BBC documentary reveals Thatcher was in talks with IRA at time of bomb

Published: 3 Apr 2014 16:300 comments

A former Northern Ireland Secretary of State to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has revealed that the British Government had already started communicating with the IRA at the time of the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

Fermanagh man Trevor Birney, who directed the Thatcher documentary that will be screened on BBC One tonight (Thursday).

Fermanagh man Trevor Birney, who directed the Thatcher documentary that will be screened on BBC One tonight (Thursday).

It had been thought up until now that Mrs. Thatcher hadn’t opened communications to the IRA until October, 1990, but now it is claimed that talks began as early as 1986.

A documentary directed by Enniskillen born journalist Trevor Birney airs tonight on BBC One and examines Mrs. Thatcher’s strategy of dealing with the IRA; how she was fiercely combative in public, yet behind the scenes, was secretly talking to Republicans.

Asked if he was aware that talks were ongoing, former Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King said: “Yes, yes, I was.”

The Enniskillen bombing had a “profound impact” on Mrs. Thatcher, her former Downing Street aide has said.

In a revealing new interview, Charles Powell has spoken of how visiting the town in the aftermath of the IRA attack which killed 11 people and injured 63 affected Mrs. Thatcher “greatly”.

A number of interviews on the Enniskillen bombing, which are not included in the programme tonight, were carried out with people who were close to the former Prime Minister at that time, including Mr. King, her Chief Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, and Charles Powell, her former private secretary.

In one of these interviews, Mr. Powell recalled the former Prime Minister’s visit to Enniskillen following the bombing.

“I do remember the Enniskillen visit and it’s one which made a profound impact on her in various ways. One, it reinforced her view of the horrors of the IRA and their murderous nature and her determination again not to give in to them, not to take steps which would seem to be yielding to them. Secondly, it had an impact on her because of the extraordinary humanity of Mr. Gordon Wilson talking to her about his daughter and his ability to see beyond the terrible, terrible hurt he and his family had suffered and in the spirit of forgiveness make comments which she didn’t believe anyone could have made or could have had the impact which he had.

“So they both affected her greatly. We actually went to Enniskillen on the way to I think a summit meeting in France and it was a diversion, but one she was profoundly glad to have made,” he said.

Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, said he felt that Mrs. Thatcher was “outraged that people would bomb a memorial service”.

“She went there [to Enniskillen], I mean, I remember it was a pretty damp, grey day, but her presence there I think was another indication of her determination not to, not to be brow beaten. And she spoke to Gordon Wilson who had been more forgiving than anybody could ever imagine over the death of his daughter. And I think she was probably pretty well moved by Gordon Wilson,” he said.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King also recalled Mr. Wilson’s “deeply moving” interview and described the bomb as “a huge blunder by the IRA”.

“And I shall never forget the moment when we flew into St. Angelo base and then drove into the main square in Enniskillen,” said Mr. King, “And the gasp through the whole crowd when they saw Margaret Thatcher get out of that car with me at the square.”

“The rain lashed down, real Fermanagh, it was shooting, standing in the square with no umbrellas or anything else. We then went into the manse [St Macartin’s Deanery] I think beforehand, before we went into the cathedral. I remember it and I was jolly cold and we were pretty wet.”

“And Mrs Thatcher was there with a sort of smart court shoes on or something. It’s the only time I think in my life I gave an absolute categoric order without allowing any argument, and I said: Prime Minister, take your shoes off. And she took her shoes off and stood in front of this single bar electric fire trying to sort of warm up. Then we went into the cathedral for the service,” he said.

The former Secretary of State described the bombing as “an horrific, awful incident and a tragedy” and said Mrs. Thatcher’s visit to Enniskillen was “a tremendous morale strengthener for Northern Ireland at that time”.

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