How Thatcher Repeatedly Rewarded IRA Violence

The Thatcher legacy in Northern Ireland

George Kemp describes how Thatcher, despite her bold words repeatedly allowed acts of violence to change her policies. This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in the Belfast magazine Northern Star on November 24th.

In all the political obituaries that have been written about Margaret Thatcher since her resignation, there has been virtually no reference to Northern Ireland.

Masses of material have been produced about her premiership, but no one seems interested in assessing her Government’s handling of Northern Ireland.

Yet the ongoing war in the province has been getting people killed on an almost weekly basis over the past eleven years. Moreover, it has claimed the lives of two of Margaret Thatcher’s closest political associates, Airey Neave and Ian Gow. And it very nearly killed her and the rest of the Cabinet in October 1984.

So a few words about the impact of the Thatcher years on Northern Ireland might have been expected. Why were they not forthcoming?

The blunt answer is that Northern Ireland is a non-issue for the British Establishment. The war is something that is kept out of sight and out of mind as much as possible. Ever since Northern Ireland came into being as a result of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, successive British Governments have sought to keep the place and its little local difficulties ‘at arm’s length’. The Thatcher Government was no different in this respect.

But it would be inaccurate to say that Margaret Thatcher had a Northern Ireland policy. She did not. All she had was a series of instinct, prejudices and whims and phony rhetoric. Over the past eleven years, her Government has not pursued a coherent political strategy with regard to the province. Instead, it has dabbled with various so-called ‘solutions’. These included:

Unionist integrationism.

The Tory Party’s 1979 manifesto contained a commitment to ‘integrate’ Northern Ireland into the rest of the UK by restoring local government powers. This marked a radical shift from the normal British Government goal of restoring devolved government to the province. But the shift was short-lived, for reasons that are outlined below.


Successive Ulster Secretaries of State since 1979 have all tried to reintroduce devolution in the province. Previous Labour and Tory Governments have shared the same aim. It is the favoured option of the British Establishment; the easiest way to keep the place ‘at arm’s length’.

Thatcher’s men in Ulster have had little success on this front. It has proved impossible to set up a coalition incorporating local unionists and nationalist parties. Thatcher’s first Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, got talks off the ground. But they were boycotted by the leading nationalist party. One of Atkins’s successors, Jim (now Lord) Prior, actually initiated the first stage of a ‘rolling devolution’ scheme. But it was · boycotted by the nationalist parties. And so on and so on.

Grand Anglo Irish initiatives.

Every now and again, elements within the British Establishment have dabbled with grand schemes involving an ‘Irish dimension’. There have been a couple of such initiatives under Thatcher. In 1981, regular London-Dublin ‘dialogue’ was established following a summit meeting between Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey.

In 1985, the Government introduced a real ‘tour de force’. in grand initiatives, the Anglo Irish Agreement. Five years after this great event, it would be difficult to argue that the Agreement has done anything to promote stability in the. province or to lessen the sectarian political stalemate.

The Ulster Unionists have never forgiven Thatcher for signing the Anglo Irish Agreement. They saw her as the one person they could trust; the leader who would always protect them from the evil schemes of the Foreign Office.

There is evidence to suggest that Thatcher has never trusted the Foreign Office’s instincts on Northern Ireland. The FO has always been keen on grand solutions to the ‘Irish problem’. Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd are widely known to be the architects of the Anglo Irish Agreement. The FO remains wedded to this approach to this day, despite the fact that any grand initiative that have been tried have simply made things worse.

[Up until 1985, the level of IRA violence was slowly diminishing, year by year. But with the Anglo-Irish agreement, and official confirmation that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position might be changed in the face of majority Protestant opposition, the IRA gained new heart, and have been much more violent ever since. Protestant violence has also revived and greatly expanded its scope. Ed.]

Thatcher may not have trusted the thinking behind these initiatives, just as she did not trust the Foreign Office over Europe. But any similarity with Europe is only superficial. There can be no doubt that she cared passionately about the European issue. The same cannot be said about Northern Ireland.

Throughout the past eleven years, there has never been any indication that Margaret Thatcher has felt a sense of responsibility about Northern Ireland. Eleven years on, she had still no idea what makes either the Catholic community or the Protestant community tick. Eleven years on, the ‘at arm’s length’ policy established by the British Establishment in 1921 is still intact.

Most importantly, she never showed any enthusiasm for building up the Tory Party in the province. During her premiership, a growing cross-community demand developed in Northern Ireland for Labour-Tory politics. Both parties came under pressure to end their boycott of the province and to offer an alternative to the existing sectarian stalemate.

The Tory Party leadership firmly rejected these demands, and only changed their minds when they came under extreme pressure from the party rank and file at the 1989 conference in Blackpool. Since then, the strength of the leadership’s commitment to developing Toryism in the province has been questionable.

Margaret Thatcher only ever became animated about Northern Ireland when she was condemning violence. On God knows how many occasions she responded to ‘atrocities’ by saying that violence would never succeed, her government would stand firm.

In reality, however, Republican violence fundamentally and directly changed Government policy on two occasions in the past eleven years.

In 1979, shortly before the General Election of that year, the Irish National Liberation Army killed the Northern Ireland Secretary of State in waiting, Airey Neave. It was Neave who was behind the integrationist manifesto commitment mentioned above. And when he died, the commitment died too.

Similarly, it was the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton which persuaded Margaret Thatcher to sign the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985.

The previous year, at a joint press conference with the Irish Government, Thatcher embarrassed the Foreign Office with curt ‘off the cuff dismissals of proposals from Dublin. On each of the proposals for grand Anglo Irish initiatives, she simply said ‘That’s Out’. The then Irish Premier, Garret Fitzgerald, sat beside her in silent dismay.

After the Brighton bombing, however, grand initiatives were back in again.

On other occasions, the Thatcher Government responded to acts of violence by dabbling with a policy of repression. The killing of a senior judge in 1987, for example, was followed by the shooting dead of eight Provos at Loughgall.

The following year, the Government was stung by an IRA bus bombing which killed eleven soldiers who had just arrived in the province. Within days of the bombing, three IRA men were ‘taken out’ by the security forces.

It seemed that this counter-violence was just a short-term gesture by the Government; another ‘dabble’ in response to events.

The bus bombing also led to a whole package of repressive and short-sighted measures like the media ban on Provisional Sinn Fein spokespersons and the ending the suspect’s right to silence.

This package of responses was demanded by Thatcher herself in a late night meeting a 10 Downing Street on the day following the bombing. Its incoherence and pettiness were typical.

Overall, the Thatcher years have hardly been good for Northern Ireland. The Government never displayed any real sense of responsibility for the place. It experimented with a bit of this and that. Its approach has added up to nothing.

The Labour Party, of course, has nothing to be proud of. Its present Northern Ireland Spokesperson, Kevin McNamara, has never been elected to the Shadow cabinet. He sits on the Opposition Front Bench because he has been appointed by Neil Kinnock, not because he enjoys the support of his parliamentary party colleagues. That surely says something about the priority which the party gives to Northern Ireland. Since his appointment, Kevin McNamara has been dreaming up grand schemes for Northern Ireland that make the Foreign Office look almost realistic.

More importantly, unlike the Tories, the Labour Party is still standing firm against any suggestion of organising in Northern Ireland. The ‘arm’s length’ policy, it seems, is safe in Neil Kinnock’s hands.

If this remains the case, the next Labour Government’s record on Northern Ireland will be little different from that of the Thatcher Government.



This article appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at