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Former Limerick minister reflects on Thatcher era

Gerry Collins served in the cabinet when Margaret Thatcher (below) was British Prime Minister
AS an Irish minister during the 1980s, Gerry Collins was often at the receiving end of a handbagging from the late Margaret Thatcher.

AS an Irish minister during the 1980s, Gerry Collins was often at the receiving end of a handbagging from the late Margaret Thatcher.

The retired Limerick politician – who handled the justice and foreign affairs portfolios at a fractious time in Anglo-Irish relations – this week recalled his clashes with the Iron Lady.

He was present at the summit in Dublin Castle when Mrs Thatcher arrived as an inexperienced PM in 1980. And Mr Collins was also at the famous dinner at Versailles in 1990 as a subdued Thatcher contemplated the indignity of having to go to a second vote to stave off a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine.

“Obviously she will be seen as a figure of major historical significance. She was an exceptionally able person, a very focused and driven personality but very intolerant of those who disagreed with her,” he said.

And such was the state of Anglo-Irish affairs in the 1980s, it was inevitable she would have her disagreements with Gerry Collins.

“I spoke to her on many occasions over the years when it was necessary but more often it was her lecturing me. Any outburst of IRA activity in Northern Ireland and she would lay into me. I found that discretion was often the better part of valour when dealing with her and I would let her blow off steam first before I would put across the view of the Irish government,” he said.

It was left to Gerry Collins to explain to Jeremy Paxman and other BBC presenters the Irish position on matters such as extradition and why Britain’s demands to be allowed pursue fugitives across the border were out, out, out.

But Mrs Thatcher was never entirely convinced.

“She had great difficulty accepting that we were sovereign and not just some adjunct of the Commonwealth: that we had had our own government since the 1920s didn’t seem to make much difference to her.” He recalled that “at the 1980 summit at Dublin Castle, she had remarked, ‘That was a damn fine castle we left you, Collins’ and I said: ‘Yes ma’am, you left in a bit of a hurry, didn’t you?’ ”

Thatcher had hoped to spend the night at the British ambassador’s residence in Dublin but the Irish Minister for Justice thought this could be a risk to the safety of a woman who lost two close friends to IRA attacks. Mr Collins persuaded her to instead spend the night in Dublin Castle.

He still remembers the panic the following morning when Mrs Thatcher declined an offer of a full Irish breakfast.

“She didn’t much like the Athea black pudding and asked for a boiled egg instead. We had an egg but no eggcup so there was a fairly frantic search before we found one,” Mr Collins recalled.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan recalled that the Iron Lady had been “formal” at their only meeting, a coming together of European ministers, in the 1980s.

Having served at Minister for Justice in the lead-up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Minister Noonan credited Thatcher for having laid the “foundation stone” for the Good Friday Agreement by signing the prior accord.

On the economic policies that defined Thatcherism, Minister Noonan said that “what was seen as the time as totally radical, in terms of deregulation and privatisation, has become the norm in modern economies across Europe”.

And if there was one lesson Ireland had learned from Thatcherism, it was how not to engage with the trade union movement, the minister said.

“Her policies had caused such division in Britain that there was a reaction in Ireland not to go down that divisive route and it was partly out of that that the social partnership model - the better accommodation between government, employers and the unions - developed in Ireland.

“What she did was helpful in that way,” Minister Noonan said.

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