WHEN the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher was announced to the world on Monday morning, it created a whole wave of differing emotions for one Craigavon councillor.
As he reflected on the death of the former Prime Minister at age 87, Colin McCusker recalled how Baroness Thatcher famously crossed swords with his late father Harold in the House of Commons in 1985.
Baroness Thatcher became a hate figure for republicans after her refusal to engage with the IRA hunger strikers at the Maze, but her status among unionists changed for ever in the mid 1980s.
Baroness Thatcher, who became the first female British prime minister in 1979, signed the controversial Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, an accord that gave the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in Northern Ireland’s affairs.
After Baroness Thatcher signed the document along with the Republic’s premier Garrett Fitzgerald, there was uproar across Northern Ireland, with opposition led by Harold McCusker, the Upper Bann MP, both at home and in the House of Commons.
Mr McCusker, whose life was sadly cut short by cancer at the age of just 50 in 1990, gave a series of emotive speeches on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and his exchanges with Lady Thatcher in the House of Commons were particularly heated.
Colin McCusker expressed his condolences to the Thatcher family, but admitted that he and his family had never forgiven the former Prime Minister for what they saw as breaking a crucial link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“While I am happy to be associated with many of the glowing tributes to one of our longest serving British Prime Ministers, I am unable to forgive her for signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. While many unionists refer to the fact that she regretted the agreement in later life, for me, and my family, such regrets are too little, too late,” he said.
“My late father’s reaction to the Anglo-Irish agreement was described by a journalist as the most bitter of all the unionist politicians of the time. As a young 14-year-old, having just started Portadown Colllege, I have very vivid memories of the mood that existed in my home in the immediate aftermath of the agreement.
“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.”
Harold McCusker had overcome cancer in the 1970s, but Colin is adamant that the return of the disease was connected to his deep upset at the political direction in Northern Ireland adopted by the Thatcher-led British Government.
He continued, “He believed that it was due to his state of mind and his attitude to life following the Anglo Irish agreement that allowed the cancer to return. He stated this in an interview with Norman Stockton of UTV in the summer before his death. As the cancer became more aggressive and we all knew it was only a matter of time before he died, he started making plans for his funeral. He asked for two things in particular to happen at his funeral, that an inscription be placed on his headstone, which was his reaction in the immediate aftermath of the AIA. He also asked that the final pallbearers to his grave would include his closest political associates and the authors of the Task Force report – Peter Robinson, Frank Millar and Ken Maginnis.”
Hansard, the official account of the House of Commons, records an exchange between Harold McCusker and Mrs Thatcher on December 18, 1985. Some of these comments are inscribed on Mr McCusker’s grave at Lurgan Cemetery.
Harold McCusker said: “I never knew what desolation felt like until I read this agreement last Friday afternoon. Does the Prime Minister realise that, when she carries the agreement through the House, she will have ensured that 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? Is not the reality of this agreement that they will now be Irish-British hybrids and that every aspect—not just some aspects—of their lives will be open to the influence of those who have harboured their murderers and coveted their land? Is the Prime Minister aware that that is too high a price for me and hundreds of thousands of others in Northern Ireland to pay?”
In reply, Mrs Thatcher emphasised that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK could not be changed without the consensus of the majority of the province’s population.
She said, “No. The status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed unless the majority so wish. The hon. Gentleman chooses to ignore that, although it is one of the best assurances that he could have. The agreement also makes it clear that there is no derogation from the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Government or the Irish Government. Each retains responsibility for the decisions and administration of government with their own jurisdiction. ”
Colin McCusker added, “Little did he know that the grave he spoke about on that day would receive his remains in just over four years’ time – he was buried on February 14, 1990.
“The Anglo-Irish Agreement broke his spirit and he lost the fight.”