RTE Television

Thatcher - Ireland And The Iron Lady

A new RTÉ documentary hears how a 1982 Downing Street conversation on Margaret Thatcher's Irish ancestry led to her making a commitment "to do something on Ireland".

The insight was made to a trusted colleague during a private dinner in Downing Street to celebrate the British victory in the Falklands War.

Thatcher: Ireland and the Iron Lady tells the story of Thatcher's relationship with Ireland. During her premiership, nowhere was Margaret Thatcher's influence on world affairs more complex, contentious and turbulent than on the island of Ireland. Thatcher's 12 years of dictating British policy produced a legacy of bitterness and entrenched division that continues to spark impassioned responses to this day.

The documentary examines her relationship with Taoisigh Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald and provides an insight behind the scenes to key events such as the IRA hunger strikes and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

During the 1980s David Goodall was one of the most senior British diplomats involved in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. After the British victory in the Falklands he spoke to the British Prime Minister at a private dinner.

In the documentary Sir David Goodall says: "I said in the course of this conversation: Relations between Ireland and Britain are complicated by the fact that so many of us are in this country are of Irish descent, and although they don't like to say so, so many people on the island of Ireland are actually of British descent."

"Mrs. Thatcher listened to that and then she said: I am completely English. So I said: Well, I'm not. I mean, one of my grandfathers was born in Ireland and there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country like me. And she said: H'mm, now you mention it my great, great grandmother was O'Sullivan, so perhaps I'm one 16th Irish"

"At the end of this conversation she said reflectively: H'mm, if we get back again I think I'd like to do something about Ireland."

Thatcher: Ireland and the Iron Lady features interviews with former Labour leader and Tánaiste Dick Spring, Michael Lillis, a senior Government's negotiator during the Anglo-Irish Agreement and Martin Mansergh, Charles Haughey's special advisor on Northern Ireland.

It also includes contributions form many of Thatcher's former British cabinet ministers and key advisers including Charles Powell, her former Private Secretary, Douglas Hurd, former British Foreign Secretary and her press officer and staunch ally, Sir Bernard Ingham.

The documentary also reveals how, despite efforts to improve co-operation between the two governments, the British continued to spy on their Irish counterparts.

Michael Lillis was one of the government's senior negotiators during the talks that led to the Anglo Irish Agreement. In the early stages of the Anglo-Irish discussions, he recalls his first encounters with his British equivalent.

In the documentary Michael Lillis says: "We were very conscious of the fact that they both were at the absolute heart of the whole British power system, including security and intelligence. And one of them at one stage told us, that the communications codes that we had at that time were, I think the phrase that was used, easy to penetrate, in other words they were able to read our messages."

Ireland & The Iron Lady also includes analysis of Thatcher's overall view of Ireland.

Charles Powell, her former Private Secretary says: "She saw the world in terms of conflict and this was a conflict more than a source of agreement. It was obviously conditioned her attitude to the IRA, but also to the Irish government as well, who in a sense were perceived as the enemy."

Former Tánaiste Dick Spring says: "I mean, a woman who says there is no such thing as community or society, I think that's the antithesis of what politics is about in the Republic of Ireland."

Thatcher: Ireland and The Iron Lady is directed by Trevor Birney and produced by Mary Curry. The documentary is Below The Radar TV production for RTE. It is a co-production with BBC Northern Ireland and is part financed by NI Screen.

Thatcher - Ireland And The Iron Lady
  • RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm