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Margaret Thatcher Wanted to Reinstate Death Penalty for Northern Irish 'Terrorists,' Show Newly Released Files

The divisive former UK prime minister wanted to try and crush the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland by reinstating capital punishment, according to historic documents released today.

by Katie Engelhart
Dec 30 2014, 3:20pm

Image via AP

"I shall vote to restore the death penalty," wrote then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in a tersely worded letter to a young political theorist at Cambridge University.

It was the summer of 1979, and Thatcher's Conservative Party had just won the general election after vowing to resurrect "the rule of law" in Britain and to crush the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But how? In July, two months after arriving at Downing Street, the Iron Lady was gunning hard to reinstate the death penalty. Her target: "terrorists" in Belfast.

Such is revealed in new trove of historic documents — UK government files from 1985-86 — made public today at The National Archives (TNA) in London, and examined by VICE News.

Image via The National Archives (PREM 19/1782)

It is well known that Thatcher was a capital punishment enthusiast. While serving as a member of parliament in 1969, she voted to scrap a suspension on the death penalty for murder. But the newly-release TNA file (PREM 19/1782) reveals the former prime minister's particular interest in deploying capital punishment in Northern Ireland — and her opponents' desperate entreaties for her to reconsider.

The file opens with a document dated July 11, 1979 — a beseeching letter from Sir Joseph Pilling, a permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, to the Home Office in London. In the memo, Pilling warned that "the execution of terrorists" would "greatly encourage terrorist morale" and "would swing public opinion... behind the terrorists and against the state. This would apply not just to the Republicans, but amongst the Loyalist community as well, if any of their terrorists should be executed."

Pilling speculated that a revived death penalty would also discourage repentant terrorists from confessing: "The confessions themselves would tend to dry up if the gallows were seen at the end of the process." Furthermore, he noted, under the threat of execution, "terrorists might resort to hostage-taking."

Later that year, the UK parliament held a vote on restoring the death penalty — but a healthy majority of parliamentarians voted "Nay," and the measure was defeated. After the votes were tallied, Thatcher reportedly lost her renowned cool and began shouting at Labour Party parliamentarians from across the dispatch box.

"The execution of Irish people under British law would almost certainly create a situation worse than anything our two governments have experienced."

In 1983, capital punishment was again put to vote in parliament. Shortly before the ballot, an especially pleading letter to Thatcher arrived from Ireland, via the Irish ambassador in London. "The execution of Irish people under British law would almost certainly create a situation worse than anything our two governments have experienced during the past thirteen years," wrote Irish Foreign Minister Peter Barry on July 8, 1983. "The IRA [Irish Republican Army], the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army], and other terrorist organizations would take full advantage of their opportunity."

Around the same time yet another note arrived, this one from Pieter Dankert, then president of the European Parliament. Writing to "Dear Mrs. Thatcher" from Luxembourg, Dankert charged that the restoration of capital punishment, "would be an extraordinary and terrible decision. Britain would be taking a great step backwards from its position of moral authority both in the community and the commonwealth."

On 18 July 1983, Thatcher herself penned a letter to Professor John Gunn, a political theorist at Cambridge who had written a report on the possible effects of a death penalty revival. Thatcher avowed that she would personally "vote to restore the death penalty."

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And yet, later in 1983, Thatcher's effort was again defeated. A decade on, in 1994, the British parliament held its last debate on the reintroduction of capital punishment.

The death penalty in England, Wales, and Scotland was suspended in 1965 — and wholly abolished in 1969. Northern Ireland nixed capital punishment several years later, in 1973.

But IRA bombings in the mid-70s inspired calls for a reintroduction of state executions. By 1979, Thatcher "hoped that a large intake of new Tory MPs who favoured hanging would vote with her to restore it, at least for terrorist murderers and the killing of police officers," wrote former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken, in his 2013 biography of Thatcher.

Capital punishment was employed in Britain from the earliest days of the state's existence. Indeed, British criminal law was once known as the "Bloody Code" — on account of how liberally it doled out death sentences. In the 18th century, the death penalty was applied to such paltry crimes as pickpocketing, stealing bread, and "being in the company of gypsies for one month." It was only in the 19th century that British lawmakers started to curb their application of lethal law and order.

Follow Katie Engelhart: @katieengelhart