Thursday 23 October 2014

Gun-boat diplomacy mastered by a lucky general

Published 09/04/2013 | 05:00

Margaret Thatcher was a lucky general. Lucky in the excellent advisers who surrounded her; lucky in the enemies who underestimated her, like Arthur Scargill and General Leopoldo Galtieri; lucky to lead a party with whose prejudices she was in tune and of which most members worshipped her.

Lucky, too, in the circumstances in which she won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975 and the British premiership in 1979.

The Labour Party had run out of ideas and vigour. Harold Wilson and his successor Jim Callaghan could do no more than hold the line. They could not do even that much in the 1978-79 'Winter of Discontent' when lowly-paid public service workers revolted and the rubbish piled up in the streets.

Taxes were high; production low. The decline of Britain had begun to look more like a crash.

Thatcher came to power promising to change all that. At the core of her proposals was the then fashionable "system" of monetarism, not so much an economic theory as a new economic religion. It supposedly meant free markets and bringing the unions under control. But it turned out to mean derelict factories and an unemployment figure of three million.

Then in April 1982, the Argentinian dictator launched an invasion of the Falkland Islands. Like most people, he thought it inconceivable that the British could mount a rescue mission from a distance of nearly 8,000 miles.

But the Iron Lady beat back (or shouted down) misgivings and opposition in her cabinet. An enormous "task force" of warships and civilian vessels was assembled. It sailed to the South Atlantic, trounced the Argentine occupiers and returned home in triumph.

Mrs Thatcher's premiership was saved. And she became conscious of the existence of another island, much closer to home.

All through her premiership, and even subsequently, her view of Ireland was characterised by prejudice and, perhaps more important psychologically, lack of interest which prevented her from applying the full force of her undoubted intellect to the subject.

On the key points, she was wholly at one with the rest of the British establishment and public. The Falklands might not be easy to find on a map. But they were British, and right is always on Britain's side. Taking any other view was baffling and perverse.

So when the then Taoiseach, Charles J Haughey, called for a "ceasefire in place" (leaving Argentine troops in possession of territory they had taken) and said that Ireland would cease to participate in the sanctions against Argentina decreed by the European Union, the British people reacted with fury. Mrs Thatcher personally instructed the British embassy in Dublin to warn Haughey against taking the Argentine side.

This reaction has never been fully understood in Ireland. But the after-effects continued to spoil Anglo-Irish relations for several years. They wrote another chapter in the centuries-long tale of misunderstandings and quarrels.

So did the H-Blocks crisis in which 10 prisoners starved to death in the Maze Prison. Although this and related events have been the subject of innumerable books, newspaper articles, plays and movies, uncertainty still remains about the numerous and prolonged attempts to reach a compromise between the prisoners and the British authorities which in its general lines would have closely resembled the ultimate settlement.

Mrs Thatcher personally has been widely blamed for intransigence. The evidence is conflicting, but certainly some of those who took part in negotiations were critical of her role. One of them, frustrated at a breakdown, commented: "There is a lady behind the veil."

She famously dismayed Dr Garret FitzGerald in her "out, out, out" press conference but, equally famously, went on to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Irish government a role in Northern Ireland's affairs. Even here, however, the evidence is mixed.

In the immediate aftermath, she complained about the lack of security improvement and about the adverse effect on the unionist population. After her retirement, she said that she regretted having signed the agreement. She alleged that she had been misled about its supposed benefits. Is this true? In British terms, Margaret Thatcher was unquestionably one of the great prime ministers. In Irish terms, she was just another British politician who did not like us and did not try to understand us. Her stamina, courage and other estimable qualities could not compensate for the gift she most lacked: the subtle touch.

James Downey worked as London Editor for many years

Irish Independent

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