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Margaret Thatcher in The Spectator

After the Brighton bomb

20 October 1984: She has survived an attempt on her life, but does she have a strategy for dealing with the IRA

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

It is worth pointing out yet again that Mrs Thatcher really was very brave last Friday. It would have been no disgrace to her if, once she had realised how narrow had been her escape, she had felt weak and — as did a few of the Tory wives in the Grand Hotel — had sat down and cried. There would have been nothing cowardly in cancelling what remained of the Conference in honour of the dead and injured. But the fact that she did neither of these things and the way that she conducted herself that day confirms that she has an extraordinary amount of that particular kind of courage which rises to an occasion, appearing more magnificent the greater the challenge.

One repeats this partly because Mrs Thatcher is so remarkable in this respect that one should pause and admire, but also because her courage in these situations may actually help to confuse the politics of the thing. Immediately after the bomb, it was said that the right thing to do was to carry on as before, and that terrorists would not be allowed to deflect the government from its policies.

What does it mean, though, to carry on as before? Partly it must mean defiance. After the Harrods bomb, the only way to be defiant was to carry on shopping; at Brighton, however, there was something publicly and satisfyingly defiant about continuing with Friday’s agenda. But does ‘carrying on’ also mean taking no notice of what has happened? No one suggests, for instance, that security arrangements surrounding Cabinet ministers should not be changed, yet the government does appear to suggest that terrorism should not alter public policy, that it would be chicken to notice what is going on. It is like the Victorian argument that our soldiers should all wear red coats because it is noble to make yourself a conspicuous target for the enemy.


The personal courage of climbing out of the rubble and saying ‘we can take it’ gets translated into a political stupidity which repeats untrue statements in a loud voice. Mrs Thatcher said: ‘All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,’ obviously making a declaration of intent and a prediction; but the history of Northern Ireland over the past 15 years suggests that terrorism can seriously threaten democracy and that British governments have very little idea of how to stop it. All political initiatives in the province have been based on the assumption that the terrorist interest should be placated; all of them have therefore tended to act against the wishes of the majority. They have foundered, and the majority has been blamed for exercising a ‘veto’.

This happened, not because British politicians have secretly sympathised with the IRA, but because they have never worked out what the IRA wants. I think it is very clear what the IRA wants. It wants what it says — the British out of Ulster, the established Irish parties out of power, the whole island free for nationalist socialism, and so if it accepts compromises it only does so because it believes that it can exploit them to achieve its aim. It uses the ballot box for exactly the same reasons as it uses the Armalite — to destroy democracy.

After so many reverses, politicians have come quietly and ruefully to accept some of these realities. One begins to detect a new quietist orthodoxy emerging — instead of ‘bring the two communities together’, it is ‘let rabid dogs lie’. If this is so, it will mean fewer sins of commission, but the omissions will surely catch up with ministers in the end. For Northern Ireland at present is not in a shabby but basically sound condition. It is in the limbo from which the terrorists hope to reach the hell they plan. Since the collapse of the post-Sunningdale Assembly, the province has been governed provisionally. The abolition of the legislature has not led to the establishment of proper local government. Instead the Secretary of State has all but the most minor powers concentrated in his hands. There is not even a Northern Ireland Grand Committee in parliament.

A few hours before the bomb went off in Brighton, the Institute of European and Defence Studies introduced the report of its study group on Ulster. It suggests that the government should establish an upper tier of local government in Ulster which would give real work for the political interests in the province without forever raising the national question. Power-sharing would be achieved not by forcing coalitions of unlike-minded, but by statutorily allotting the chairmanship of committees in proportion to the representation of the parties. The government would repeat its commitment to Ulster’s self-determination and provide for this, not by the dangerous device of separate border polls, but by giving voters at general elections a second ballot paper on which they would vote on the border issue. In return for this accommodation of constitutional nationalism, the Republic would be invited to accept the existing sovereignty and on that basis to join a British-Irish security commission which would coordinate anti-terrorist work throughout the British Isles.

None of this is very gratifying to any side, and it is not intended to be. The notion is that where attempts to get full-hearted consent always fail, securing of surly acquiescence might succeed.

If it turns out that nationalists are too proud to consider any of these modest suggestions, the British government would be within its rights to attempt something more drastic in security policy. This would mean the reintroduction of some form of internment. The best time for its use would be minutes after an atrocity such as that at Brighton. If such a power had been used last week, most of the terrorist organisers would have been locked up by the time Mrs Thatcher delivered her speech, and that would have been better, with all deference to her eloquence, than her brave words.


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