MARGARET Thatcher has never forgiven the IRA for attempting to kill her, Conor Burns says.
A close friend of the former Prime Minister, Mr Burns visited Baroness Thatcher at the weekend to bring her an 87th birthday card.
“I think I’m right in saying that she’s never been back [to Northern Ireland] since she was Prime Minister,” he says.
“She has a very old-fashioned view on these things that she wouldn’t want to put her detectives or the police at any unnecessary risk. When she was Prime Minister, it was obviously her duty and she had to.
“She hasn’t forgiven those who tried to kill her.”
Few Ulster Catholics feel much affinity for the ‘Iron Lady’ but Mr Burns says that her moves while in power were more nuanced than some of her Ulster nationalist critics would admit.
“She was Prime Minister at a time when a determined element within Northern Ireland were waging a campaign of terrorism against the British state.
“They tried to kill her – and came very close to killing her in the Brighton bomb – and to this day, at the age of 87, when she leaves her front door she steps into a bullet-proof car and has close-protection officers. She will have that now to death.
“She did not cave in to terrorism. She had a very clear view that you fought your battles through the ballot box and you gave no truck to terrorists.
“Now what I would say to people over here who have a very strong view on her is: Do remember that she was the Prime Minister who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement . . . the beginning of a process that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. So I think people need to be more nuanced in their view on Margaret Thatcher’s contributional role within Northern Ireland.”
Was he surprised at the revelations in the recently declassified 1982 Cabinet papers which show that Mrs Thatcher did authorise secret contact with the IRA during the Hunger Strike, while publicly opposing such moves?
“It didn’t surprise me because I think in any conflict, any resolution always starts with back channels. There were contacts between the IRA and the Heath government when Willie Whitelaw was Secretary of State; there are always going to be back channel conversations.
“And although very, very determined, very resolved, very principled, she was always a very pragmatic politician and I think she would have . . . taken it as irresponsible not to sanction contact if there was any chance that contact could defuse and stop what turned out to be a bloody violent period in Northern Ireland’s history.”
How is the former Prime Minister’s health?
“She’s an elderly lady; I would say that she is very content. I told her, for example, recently about the party packs that they were selling at the TUC about how to celebrate her death and she was, oddly, comforted to know that the left still hate her.
“She takes the view that if people hate you, it’s probably because you’ve done something, and I think she looks back on her life with a degree of pride and satisfaction.”
He says that the former Prime Minister follows politics and that “her instincts are in full working order – if you tell her something you get a full Thatcher response”, but adds: “She is frustrated by the rising tide of [her own] age.”
The current Coalition government is radically different to that which Baroness Thatcher led. What does she make of the current arrangement?
“She would want us to be governing on our own. She was not one massively given to compromise and consensus so she looks on with a little bit of bewilderment at the position we’re in.”