A Terrorist Bombing Was No Match for This Iron Lady

A Terrorist Bombing Was No Match for This Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher

SourceAlvaro Hidalgo for Ozy

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The thunderous blast was met with silence — apart from echoes of falling masonry. No one screamed. Thick dust choked the air. And yet, somehow, the lights stayed on. Moments after the Irish Republican Army rocked the Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were staying on October 12, 1984, the prime minister’s thoughts immediately went to the fate of her husband, Denis, in the adjacent room.

Both had escaped injury from the device planted weeks earlier by an IRA terrorist. It detonated minutes before 3 a.m., and the British leader — still wearing a formal gown after the evening’s event — remained awake. If a staffer hadn’t handed her a final letter to sign right before the blast, according to The Iron Lady, by John Campbell, she might otherwise have been preparing for bed in her bathroom — the one part of her suite damaged by the bomb. Five were killed in the explosion, and 31 injured, including Margaret Tebbit — wife of cabinet member Norman Tebbit — who was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

The Iron Lady, in other words, displayed flexibility and pragmatism in the face of terror.

When firemen arrived, the Thatchers were whisked away to a police station, where the prime minister dusted herself off and lay down for a short nap. According to There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, by Claire Berlinski, she wanted to look fresh for a speech she was to deliver that morning at the Conservative Party conference. Friends urged her to return to London, but she refused. In the face of terrorists “attempt[ing] to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically elected government,” Thatcher would deliver her speech as scheduled. “She was able to draw on reserves of strength and courage to face down, publicly anyway, the people who committed the atrocity,” says Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron and a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

In her speech, Thatcher noted that “the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” Unpopular early in her tenure, Thatcher’s leadership through the Falklands War saw her approval ratings soar as high as 84 percent. Victory over the Argentines lifted spirits on both sides of the aisle — a feat buoyed further by a measure of economic recovery at home. Bale says it took “enormous reserves of psychological resilience to do what she did that morning,” and her defiance in the face of terror resulted in overwhelming admiration from the British public.

Few would’ve been surprised if she had turned her back on Irish negotiations altogether, given her “Iron Lady” reputation. But Bale says Thatcher “was a fully rounded human being” who kicked off her shoes to enjoy a whiskey with colleagues, expressed empathy and knew how to laugh — hardly the machine or automaton critics have tried to paint her as. She stood firm against the IRA without severing ties with the Irish government or dashing hopes for finding a solution to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Instead, she forged a closer relationship with the government of the Republic of Ireland — a move that made her much less sympathetic to Irish Republicanism but “did not deflect her or her government from trying to seek creative solutions to that problem,” Bale says. The Iron Lady, in other words, displayed flexibility and pragmatism in the face of terror.

Was Thatcher driven by fear or a lost confidence? Not to Bale’s mind. He calls it a sign of strength that “even after something like this, [Thatcher] still was able to recognize the fact that only a solution which involved the government of Ireland as well as the government of the U.K. could bring peace to Northern Ireland.” In fact, her reputation as a strong leader and her hostility to terrorism were factors that enabled British conservatives to trust Thatcher to move forward with the peace process. This process, for Northern Ireland, translated to more violence — including government-backed loyalist paramilitaries, increasing radicalization and a “shoot-to-kill” policy that ultimately prompted the European Court of Human Rights to force Downing Street to pay compensation to families. But Thatcher’s heightened focus on the conflict also ushered in landmark legislation.

One year later, on November 15, 1985, she and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Republic of Ireland its first chance at an advisory role in governing Northern Ireland. Thatcher was disappointed that the agreement failed to boost cross-border cooperation against terror, Campbell writes, but in time she would have reason to feel proud, when her first steps led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and power-sharing governance a decade later.

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