The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Monday 15 April 2013 17.35
'The fact is, she saw this country as a stone in her shoe that she never fully managed to remove'
'The fact is, she saw this country as a stone in her shoe that she never fully managed to remove'

RTÉ's Political Correspondent David Davin-Power looks at the legacy of the late Margaret Thatcher.

The Irish focus on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher is a narrow one.

For many, she is seen through the prisms of the hunger strikes and the Brighton bomb, in their own way two ends of the same telescope.

Indeed looking at the many Fleet Street tributes, assessments, obituaries and denunciations of the former British prime minister it is striking how little mention there is of Northern Ireland.

That scale of priorities is reflected in her own memoirs.

The fact is, she saw this country as a stone in her shoe that she never fully managed to remove.

She was forced to come to terms with the Irish problem before assuming office by the murder of her friend and adviser Airey Neave in the Commons car park by the INLA.

Not surprisingly for her, that framed Ireland as a security issue fair and square.

As Gerry Collins has recalled, Irish ministers tried to make her see things differently.

They never succeeded, causing huge exasperation.

But of course they didn't have a price on their own heads.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of her precise mindset came in remarks from her driver of many years, Denis Oliver last Saturday.

He told The Times that he was one of the first into her suite after the Grand Hotel blast.

As she was being hustled to safety she said to him: "Denis, I can't believe this hasn't happened before."

Of course she faced threats from other quarters, but she knew that since the hunger strikes it was the IRA that posed the most immediate one, and she would have instinctively known them as the likely culprits that morning in 1984.

The remark speaks volumes about how she must have already internalised threats to her life, primarily from the Provisional IRA, and how security must have been at the centre of her thinking when considering policy here.

True she did not allow the blast to deflect the negotiations that led up to the Anglo Irish Agreement, just as she had been unmoved by pleas from the Irish government to relent on the hunger strikers three years earlier.

But she saw the Hillsborough deal primarily as a conduit for better cross-border cooperation, and was to be disappointed when the Irish government cleverly exploited the political benefits it conferred instead.

That it led to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is a credit to her, but largely due to the law of unintended consequences.

She never foresaw the depth and persistence of unionist outrage; ultimately that anger curdled into a bitter resentment.

Then a new and more pragmatic unionist leadership tapped that resentment 13 years later to sell the Good Friday deal as the only way of escaping the yoke of the hated Anglo Irish Agreement.

It is deeply ironic that the deal she made was so distasteful to the community with which she had most in common that in the end unionism was desperate for any alternative.

The law of unintended consequences governed the eventual outcome of her obduracy over the hunger strikes.

She faced down the IRA, and that strengthened the hands of those Republicans pushing for an electoral alternative to the armed struggle.

She would hate to think it, but the victory of Bobby Sands and Owen Carron in the North and Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew in the Republic led ultimately to Sinn Féin at the negotiating table, and ultimately Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Stormont.

Keywords: margaret thatcher