Margaret Thatcher: Heated debate over NI legacy

So was Lady Thatcher a "draconian militarist" whose actions prolonged the Northern Ireland conflict, as Gerry Adams contends?

Or a leader willing - perhaps against her instincts - to give politics a chance, whose decision to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement provided the bedrock for the subsequent peace process, as the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Lord King, argued on BBC Newsline?

As Monday's heated exchanges across the Stormont chamber illustrated, the argument about Lady Thatcher's Northern Ireland legacy is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

Baroness Thatcher's time in office was marked by some of the Troubles' darkest episodes. Yet behind her determination to "never surrender" to terrorism, and to meet violence head on, there were nuances.


Those included not just signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, but also her willingness to authorise back channel contacts with the IRA leadership during the hunger strikes in the early 1980s.

Over the days to come there will no doubt be renewed focus on the claims and counter claims about exactly what Lady Thatcher and her officials had been willing to concede to the prisoners as those hunger strikes dragged on.

Just after confirming her decision to resign in 1990, Lady Thatcher faced her last Prime Minister's questions in the House of Commons. Her first question came from the Ulster Unionist MP, Martin Smyth, who assured her she would have empathy from unionists who "knew what betrayal means".


If there was a slight barb in that comment, the outgoing prime minister did not respond to it. Instead she told the Reverend Smyth she hoped "to visit the province many times in the future, perhaps in a slightly different capacity". Maybe for obvious security reasons, this never came to pass.

It is hard to imagine the "Iron Lady" stomaching the kind of compromises her successors at Number Ten made in the pursuit of peace. In 1997 she argued that allowing Sinn Fein to enter talks on the future of Northern Ireland whilst the IRA retained its arms "surely represents the last concession that prudence could commend".

In 1999, the year after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Lady Thatcher expressed her revulsion at the sight of "Irish terrorist murderers….flooding out of jail" as just one example of what she regarded as the erosion of Britain's way of life under Tony Blair's Labour government.


Whilst these references reveal the disdain with which she regarded some aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, what is most significant is that such public comments were so few and far between. Instead of criticising from the sidelines, Lady Thatcher let Messrs Major and Blair proceed unhindered.

In a speech in India in 1995 she told her audience: "It demands considerable patience and statesmanship to try to ensure that real grounds for grievance among national, ethnic or religious minorities are resolved by reasoned discussion."

Elsewhere in her speech she also argued that "we should never concede more to those who threaten us with a gun than we would to those who promote their views through the ballot box".

Once out of office, Baroness Thatcher afforded the prime ministers who followed her, space to decide how to confront such challenges, challenges which she believed were not unique to Northern Ireland.