REACTION to the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been dominated by her battles with the left, and with Irish republicanism – but unionist outrage at her signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement has been largely played down. The Detail’s Steven McCaffery reports.
YOU could say he took his hatred for Margaret Thatcher’s policy in Ireland to the grave.
Not Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner that republicans say she allowed to die through her handling of the Hunger Strike, but a leading unionist whose family believe was mortally wounded by her other major Irish political endeavour.
In 1985 Harold McCusker condemned the Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave Dublin a say in Northern Ireland affairs and it was his dying wish that the words of a blistering attack he levelled at the Iron Lady in Westminster be etched on his tombstone.
He prophetically declared: “I shall carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of the injustice that I have done to my constituents down the years – when, in their darkest hours, I exhorted them to put their trust in this British House of Commons which one day would honour its fundamental obligation to them to treat them as equal British citizens.”
The Agreement was delivered over the heads of unionists at the height of the Troubles and many viewed it as a betrayal of their British heritage, sparking mass protests including a huge demonstration in Belfast where Ian Paisley famously boomed “never, never, never”.
But following Mrs Thatcher’s death last week, while socialist and republican critics heaped scorn on their former enemy, senior unionists were notably muted in their criticism and opted instead to focus on the former premier’s economic and military legacy.
Harold McCusker challenged Mrs Thatcher in the House of Commons at the time the deal was signed, though as he died of cancer five years later having failed to derail the pact, he asked that his rebuke to the Prime Minister be written on his headstone, where it now rests.
His son Colin, who is an Ulster Unionist representative and a close aide of current party leader Mike Nesbitt, visits the grave saying he has no wish to offend the Thatcher family, but believes unionists should recall the outrage felt over the former Prime Minister’s historic deal with Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.
“While others have been very quick to heap praise on the former British Prime Minister, I have struggled to make such gushing tributes,” said Mr McCusker.
“While I am more than prepared to recognise a lot of her achievements, not least, the Falklands War, her action in signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, was one of the single most important events in my lifetime.
“The impact that Agreement had on my father, and ultimately our family life can never be fully understood by those outside the world of politics.
“My mother believes that the Anglo-Irish Agreement killed my father – it broke his spirit and he lost his fight against the cancer he had defeated a number of years previously.”ULSTER MAN SAYS NO
Harold McCusker was deputy leader of his party and tipped for the top job. He was MP for Co Armagh from 1974-83, and when electoral boundaries were redrawn he became MP for Upper Bann from 1983.
He joined other unionist MPs who resigned their seats across Northern Ireland in a rejection of the 1985 Agreement.
Following his re-election he embarked on a series of demonstrations and protests that saw him serve short jail terms, before he died from cancer aged 50 in 1990. His long-held Westminster seat passed to future unionist figurehead David Trimble.
Colin McCusker said: "We were told by my father that he regretted bringing us up to believe we were equal British citizens, like the rest of the United Kingdom.
“He was now genuinely of the belief that the citizens of Northern Ireland were now semi-British citizens, or as he preferred to put it, we were Irish-British hybrids.
“I recall a number of small things he did, but significant nonetheless, like no longer singing the National Anthem – he could just about bring himself to stand for it. He also refused to fly the Union Flag from his home during the month of July, as he had done every year up to that point. It was now flown wrapped in a black bow.”
Other unionists have in recent days cited Mrs Thatcher’s expressions of regret over the Anglo-Irish Agreement and her disappointment that it failed to deliver the level of cross-border security cooperation she expected.
The 1985 accord is alternatively seen as having laid the foundations for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that secured support for new political structures inside Northern Ireland, between Dublin and London, but also for formal cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland.THE DAYS OF ‘SMASH SINN FÉIN’
The DUP and Ulster Unionists jointly opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty and current Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson played a leading role in the protest campaign.
That led to one of the most controversial episodes of his career when he was among 500 loyalists who staged an ‘incursion’ into the Co Monaghan village of Clontibret, though the bid to mock the standard of cross-border security resulted in him being fined for unlawful assembly.
Unionists staged a long series of protests and demonstrations against the agreement and laid siege to the Maryfield secretariat outside Belfast where civil servants representing the Republic of Ireland government were based.
Despite the political turmoil of the period, Mr Robinson issued a statement following news of Mrs Thatcher’s death, saying: "As our first female Prime Minister, she made history and as ‘The Iron Lady’ she was at the front-line of winning The Cold War as well as ensuring the freedom of the Falklands Islands.
“Whilst we disagreed over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mrs Thatcher was committed to the Union and later described the Anglo-Irish Agreement as one of her greatest regrets.
“Although relations were frosty at that time, I had a private social lunch with her in more recent years in much more convivial and positive circumstances.
“The passing of Baroness Thatcher draws to an end a remarkable life devoted to the service of the United Kingdom. She was one of a kind: tough, possessed of a supreme intellect and driven by conviction.
“The entire country is indebted to her for all that she achieved. I know that her accomplishments will not soon be forgotten by a grateful nation.”
It was a world away from the white heat of unionist rhetoric in the late ’80s.
Others have suggested, however, that sensitivities to the bereaved Thatcher family have led many to temper remarks about the turmoil of the Anglo-Irish period.
And as Mr Robinson pointed out in comments marking the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in the same week as Mrs Thatcher’s death, Unionism now believes it has regained control of its political destiny.
Mr Robinson remained close to Harold McCusker and was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Colin McCusker says he believes that as First Minister, Mr Robinson “had to be statesmanlike” in his recent comments, but he said he believed other unionists failed to sufficiently record how Mrs Thatcher raised the political temperature within their ranks in 1985.
He recalls his father’s House of Commons speech and the claim he would “carry to my grave” a “sense of desolation”.
Colin McCusker said: “Little did he know that the grave he spoke about on that day would receive his remains in just over 4 years’ time – he was buried in his hometown, in Lurgan Cemetery on 14 February 1990. The Anglo-Irish Agreement broke his spirit and he lost the fight.”