The Northern Irish question and British politics in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major

TheJournal x LimesClub

The Northern Ireland question has been intertwined with the political affairs of the UK since the seventeenth century, when, during the Plantation of Ulster, English and Scottish settlers landed in Ireland and were met with resistance by the native Irish, leading to the first modern confrontation. Then, within contemporary history, the question was ignited once again, three centuries later, with the dramatic beginning of the conflict in 1968.  

The Troubles, or Na Trioblóidi, is the name of the long, violent, and bloody conflict that began in Northern Ireland over fifty years ago. The ethno-nationalist conflict is recalled as a low-intensity civil war, marked by the continuous clashes involving a multitude of complex actors in conflict, from the historical divisions between Unionists and Nationalists, to security forces, paramilitaries, activists, terrorists, and most, importantly, great political actors.

Northern Ireland has known a fragile territorial contest, initiated with the colonial enterprises of the United Kingdom to the weight of World War I. In this delicate situation, the divisions between the two distinct ethnic and religious communities were fueled: as the separate alignments began to form, discrimination of the minorities became frequent and as such, ignited Nationalist, then Unionist instances.

The origin of the civil conflict is traced to the year 1968, when, on the 5th of October, a peaceful Civil Rights protest held by mostly Catholic activists was crushed with sudden violence by the local police forces of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the auxiliary body of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). The management of the initial phase proved delicate as highlighted by the often-ambiguous political actions of the governments of Harold Wilson, from 1964 to 1970, and of Edward Heath, from 1970 to 1974. The Prime ministers mostly pursued unbalanced strategies of impartiality and, at the same time, of Unionist-favoritism. Then, the events of “Bloody Sunday”, when, on the 30th of July 1972, British soldiers opened fire on 26 unarmed civilians during a protest in Bogside, Derry, killing fourteen people, dealt a mighty blow to the British government. The actions of the two British prime ministers inserted itself within the complex political scenario as the Northern Ireland question acquired an inevitable priority position within the political agendas.

Extensive studies on the history of Britain’s relationship with and management of the Northern Irish question have been dedicated to the legacy of the Prime ministers that followed, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In their respective governments (1979-1990 Thatcher, 1990-1997 Major), the Northern Ireland question has involved both Prime ministers to a greater extent compared to their predecessors. A series of events, interests and factors have influenced British politics and have weighed on the Prime ministers’ contributions to managing the conflict.  Both Thatcher and Major have attempted to handle the conflict in Northern Ireland by navigating an array of strategies, characterized by the strengthening of security as to contain violence and terrorism, cooperation with the Irish government, and, finally, the effort of mediation between the different local political actors. A chronological and thematic analysis puts in light both the obstacles and goals addressed by the two Administrations in the reaching of a most difficult peace process.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s introduction to the Northern Ireland dossier occurred within the first months of her administration, which in the first period was marked by a wave of continuous bloody attacks at the hands of the paramilitary organizations, in particular of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which also saw, among their victims, personalities close to her such as Secretary of State, and her personal friend, Airey Neave, killed by a bomb left under his car in the House of Commons parking in Westminster, on March 30th, 1979. The violent events brought the political strategy of her government to concentrate on security and maintaining the phenomenon of terrorism under control.

The Prime minister is recalled, for this reason, for her strong intransigence in the regards of the Republican terrorists. This cost her an infamous place in the historical Republican narration, as, in the words of one of the main protagonists of the lates years, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, “Margaret Thatcher made the North of Ireland a bitter place”. Her inflexibility was affirmed on various occasions, but especially in relation to the hunger strikes of the Republican political prisoners. Yet, it seems erroneous to affirm that Margaret Thatcher precluded herself from other alternatives.

The collaboration with the Irish government was in fact then renewed with the goal of dismantling the network of paramilitary groups operating from the southern border of Ireland. The aim was specially to improve the security framework and to neutralize the armed groups, considered as the starting point for whichever subsequent political action.

Following the nomination of December 1982 of Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, she engaged in constant diplomatic action to balance the contrasting interests. The British executive was ultimately brought to a rapprochement with the Irish Republic, culminating in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1988. The Agreement was the first of its kind to negotiated exclusively between the Irish and British governments, and can, to this purpose, be defined as one of Thatcher’s important diplomatic successes in the period of the Troubles; to the detriment, nevertheless, of the historical relationship between the Crown and “Ulsterian Unionism”. The Agreement provoked their critical reactions from part and Unionists instantly blocked the beginning of a negotiated solution to conflict.

With the reprisal of the violence, Margaret Thatcher ended her mandate disillusioned about the possibility of a peace process, and of cooperation in Northern Ireland.

John Major

As for John Major, in his years in government, the Prime minister inherited a complex dossier as well as the intransigence of the previous Administration in regard to dealing with the terrorists. 

Yet, he deviated from Thatcher’s actions in her last mandate by overcoming the idea that British politics didn’t have to intervene in the international political affairs of Northern Ireland, a trend that had affirmed itself after the substantial failure of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985.

Major sought a rapprochement with the new Irish government led by Albert Reynolds and by such gave a new life to the renewed phase of negotiations in Northern Ireland. This culminated in the signing of the Downing Street Declaration, released jointly with Reynolds on December 15th, 1993. The Declaration affirmed the rights of the Irish people to self-determination and that Northern Ireland would have reunited with the Republic only with the majority favorable. 

The Declaration was a real turn, made possible only by the bilateral effort promoted by the two Prime ministers. It was innovative in the sense that it proposed to include and not to marginalize most of the extremist parties, and its success was highlighted with the PIRA’S first cease-fire.

Major brought an element of novelty when he promoted the challenge of the traditional strategy that didn’t involve talking to terrorists, bringing upon, alas, inevitable difficulties. The PIRA was unpredictable and overall, this halted in many moments the whole political process.

Despite his efforts and partial successes, Major couldn’t initiate a serious and concrete peace process during the whole of his mandate, which would see the participation of all political parties. He would leave this work to his successor, Labourist Tony Blair, elected Prime minister of the United Kingdom in May 1997.

The PIRA announced its second cease-fire on the 20th of July 2007. The event was followed by the signing, in Belfast, of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10th, 1998, by both the Irish and English governments and by the main political parties involved in the conflict, then confirmed with two referendums in Ireland and in Northern Ireland some months later. These entered into force in December 1998. The difficult managing of the events in Ulster was the result of diverging and especially always contrasting interests of the political actors.

Their attempts of unraveling the tangle of the dossier did not however prove successful. Nevertheless, the two ministers left an important legacy to the managing of the conflict that would follow. The final resilience of Margaret Thatcher in front of the evident provocations of the PIRA would have proved efficient in convincing the very same Sinn Féin to abandon its violence strategy and to favor the political solution of negotiations, whereas John Major was able to bring forward a rapprochement with the Irish government while winning back, at the same time, the sympathy of most of the Unionists, disillusioned with Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish agreement.

A cura di Yasmina Dionisi


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