Thatcher saw Northern Ireland as ‘ridiculously expensive’

PM talked of ‘Rhodesia/Zimbabwe out’ for British government

Margaret Thatcher believed Northern Ireland was “ridiculously expensive” and could “blow up” in her government’s face at any time, a British ministerial adviser believed in late 1984.

Edward Bickham, an adviser to the new Northern Ireland secretary, Douglas Hurd, talked about Thatcher to Richard Ryan of the Irish Embassy in London a week before the Chequers summit of November 1984.

Bickham reckoned Thatcher’s instincts ran “in two directions”. Ryan reported Bickham’s account to Dublin: “Despite the best advice coming to her, she does not sit easily with the notion that the province is under control. Her instinct runs toward a Rhodesia/Zimbabwe out for the British Government. Couldn’t ‘we’ get shot of it on classical lines? Answer: No.”

‘Iron out wrinkles’

Thatcher’s second instinct was that if Northern Ireland could not be “disposed of”, she should follow the traditional advice she had always relied on from Airey Neave: “integrate it fully, treat it as a normal part of the Kingdom and iron out the wrinkles methodically.”

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Neave, who was one of Thatcher’s closest confidants in the House of Commons, was killed in March 1979 when a bomb attached to his car exploded as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) claimed responsibility.

Thatcher’s instincts, Ryan believed, were strong and had “with considerable difficulty and patience been aligned with the more sensible and realistic middle way (viz the present process).”

Frustration

He believed however that it would not “take a great deal of further frustration to drive her outward again from the

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.”

She was also under “considerable pressure” from Enoch Powell and other influential unionists to believe that “anything in the line of institutionalised accommodation between London and Dublin is and must be seen as manoeuvering by Dublin for more boot in the Sovereignty door.”

Moreover, she would have to reckon with future Irish governments - “what London will be dealing with in due course”.

This characterisation of her attitude to Northern Ireland may surprise but it is consistent with her persistent antipathy to debate the detail of Northern Ireland policy.

She wished for clarity and certainty, and manifestly was not of a cast of mind which could embrace the “creative ambiguity” that would eventually prove effective in the run-up to the Belfast Agreement, paving the way for the current arrangements in Northern Ireland.

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