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Kevin Cullen

The Irish education of Margaret Thatcher

When I heard Monday that Margaret Thatcher had died, I thought about a great priest named Tom O Fiaich, and a conversation I had with him in the rectory at St. Ambrose Church in Dorchester.

By the time we had a cup of coffee in the rectory in Fields Corner, the priest I had met in Northern Ireland years before was Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, the Catholic primate of Ireland. In his homeland, he had presided over many ­funerals of young men who died needlessly in a conflict over power and respect.

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He was flabbergasted to see young gang members dying on Boston’s streets in a desperate search for the same things. If the tribes of Ireland were something Tom O ­Fiaich understood intuitively, the gangs of Boston bewildered him.

On that morning, 23 years ago, we got to talking about his relationship with the famous­ly prickly British prime minister from Finchley. In 1981, Thatcher met with O Fiaich, because Irish republican prisoners were on hunger strike over Thatcher’s attempts to criminalize them by removing their political prisoner status. O Fiaich had helped avert a deadly hunger strike the previous year, but the republican prisoners ­accused Thatcher of reneging on promises, and Bobby Sands had launched what would prove to be a pivotal moment in the war in Northern Ireland.

In the middle of what O Fiaich recalled as a lecture, Thatcher told him she believed the prisoners were determined to kill themselves in the most torturous way imaginable, by starving themselves to death, to prove how tough and virile they were.

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O Fiaich was dumbfounded. He thought the British prime minister had an interest in avoiding needless deaths and the accompanying polarization. Instead, she engaged in pop psychology and already had her mind made up that she wouldn’t bend an inch to accommodate people she dismissed as mindless murderers.

For Thatcher, this was personal: Her close friend Airey Neave, the Conservative shadow minister for Northern Ireland, was murdered by Irish republicans just a month before she became prime minister, and the IRA assassinated Lord Mountbatten, the queen’s cousin, just a few months later. Thatcher needed to respond to these deliberately provocative acts with imagination. Unfortunately, she led with her heart, not her head, donning an uncompromising mask, making things on the ground worse.

There was no doubt in O Fiaich’s mind that day, nor mine today, that Thatcher’s ­intransigence drove many young men into the waiting arms of the IRA. She was one of the IRA’s best recruiters. She pushed the end of the war back at least 10 years and consigned a generation to conflict. Instead of seeking compromise, instead of learning from history, she thumbed her nose at it.

When it was over, 10 men were dead of starvation in the H-Blocks, and many more died outside the prison walls in the rioting and recrimination that followed. Worse, Irish and British moderates were in no mood to accommodate each other.

To her credit, Thatcher learned from her mistake, as did successive British governments, and there’s a Boston connection: US House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

John Hume, the great nationalist leader, spent a lot of time in Boston, viewing it as important in making allies with power brokers like O’Neill. Hume persuaded O’Neill to prevail upon the guy who, besides her husband Denis, Thatcher loved most: ­Ronald Reagan.

Hume told O’Neill who told President Reagan who told Thatcher that she had to work with the Irish, to show that nonviolent nationalism was the only way forward, and she did. The Anglo-Irish Agreement she signed in 1985 with Irish premier ­Garret FitzGerald led inexorably to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ending the war and ushering in a new era of Anglo-­Irish relations.

It was too late to save a generation, but Maggie Thatcher did the right thing. If the Iron Lady could bend, there’s hope for every­thing and everyone.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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