.

Private comments
“Masses of political leaders do this sort of thing in private, ‘Oh, the bloody French, they are a nightmare.’ I am sure people say that all over the world about the British. It means something, but I don’t think it should be over-interpreted.

“She did not hate the Irish, she hated the terrorists.”

Thatcher’s relationship with Charles Haughey was damaged after she believed that he had overblown the significance of the famous “tea-pot” summit in Dublin in 1980, leading her to agree that a note-taker should be present at future meetings with him.

“She didn’t trust Haughey, in which I think she was not alone. She did basically trust FitzGerald. She is not very nice about [Garret] FitzGerald in her memoirs, but she did essentially respect him and even like him,” said Moore.“She didn’t feel that these were a whole load of lying, thieving Paddies. [Her husband] Denis was rather more of that attitude. She thought that there was something to be done, and she liked some of the people,” he went on.

For many in Ireland Thatcher’s handling of the IRA hunger strike will forever define her. She is blamed for both accepting the deaths in the Maze and marginalising moderate nationalism, even if the latter was an unintended outcome.

“I think she was in many ways an imperialist, but not about Ireland.

“She basically thought at some profound level that we should never have given up India, that’s in a romantic sense,” said Moore, who has worked on the project for nearly 15 years.

Republic ‘entirely sensible’
“But she didn’t think that about Ireland. She thought it was entirely sensible that the Republic existed, but she did feel very strongly that NI was British because its people wanted it to be, rather like the Falklands.”