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1981 Dec 4 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Radio Interview for French Radio France Culture (Northern Ireland)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Radio Interview
Venue: No.10 Downing Street
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Journalist: Keith Gore for BBC
Editorial comments: The text below is an edited version of the interview which was broadcast in translation on Radio France Culture on 23 January 1982. A tape of the full interview (almost 30 minutes long) was discovered in 2018 and is awaiting transcription,
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2758
Themes: Terrorism, Northern Ireland, Law & order, Religion & morality, Famous statements by MT

Interviewer

Prime Minister, in Northern Ireland there are major problems of all kinds, economic and social, as well as problems of violence and of order, but given all of those problems, do you accept that ultimately the difficulty is a political difficulty?

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher

I think it's almost deeper than that, it's a human difficulty, it is the problem of two very different communities learning to live together, it's not only a religious problem, it's not only that one community happens to be Roman Catholic and another happens to be Protestant, it is many, many, many years ago the Protestant community went from Scotland to Ireland and strangely enough there have always been difficulties. Those difficulties have been at their worst during times of terrorism and undoubtedly those who pursue terrorism do it to cause problems. But, every time I look at this, one goes very deep into the roots of the past and it's difficult to see a solution when there hasn't already been one. And everywhere you go - for example, I do the annual dinner at the City of London Lord Mayor's banquet, November, I had only to look back at what previous Prime Ministers had said and one looks back a century ago, Gladstone was there talking about the problems of Ireland, I too this year had to talk about the problems of Northern Ireland. So a political problem - yes, but that political problem goes much deeper than politics because it has these essential differences which we don't have in the same way in any other part of the British Isles.

Interviewer

The Taoiseach has announced that he's going to try and take some initiatives of a constitutional kind to reassure the population in the north of Ireland, given that of course there's no question of negotiating about Northern Ireland with the Republic, is it possible that the British government might take some sort of initiatives of a generally parallel nature with the same aim of reassuring people? [end p1]

Mrs. Thatcher

I think what the Garret FitzgeraldTaoiseach has realised is that it is deeply offensive to the people of Northern Ireland, [on the?] part of the constitution of the Republic, to lay claim to the territory of Northern Ireland which the people of Northern Ireland have decided is part of the United Kingdom, is just as much a part of the United Kingdom as any other place in the United Kingdom, it is a part of the United Kingdom by the declared wish of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and the Taoiseach realises that it's very offensive for the people of Northern Ireland to have your near neighbour laying claim in its constitution to that territory. I think he's also realised something else which is of deep significance. In the constitution of the Republic of Ireland there are certain aspects, confessional aspects, of the Roman Catholic faith and I think the Taoiseach says, look, we are a christian society but we should not have within our constitution things which … very evidently belong to one particular sect of the christian faith. He, as you know, was born of a Protestant Northern Ireland mother, and a Catholic father, so he for years in his academic capacity has been very much aware of the deep differences between the Protestant community and the Roman Catholic community, and I think feels that he could do something very very worthwhile by what he calls his constitutional crusade. We've been trying in Northern Ireland to take initiatives for a long time, to have the two communities living together amicably in peace and each of them taking responsibility for running the affairs of Northern Ireland. As you know, we've never been able to get agreements although we constantly try and will go on trying, that is the only thing we can do. I can't see a solution, I can't tell you what the solution would be. I don't know whether there is one. I can only know that we have to go on trying. but never forget that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, that is enshrined in our law and their law which is our law, we have the same law, they are part of the United Kingdom because they wish to be part of the United Kingdom and I am a Prime Minister who belongs to the Conservative and Unionist party. The Unionist party in Northern Ireland has the right to come to our party conference and we, all of us, wholly accept, as does the Republic of Ireland, as do the new friends of Ireland in the United States congress, that there could be no change at all in the [end p2] constitutional position of Northern Ireland except by the wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. When you have said that, we have two things to do, we have constantly to reassure the Unionist group in Northern Ireland, and there are some Catholics who are Unionists as well, who want to stay with the United Kingdom, constantly to reassure them that they're part of the United Kingdom, they will remain part of the United Kingdom, unless and until they say they don't want to be, but equally we have to say to everyone there that it's in all our interests that we have a friendly relationship with the only country with whom we have a land border and that is the Republic of Ireland and that we have to have economic co-operation, we have to have security co-operation, across the border, and we have to learn to live as good neighbours. I think there are two further points that I would like to say. It is vital for all of us that we overcome terrorism, you can never get political advance against a background of terrorism, because people are frightened and they're made to be frightened and that is the tactics of the terrorists. Now first, the Republic of Ireland realises that the tactics of the IRA terrorists are just as much against the interests of the Republic of Ireland, as they are against Northern Ireland, because these people are not interested in democratic government, they wish to overthrow democratic government, whether it be in Northern Ireland or whether it be in the Republic of Ireland and that is just as much against the interests of the Republic, and they are active in trying to find out and bring to justice the terrorists in the Republic of Ireland, just as we are in the North. And the second thing I would like to say is especially recently the Roman Catholic church has come out with the most forthright condemnation of terrorism that I have ever seen. Cardinal O'Fiaich in November recently declared that participation in or co-operation with the provisional IRA was a mortal sin and later the Bishop Edward DalyBishop of Derry said no-one could remain a member of the Catholic church and belong to an organisation which had cold bloodedly murder as a central part of its strategy. So I would like to say, how very much we welcome those statements by the Roman Catholic church, that they are just as much fighting terrorism as everyone else and strenuously fighting it and we're very grateful to them. [end p3]

Interviewer

One of the things that struck me very forcibly in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, was the fact that everybody acts out of conviction - these convictions may be emotional but they're very deeply rooted. The Bishop of Londonderry, for example, Edward Daly, said that in his view it would need someone like De Gaulle, with respect to Algeria, to get over the kind of emotional problems involved in Northern Ireland. Have you any idea by what kind of leap of the imagination it might be possible to encourage people to abandon some part of these convictions which, after all, touch everything that seems to them important, their family life, their religion, their way of life in general?

Mrs. Thatcher

The situation with Algeria was totally different from the situation in Ireland, Northern Ireland is actually part of the United Kingdom. There's absolutely no parallel with a colonial situation or ex-colonial situation at all. Totally different. And one must recognise it is so. I don't think you can ever set about any political situation as positively, by trying to get people to abandon their emotions, for the simple reason that you won't succeed, and there's no point in going down that route. I think the only way is to try to overcome the terrorism, because so long as the terrorism is there you can never never get people together. If you can overcome the terrorism, and that does require this tremendous effort on the part of the whole of the security forces in Northern Ireland who are magnificent, on the part of the Republic in Ireland, on the part of the churches. We're getting that co-operation and we have to win against the terrorists. I think at that time you may be able to get people to see that it is within … in the interests of their children, and this after all I think is the most important emotion in the life of most people - what's it going to be like for my children? - in the interests of their children to try to get steady improvement, but to try to get them to abandon their emotions, how do you do it? By argument? But argument can never overcome emotions, we all know that. [end p4]

So I don't think that way is open. We do have problems, the children are brought up, as you know, in different schools, in different educational systems and we shouldn't get anywhere if we tried to persuade the churches to reject that either. But, you know, there are parts of Northern Ireland where Protestants and Catholics work alongside one another in the factories. I've been in factories where I've seen both a Union Jack and the Republic flag up and they've said - ‘look, I'm a republican’ and ‘I'm a unionist’, getting on perfectly well together and they would, if we could get rid of this terrorism and their children might come more closer together. I think that's the only constructive comment I can make.

Interviewer

May I ask you a final question about the image that people have abroad of yourself personally and of the British government in Northern Ireland - it's said of you, yourself, that you run the policies, so to speak, that you're obstinate, this is reflected in some ways by the fact that one sees graffiti on the walls in Paris saying - ‘Thatcher - assassin’, referring to the death of hunger strikers and things of that sort. On the other hand there is an idea abroad and in some political parties in France, for example, to the effect that - coming back to what you were saying just now - that this is the remainder of a colonial problem, there is the idea that the British are in some respect or another trying to occupy Ireland, trying to hold the Irish down. What is the answer you can give to people who hold this view, to try and give them a different image?

Mrs. Thatcher

Can I just deal with the hunger strike first? And you call me stubborn, you know you have to be stubborn about some things, in other words the stubborn is resolute. You have to resolute in fighting terrorism and in overcoming it, you'd never overcome it if you weren't. Let's go back to that hunger strike: every single person in the Maze prison is a person who has been convicted of crime in a court with the evidence given publicly by the full majesty and independence of the judicial process. There's not a single person in there who's just interned, they are all convicted criminals. There is no such thing as a political offence, they are convicted of murder, of attempted murder, of violent crime, of carrying explosives. Every [end p5] single person in there is a convicted criminal openly convicted by the courts of law and sentenced by the courts of law. Not a single person has ever suggested to me, whether it be in the Roman Catholic church, whether it be in the Republic of Ireland, not a single person who holds a responsible position in politics or in the church has ever suggested that those prisoners should have any special category status at all, they are recognised as criminals. They are in a prison which is one of the most modern in the United Kingdom. They have fouled the conditions filthily but that is them, we have tried to clean it up and keep it nice and clean for them, a modern prison, they've never been able to get anywhere by complaining about the prison conditions, we've had television in, we've had people in to see round, no-one's been able to complain about some of the most modern conditions, they couldn't complain about that, they couldn't complain that they were convicted criminals because they were, so they tried to draw attention to themselves by a hunger strike, by putting out the most appalling propaganda and that's why I tell you the truth about it. There are some countries who, when their prisoners go on hunger strike, force-feed them, I do not, we do not in the United Kingdom, we do everything possible to try to persuade them not to go on hunger strike because we say - look, you're throwing away your own life, this must be very painful for your relatives. The church tries to persuade them not to go on hunger strike. Every single day at every single meal-time the meal is placed by their side and the water. They won't take the meal, they will drink the water. they drink not tap water, they are given spring water, it contains more minerals, they take and will drink spring water. So we do everything for them, the moment they are in … become in physical difficulty they're transfered to the hospital ward and properly looked after. They can have visitors, their families, so we do everything for them to try to persuade them to come off, we're not going to force feed them, try to persuade them. If they wish to go to the end, I cannot prevent them. You know what happened after some of them had given up their lives, the families naturally began to get extremely worried, they could see no end to this process and we said that we would revive them when they went into a coma, if only the families would say, we would revive them instantly, if only they would give us a small word through their priest. then immediately all the medical facilities go to them, but we have [end p6] to have their consent, or the consent of a member of their family which we reckon substitutes for their consent, because there comes a time when they're just not in a position to give it. Now what better way could I have of tackling with respect their wishes? But the moment we have just a hint that that's not their wish, it's been forced upon them, or that their families don't want it to be their wish, if we get their consent to revive them that moment every single medical facility is concentrated upon them and that way, as you know, the hunger strike ended. Then they went back to violence, and you can talk to some of the prisoners, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland went in and talked to some of them and said - you have Protestant prisoners in there, likewise convicted of the same offences, alongside Catholic prisoners, convicted of similar offences, getting on perfectly well in there. And you say to them, ‘and when you go out, will you start fighting one another again?’ And they say ‘yes’. There's no rhyme or reason about this. But I am certain that our own policy was right, no international organisation has been able to fault us on the running of that prison, none - but none, but none. Everyone recognises that they are convicted criminals, so that's the position with regard to that. It is not, as I've said, a colonial problem, Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. Would you call in the United States, Texas, a colonial problem? It was not always part of the United States, it is part of the United States now, and will continue to be because its people wish it to be. Northern Ireland's part of the United Kingdom, as the wish of its people and part … I say of the United Kingdom. The image abroad we are constantly trying to correct, they think that we are holding down the people of Northern Ireland. I have to go and say - ‘look, we held a poll, a referendum, what is your wish?’ Democracy is the wish of the majority. We tried to get rid of terrorism, we tried to tell all people not to supply the IRA or any of the terrorists with money for arms, because what they do with that money is to maim and bomb innocent men, women and children, in Northern Ireland, in the United … the rest of the United Kingdom, sometimes elsewhere as well. So, yes, part of our problem is getting the facts across. When we get the facts across there is very much greater understanding and I think the talks which the Taoiseach and I have help to get the real facts across, help to get people to realise that terrorism now is run by political parties who are non-democratic, and that their wish is to overthrow the democratic system. So that we're getting across. [end p7] No-one will be happier than I am if we can overcome terrorism because only then I think shall we have a real chance, but, you know, the co-operation we're getting now does mean a great deal, but I sometimes think how dreadful it is that whole generations of children now have never known peace in the way that you and I know it in the rest of the United Kingdom and one wonders what kind of effect it must have on them. Sometimes, you know, when children have known bad things for a long time in their lives, you find that when they grow up they're even more determined that their children should have a better start and perhaps in that lies the hope for the future.

Interviewer

Thanks very much.