27 Dec 2014

N Ireland: Thatcher ‘couldn’t understand’ civil rights calls

Margaret Thatcher didnt understand why Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland were seeking more rights and feared that allowing them to express their identity would provoke a British Asian uprising.

Files marked “secret”, just released in Dublin’s National Archives, reveal that Mrs Thatcher was concerned that Northern Ireland was on the way to becoming a “Marxist society” and that she was warned against redrawing its borders to counter the perceived threat by Ireland’s then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

During a summit at Chequers in November 1984, Mrs Thatcher fretted about the wider consequences of addressing Catholic alienation in relation to ethnic minorities in Britain.

She said: “if these things were done, the next question would be what comes next? Were the Sikhs in Southall to be allowed to fly their own flag?” Southall is a west London suburb with a large Asian community which was the scene of a notorious race riot just three years earlier.

The Tory leader compared Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland to minority communities in other parts of Europe. She said that Macedonians, Croats, Serbs and Sudetan Germans were not claiming such comprehensive reforms in policing, justice, equality and power-sharing.

Within a decade of that meeting, Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia all declared independence, while Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom.

Mrs Thatcher expressed her incomprehension at what Irish nationalists wanted, saying she could not understand why a minority would seek “particular prerogatives as of right”.

Mr FitzGerald, then leader of the Fine Gael party, said: “they cannot fly the flag of their own nation in their own country”.

He explained that the minority felt Irish and part of the majority of the island of Ireland “from which they had been cut off by an arbitrary act”.

The British had drawn a line around the six counties, creating a Protestant majority, cutting off the minority from the nation and people were “set against each other within a narrow space,” he told Mrs Thatcher.

The Taoiseach added there was “hard evidence” of bias in the justice, security and policing systems in Northern Ireland while the guns of the British army’s controversial Ulster Defence Regiment were being used to “bully” Catholics.

The Taoiseach asked his British counterpart where else in the world could one sixth of the population say they had relatives imprisoned.

Margaret Thatcher and then Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald sign an Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, one year after the talks

The death toll at that time was the equivalent of 100,000 in the UK, he said.

Mrs Thatcher mistakenly said there had been 2,500 deaths in the security forces, with Mr Fitzgerald correcting her that the majority were civilians, most of them Catholics.

Venting her fears that the North of Ireland was heading towards a Marxist state, Mrs Thatcher told the Taoiseach that resolving the crisis could mean “simply” moving the border.


“She wondered if a possible answer to the problem might not simply be a redrawing of boundaries,” records an official note of the top-level meeting, which has only just been declassified under the 30-year-rule.

But Taoiseach Mr FitzGerald immediately rejected the apparent offer, warning it would be a “fatal mistake”. The pair later discussed a federal Belgium-style federal model, which Mrs Thatcher considered. But she rejected out of hand the idea of a power sharing agreement between the British and Irish governments, saying that it would effectively mean handing over 40 per cent of the country.

The prime minister said Catholics in Northern Ireland, who made up 40 per cent of the population, argued that they owed no allegiance to London “but they took the government’s money”.

They thought they were different to any other minority and were “drawing on resources which the Republic did not provide,” she told Mr FitzGerald. “The nationalists feel that all they have to do is to wait.”

‘Out, out, out’

She accepted there were problems with Catholics getting jobs and admitted some areas – pointing to Lisburn as an example – “would not accept Catholics”.

She added: “History shows that the Irish, whether the Scottish-Irish or the Irish-Irish, don’t like to move. However, they all seem to be terribly happy to move to Britain.”

Later the same day, in a press conference, Mrs Thatcher gave her infamous “out, out, out” declaration, when she rejected three options put forward from the Irish for a solution to Northern Ireland: Irish unity; a two-state federation; or joint authority.

It was later reported that Mr FitzGerald thought her behaviour was “gratuitously offensive”.