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Many will never forgive 'milk snatcher' hate figure

HISTORY and hindsight will probably be much kinder to Margaret Thatcher than the memory of hordes of schoolchildren and their parents in the 1970s who never forgave Britain's first and only female prime minister for stealing their milk.

When Thatcher, as education secretary in 1971, abolished a government programme that provided free milk in schools for children aged 7 to 11, the only woman around the cabinet table earned the moniker "Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher".

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1980s – where studies would later reveal that Catholic and Protestant children learned to fear and loathe each other's communities when they were as young as three years of age – Margaret Thatcher was our chief bogeywoman.

And not just because of the milk.

Thatcher's fearsome, unwavering reputation was tested and cemented by the Troubles, then at their height.

Her years in office as the longest serving British prime minister saw a series of themes including free markets, her battles with trade unionists and the Falklands War.

But her uncompromising attitudes in the North are unlikely to be lauded, not even if the passage of time or the deft hand of history weaves a more nuanced, balanced and charitable account of her handling of the Irish question.

Far from suppressing republican terrorism, Thatcher's strident policies, especially towards the hunger strikers – ten of whom died including Bobby Sands – fuelled the flame of republicanism.

The hunger strike in 1981, and the IRA bombing of the Conservative party conference at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984, an attack Thatcher survived, defined her attitudes towards republican violence.

A cataclysmic series of events in 1987, including the shooting dead by the SAS of eight IRA members in Co Armagh, the Enniskillen bombing and the introduction, in 1988, of a broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein, made her a hate figure for many Catholics.

In the process, she converted many so-called 'armchair nationalists' into ardent republicans and much worse.

Ironically, she also managed to alienate the unionist community by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 with then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

The agreement was rejected by both communities and Thatcher later regretted signing the document amid claims that she had been misled about the extent of the unionist backlash.

Margaret Thatcher deserves the tribute bestowed on her by Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson who last night said she was "one of the greatest political figures of post-war Britain".

That much is true, but her handling of Northern Ireland is unlikely to be regarded as her greatest achievement.

Irish Independent