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Kevin Cullen

The Irish education of Margaret Thatcher

I always wanted to have lunch with Margaret Thatcher. She was one of the most intriguing players in an epic story I spent many years covering, but I never had the pleasure of her company.

Had I ever managed that lunch, somewhere between dessert and the check, I would have asked her just how and why, with hindsight, someone as brilliant and as politically sophisticated could have gotten the Irish so spectacularly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Thatcher was a great woman, great in the sense that she had an enormous impact on history. She gave the United Kingdom, and the British people in general, a boost when they needed it. She stood up to the Soviets but also encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost.


Still, she was needlessly belligerent (read the Falklands), kept company with war criminals (read Augusto Pinochet), and when it came to the long and tortured history of the English and the Irish, she misread Irish history badly.

As part of my job, covering the conflict in Northern Ireland, I spent a lot of time talking to members of the Irish Republican Army, and it is my considered opinion that one of the greatest IRA recruiters of all time was not Martin McGuinness or Joe Cahill or Gerry Adams but the Iron Lady herself.

Thatcher’s determination to brand members of the IRA, especially imprisoned ones, as criminals was understandable on a personal level, but it was disastrous at a political and policy level. More to my point: It made the war in Northern Ireland go on far longer than it should have.

Thatcher became prime minister after a decade during which the Provisional IRA committed atrocity after atrocity, many of them in England.

The Provos murdered innocents in pub bombings in Birmingham and Guildford. Thatcher had been prime minister for only a few months when the IRA launched two of its most audacious attacks on the island of Ireland: on Aug. 27, 1979, the IRA killed 18 British soldiers with a bomb in a beautiful little town in County Down called Warrenpoint; and off the coast of Mullaghmore, in County Sligo, an IRA bomb exploded on a boat carrying Lord Mountbatten, killing him and three other people, including his 14-year-old grandson, the dowager Lady Patricia Brabourne, and a 15-year-old boy named Paul Maxwell who was piloting the boat.


Mountbatten was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and a British war hero, and his murder was considered by the IRA a huge success. It was also deliberately provocative, aimed at causing an overreaction in the British government led by the feisty, combative new PM from Finchley. An IRA man once told me that when a reporter from New Zealand phoned from half a world away to ask, “Why did you kill that nice old man?” the IRA man replied, “Why are you calling all the way from New Zealand?”

The killings infuriated Thatcher, as they did the entire British populace. Truth be told, the killings also infuriated the entire Irish populace except for the most blind hardline of IRA sympathizers. It didn’t help that the IRA offered weasel words for killing two boys and an elderly woman in their blind zeal to kill Mountbatten. Paul Maxwell, an Irish boy from Enniskillen, was considered collateral damage by the IRA, who no doubt coldly and self righteously comforted themselves by pointing out that the British Army had considered Irish children collateral damage in their war against the IRA.


I’ll never forget the sadness in Paul Maxwell’s father’s eyes when I met him years later. It reminded me of the song “The Island,” written by the great Paul Brady, the singer-songwriter from Strabane, in County Tyrone: “Up here we sacrifice our children, to feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday. And teach them, dying will lead us into glory.”

So Thatcher, like all British people, was understandably, incandescently furious at the IRA, given its murderous cynicism. But she was not all British people. She was their prime minister, and as such she had a higher duty, a higher calling, and that calling should have been to take the moral high ground, to de-escalate the war with the Provisional IRA, to encourage a settlement, to redouble her efforts to build a consensus with her counterparts in Dublin, to search for a political solution to a political problem.

But for Thatcher, this was personal. A little more than a month before she became prime minister, the Irish National Liberation Army, a small, splinter group that was to the left of the IRA, killed Airey Neave, a Conservative member of Parliament and the shadow secretary for Northern Ireland and, more importantly, one of Thatcher’s closest friends. The INLA managed to plant a bomb in his car while it was parked in the House of Commons lot.


Thatcher’s grief was entirely appropriate. Her response, based on her belief that an Irish person or Irish republican sympathizer helped get the INLA bomb into the parking garage, was not.

The murder of her friend, and the various atrocities that accompanied her ascent to 10 Downing St., robbed Thatcher of her famously detached, analytical mind. Instead, she thought with her heart, and when it came to Ireland, Thatcher’s heart was in all the wrong places.

She, as much as IRA leaders Bik McFarland and Bobby Sands, was responsible for the Irish republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. By branding as criminals men who had been convicted for politically motivated crimes, Thatcher was practically begging the IRA prisoners to defend their honor and launch what historically had been a tried and tested expression of Irish defiance in the face of British imperiousness: the hunger strike.

IRA prisoners had historically been treated differently than common criminals. They were treated, by the very crown they tried to overthrow, as political prisoners. Thatcher’s decision to treat them like ordinary criminals was a disastrous policy measure. In my opinion, it lengthened the 35-year period we call The Troubles by at least a decade, if not a generation. It led to the inevitability of the hunger strikes and the polarization that followed. It divided opinion on the islands of Britain and Ireland, so that even moderate nationalists who had no truck with the IRA thought the British were being unreasonable and stupidly intransigent.

When John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which represented moderate Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland, tried to explain to Thatcher how she was making the situation on the ground worse, she waved him off dismissively. She would not be lectured on Irish history by Irishmen.


“She didn’t get it,” Hume, who won a Nobel Prize with the Protestant Unionist leader David Trimble for his peacemaking, told me years later. “I think Maggie was unable to understand that her attitude and her policies were not hurting the IRA, but helping them. It was her blind spot. I think a lot of it had to do with the murder of Airey Neave, who she cared for deeply. But I think she didn’t particularly like and really didn’t understand the Irish, or Irish history.”

Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, as the primate of Ireland, and a native of South Armagh, the IRA’s biggest stronghold, had a lot of credibility with IRA prisoners, and he had managed to end the 1980 hunger strikes before things got out of hand. But Thatcher reneged on some accommodations, or at the very least had led IRA prisoners to believe she had reneged on a deal, leading to the 1981 hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands.

The cardinal came to Boston before he died in 1990, and said Mass at St. Ambrose in Dorchester. We had a cup of coffee together in the rectory and he remembered Thatcher lecturing him during the hunger strikes, even as she was trying to get him to prevail upon the IRA prisoners who respected him to call off the hunger strikes.

Cardinal O Fiaich was taken aback when the prime minister suggested the hunger strikers were simply trying to demonstrate how virile they were by killing themselves in the most torturous way.

“She was clueless,” he said. “Utterly clueless.”

Thatcher could smugly suggest that Bobby Sands and the other nine republican prisoners had, in fact, committed suicide. But it was folly. No matter how much she talked about the prisoners’ violent records, she looked like a bully. When the hunger strikes ended, the dead men, not the PM, had more credibility. As the mother of Joe McDonnell, one of the hunger strikers, told me in the sitting room of her small flat in Belfast years later, “Criminals don’t starve themselves to death to make a point.”

Thatcher’s hard line toward the hunger strikers drove young men and women into the arms of the IRA and the INLA. If Bloody Sunday, in which British soldiers murdered unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972, was the greatest single recruiting tool for the Provisional IRA, the hunger strikes of 1981 were the second. Her stance also polarized opinions in Ireland, where even those who hated the IRA thought she was wrong, and Britain, where she was largely supported, putting off for years the sort of peacemaking that could have taken place if not for the hunger strikes.

The sad irony is that the British government learned lessons from Thatcher’s disastrous handling of the hunger strikes.

In 1991, a decade after 10 men died inside the Maze Prison and dozens of others died outside as a result, I toured the infamous H-Blocks, the segregated cells where republican and loyalist prisoners are held in a prison in a bucolic place not far from Belfast. Quietly and without fanfare, the British government had given in to the demands that Sands and the hunger strikers died for. They regained the fruits of their political status, if not the overt title. The British government had adopted a very Irish wink-wink-nod-nod approach, in which prisoners were regarded not as common criminals, but as politically-motivated men who committed horrific, and sometimes ridiculously banal, acts of violence.

The British government learned from the mistakes of Margaret Thatcher. And to her credit, she learned, too, if only too late to save a generation from more futile violence. Even after the IRA nearly killed her in the bombing of her hotel at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 (the IRA managed to kill five people, all of them innocent civilians) Thatcher seemed to grasp the need to moderate, to compromise, to play to the middle, to build coalitions with like-minded Irish people who abhorred violence, even those who believed in a united Ireland but categorically rejected using murder to achieve it.

The nudge for that change was made by John Hume, Tip O’Neill, and the man who, second only to her husband Denis, Margaret Thatcher loved most: Ronald Reagan.

As John Hume explained it to me: “I went to Tip and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to get your buddy Reagan to talk to Maggie. She’s got to get with the program.’ And Tip did that. And President Reagan, to his eternal credit, did just that. Reagan told Maggie she had to talk to the Irish government. And Maggie listened to him. She wouldn’t listen to Tip or me.”

Thanks to Thatcher and her Irish counterpart, Garret FitzGerald, the British and Irish governments were able to reach the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which was the biggest diplomatic breakthrough in Anglo-Irish relations since the treaty of 1921 that granted independence to 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave Dublin a formal role in the administration of those six disputed counties that made up Northern Ireland. It wasn’t joint authority, but it put those words on the wall. It basically told the unionists, who had always voted with Thatcher in the House of Commons, that they had better cop on and respect the traditions and aspirations of the Irish nationalists who lived in Northern Ireland or the British government might just unilaterally turn the keys over to their new best friends in Dublin.

It was the natural precursor to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, setting in motion the chain of events that inexorably lead to the end of the war and the embrace of consent: that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until a majority of people there vote otherwise.

Irish nationalists don’t want to hear this, because Thatcher remains a hated figure among the most intransigent of republicans. But she did eventually learn that you end political wars with political settlements and that, unlike the hunger strikes, it requires imagination and compromise.

As for those who would give her a wide berth because of the personal loss she suffered in the Troubles, consider this: Years ago, there was a British diplomat named Peter Westmacott who did heroic work during the peace process. I saw this first-hand. Westmacott represented his government and his people in the most noble and honorable ways as a diplomat in Northern Ireland. And he did this even though his cousin, Special Air Service Captain Herb Westmacott, had been shot and killed by the IRA in a gun battle in Belfast.

I know the IRA man who shot Captain Westmacott, a very decent guy named Joe Doherty. After he got out of prison for killing Captain Westmacott, Joe Doherty devoted his life to working with disadvantaged kids in Belfast. When, at the height of the conflict, the IRA tried to kill a unionist politician who was visiting his dying young son in the hospital, Joe Doherty spoke out and said it was wrong. He risked a lot in saying that, but Joe Doherty is a class act.

Peter Westmacott is now Sir Peter Westmacott. He is Her Majesty’s ambassador to the United States. He, like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on the republican side, like Davy Ervine and Gusty Spence and Joe English on the loyalist side, put aside memories of the dead and for once the Irish and the British paid more attention to the living.

As Nelson Mandela once told Martin McGuinness, “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.”

Margaret Thatcher eventually learned that lesson. I just wish she had learned it as quickly as Sir Peter did. We’d all be in a better place.

Kevin Cullen, a Globe columnist, was the Globe’s bureau chief in Dublin during the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, before serving as the newspaper’s London bureau chief. He covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen