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GFA - Thatcher’s progressive legacy? 

The roots of decay inside the Irish peace settlement.

John McAnulty

18 April 2013

The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coincidentally coincided with the death of Margaret Thatcher. Given the recent flag riots, the confirmation of Orange supremacy in the streets and the new pan-unionist unity behind Robinson, the complaints of "lack of engagement" from Sinn Fein and watery threats by the British to withhold funds if the local administration does not move beyond sectarian patronage, it is not surprising if there is public discontent.

That discontent is buffered by a deep confusion. People are repelled by the actuality of the settlement, yet remain convicted that there is a hidden progressive core that will someday express itself. 

A similar confusion hangs around the role of Thatcher. Many nationalists believe there were two Thatchers - a bad Thatcher who oppressed the hunger strikers and a good Thatcher who signed the Anglo Irish deal and laid the grounds for the peace process.

If we can dispel the confusion about Thatcher's role we may be able to dispel the broader confusion.

As with all the elements of Thatcherism, the policy on Ireland was in fact a continuation of existing British policy. Direct military force backed by various forms of internment, torture and the use of Loyalist death squads was used first to break the civil rights movement and then to crush the republican uprising. 

In parallel with this military strategy went a policy of improving the sectarian statelet and involving the Catholic middle class in supporting partition through various forms of powersharing.

Thatcher, in the hunger strikes, was applying a policy of coercion at a time when the physical force tactic was clearly failing. It was in Britain's interest to crush the armed resistance and break the mass mobilizations against British rule. 

In 1984, in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, Irish capitalists gathered in the New Ireland forum and proposed three paths to a settlement of the Irish question.

Dublin's 3 options were:

A united Ireland 
A federation of North and South
Joint authority of Ireland and Britain in the North 

Famously Thatcher replied: That's out - out - out - to the options. Yet she then went on to sign the Anglo-Irish agreement.

Thatcher, in her bigotry, had missed the significance of the Forum Report. Irish capital had used the call for a united Ireland as a populist badge to retain the allegiance of the working class. Now, terrified by the social unrest generated in the South, they were seeking ways to abandon that.

When the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed the 3 outs remained in place. Dublin was represented in a secretariat at Maryflield, but in a strictly advisory role. 

Britain pushed on with its original strategy and the Good Friday Agreement was firmly based on the 1922 Government of Ireland act. Ireland was to remain partitioned, sectarian rights would trump human and civil rights and Britain would remain firmly in control.

As with much of Thatcherism, British gains in Ireland were based on sand. In Britain the battle with the miners saw a major defeat for British workers, but it was a defeat made possible by the capitulation of Labour and trade union bosses and the cost included a sharp decline in Britain's manufacturing base.

In Ireland the long decay of the physical force tradition was amplified by the lack of a class perspective. It proved relatively easy to co-opt the shinners into a nationalist family firmly wedded to an imperialist settlement, especially given the collapse of revolutionary nationalist movements on an international scale.

Today there is growing concern about the unionist drive to reinforce sectarian supremacy and at the stench of corruption and incapacity from the local administration.

What else could come out of a settlement dictated by Britain? 

What other legacy would Thatcher leave in Ireland?


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