THE recent publication of British government papers from 1981 have reminded many people of the negative role played by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at that time.
The papers were published coincidentally at the same as a Hollywood movie about Thatcher. I haven’t seen the film but I do remember the Thatcher years and the great hurt she did to the British people, and also to the people of this island.
Thatcher’s right-wing conservative social and economic politics – often labeled Thatcherism – were a source of considerable division in Britain.
Along with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, she championed the deregulation of the financial institutions, cuts in public services and was vehemently anti-trade union.
The current crisis in the banking institutions and the economic recession owe much to these policies.
Thatcher also went to war in the Malvinas pursuing Britain’s age-old colonial interests, opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and supported the Khmer Rouge and the Chilean dictator Pinochet.
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Thatcher inherited a British counter-insurgency strategy in Ireland from the Labor government. Its goal was to politically defeat Irish republicanism.
The Thatcher government embraced this strategy. It believed that the criminalization of the republican prisoners would break the republican struggle. It was not interested in a resolution.
This much is evident in the government papers. For example, a report of a meeting at Chequers on May 27th, after the deaths of Bobby Sands, Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, describes Thatcher commenting that “the Government must be ‘rock solid’ against any concessions to the hunger strikers or PIRA.”
The following day, on a visit to Belfast, Thatcher declared that the hunger strike “may well be their [the IRA’s] last card.”
At a later meeting on July 3rd a paper notes that: “The PM said that she felt that no concession could be made to the hunger strikers in any way…The Government’s main aim should be to demonstrate that the blame for the hunger strike lay with the strikers themselves, rather than with the alleged inflexibility of the Government.”
At the same time, as she was publicly engaged in the trenchant rhetoric that characterized her term in office, the “iron lady” was also involved in secret discussions through a Derry based back-channel – code-named “Soon” – with the Sinn Féin leadership.
It was a cumbersome process of contact and one open to abuse. The British state papers raise serious questions about the motivation of the British and the relationship between London and “Soon.”
In a paper dated July 21st, the British state: “The use of the channel has ensured that the Provisionals have been left in no doubt that our public statements are our true position, and not a negotiating gambit . . . The channel has also been a source of additional intelligence about the Provisionals’ attitude which we could not get in any other way . . .”
Outside the H-Blocks, Thatcher’s intransigence saw an escalation in conflict in the summer of 1981 with almost 50 people killed on the streets.
The electoral intervention of H-Block prisoners in the June general election saw Paddy Agnew and hunger striker Kieran Doherty elected as TDs. Since that election, no single party has been able to form a government.
The events of that awful summer of ’81 polarized Irish society, north and south. The Thatcher government policy during the 1980s was little more than a war policy. All of the strategies issuing from that policy were aimed at defeating or isolating republicanism. This included the shallow and ineffectual 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was about creating a political alliance involving the Dublin establishment, the SDLP, and the British, to defeat Irish republicanism.
Margaret Thatcher was a prime mover in all of this.
Under her direction, collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads increased. In 1982 the Force Research Unit (FRU) was established. FRU ran British agents inside the various loyalist paramilitary groups and provided information on nationalists and republicans to be murdered.
FRU and British intelligence also facilitated the importation of weapons for the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance via the apartheid regime in South Africa in early 1988.
In the three years prior to receiving these weapons, loyalists killed 34 people; in the three years after the shipment, they killed 224.
Among those to die was human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. On January 17th 1989 one of Thatcher’s ministers, Douglas Hogg, told the British House of Commons that some solicitors in the North were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.” Three weeks later, Pat Finucane was shot dead by a UDA squad made up entirely of Special Branch and British agents.
Shoot-to-kill actions by British forces also significantly increased. This was most evident in the shooting dead of three unarmed IRA activists in Gibraltar in March 1988. It is my view that Thatcher authorized the killings at Gibraltar.
Later, when the BBC and the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) scheduled two programs about Gibraltar, Thatcher tried to stop them. She was “outraged” when the programs went ahead. Later that year she introduced the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin.
Three years later, Thatcher authorized the then British Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, to reopen the back-channel with republicans. We were wary of this. However, for almost a decade Sinn Féin had been patiently trying to build a peace process and unfolding events on the world stage – including the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the release of Nelson Mandela – were evidence that governments, and apparently intractable situations, could change. So we agreed to reactivate the back channel.
But for Thatcher it all ended several months later in November 1990 when she was forced to resign by her party who perceived her to be no longer an electoral asset. She was evicted from Downing Street with all the ruthlessness, treachery and warped humanity of what passes for high politics.
Thatcher’s 12 years of dictating British policy in Ireland was a legacy of bitterness and entrenched division.