Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 13:16 UK

Thatcher - Thirty Years On

David Maxwell
BBC Newsline

Margaret Thatcher in Belfast (1979)
Margaret Thatcher first visited Belfast as prime minister in August 1979

It's exactly 30 years since Margaret Thatcher made her first visit to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister.

She had arrived in Downing Street three months previously, promising to pursue a tough line against the Provisional IRA.

But on a late summer's day, her republican enemies sent her a gruesome message.

On 27 August 1979, 16 paratroopers and two soldiers from the Queen's Own Highlanders, were killed by two carefully co-ordinated bombs at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint.

It was the Parachute Regiment's worst loss since the Battle of Arnhem.

If anything, another IRA attack earlier in the day shook the British establishment even more.

The Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was fishing off the coast of Mullaghmore when a remote controlled bomb on his boat was detonated.

The former Viceroy of India was killed along with his grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, 14, and a local boy, 15-year-old Paul Maxwell.

Mrs Thatcher came to Northern Ireland as soon as possible afterwards.

In a symbolic move she arrived by helicopter at an Army base in Crossmaglen.

Mrs Thatcher visited people injured in the Narrow Water bombing
Mrs Thatcher visited people injured in the Narrow Water bombing

It was exactly the sort of republican heartland the bombers called home.

She later went for a walkabout in Belfast city centre.

While there, she was accosted by a woman: "We want H-Block wiped out," came the shrill admonition.

The woman was referring to the H-Blocks of the Maze Prison, where the majority of IRA prisoners were being held.

Shuffled on by minders, the prime minister did not have a chance to respond.

But her attitude towards the prisoners over the next two years would define her relationship with republicans.

Hunger Strikes

Those prisoners began a hunger strike in 1981, demanding political status.

She insisted that they were criminals and said she would not bend to their demands.

Ten deaths followed, despite huge pressure for her to intervene.

...I think that did huge damage, because it looked as though she was just willing to let people die
Alex Kane

Her iron response had discomfited some of even her most ardent supporters.

Unionist commentator Alex Kane, a strong admirer, remains bemused.

"As soon as it was over she gave them everything they wanted anyway," he said.

"So I think that did huge damage, because it looked as though she was just willing to let people die."

The dead hunger strikers had many republican comrades still active outside the prison walls.

She was now their number one enemy.

Funeral of an IRA hunger striker
Ten republican prisoners died during the hunger strikes at the Maze Prison

Danny Morrison was the Sinn Fein Director of Publicity at the time.

"Thatcher, for all her authority, sided with the unionists and the prison ministers and created a situation where 10 hunger strikers died. But she got it completely wrong.

"She said that perhaps the hunger strike was the IRA playing its last card, whereas it was anything but that."

Brighton Bombing

The IRA showed they had more cards to play at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton in 1984.

A massive bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel, where most of the delegates were staying.

Five people died, many more were injured, and Mrs Thatcher herself narrowly escaped death.

She spoke at the conference the next day, insisting that her attitude would remain the same.

Afterwards, the IRA said they wouldn't change either and issued a chilling statement.

"Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."

Many unionists never forgave Mrs Thatcher for signing the Anglo Irish Agreement
Many unionists never forgave Mrs Thatcher for signing the Anglo Irish Agreement

Veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie said the fact that Mrs Thatcher avoided death was a blessing for everyone in Northern Ireland.

"When I woke up and learned of the Brighton bombing, and heard that Margaret Thatcher had survived I gave a prayer of thanksgiving because I simply did not know what was going to happen to the Catholic, nationalist community if Margaret Thatcher had been killed in that bombing."

In the direct aftermath of the bomb, unionists believed they had one of their strongest ever advocates ensconced within Number 10.

Within a year and a half, a remarkable turnaround cast her as their enemy.

Anglo-Irish Agreement

She signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Irish Republic a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time.

Unionists accused her of treachery and threatened mass civil unrest.

She faced them down in the same manner she had confronted republicans after the hunger strikes.

If she was now an enemy of unionism, that had no impact on her relationship with republicanism. They remained implacable enemies.

The growing electoral success of Sinn Fein after 1981 worried her and she moved to curtail the party's activities.

Broadcasting Ban

Martin McGuinness
The voices of Sinn Fein representatives were replaced by actors

In 1988, she introduced the Broadcasting Act, making it illegal for the voices of Sinn Fein members to be broadcast.

She would deny those who spoke for republicanism "the oxygen of publicity".

Just over two years later, she was out of office, brought down by a coup within her own party.

Her attitude to Northern Ireland was enigmatic.

If anything she was even more strident an opponent of republicanism than she had promised to be in 1979.

But, in her pragmatic attitude to Anglo-Irish relations, she made a surprising enemy of unionists too.



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