The Iron Lady’s first visit to Derry recalled

Margaret Thatcher receives a gift of a dressing gown from Desmonds' boss Denis Desmond during her visit to the firm's Drumahoe warehouse in September 1988. [13-01-12 Thatcher 1]
Margaret Thatcher receives a gift of a dressing gown from Desmonds' boss Denis Desmond during her visit to the firm's Drumahoe warehouse in September 1988. [13-01-12 Thatcher 1]

She remains as divisive a figure now as she did when she was British Prime Minister.

A new cinematic biopic of Margaret Thatcher would appear to have split movie-goers here in Northern Ireland with those in Britain.

The British PM signs the visitors' book at Desmonds while her husband, Denis, and Denis Desmond look on. [13-01-12 SML 76]

The British PM signs the visitors' book at Desmonds while her husband, Denis, and Denis Desmond look on. [13-01-12 SML 76]

The film - starring Oscar-winner Merlyn Streep - is playing to packed cinemas in the South of England while those here in the North are apparently near empty.

In fact, some screenings of ‘The Iron Lady’ in northern England have even been picketed in protest.

While Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Lady Thatcher, now 86, became unpopular in many northern towns during bitter clashes with trade unions, especially the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

But nowhere is opinion more fractured on Mrs. T’s legacy than here in Northern Ireland where, on the one hand, she is a hate figure for republicans and nationalists while, on the other, she is still warmly regarded by unionists.

Oscar winner Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady'. [13-01-12 Thatcher 30]

Oscar winner Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady'. [13-01-12 Thatcher 30]

Incidentally, it’s just over 23 years since Margaret Thatcher made her first visit to Derry as Prime Minister.

It was in September 1988 - just two years before she resigned as PM and leader of the Conservative Party - that she flew into Derry by helicopter to pay a whistlestop visit to the Desmond’s textile factory in Drumahoe.

There was tight security around Drumahoe for Mrs. Thatcher’s first stop in a one day visit to the North when she met local political and industrial leaders at Desmonds - then one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Thatcher arrived by helicopter in Derry and was met by Denis Desmond, chairman and managing director of Desmonds who, in 1988, had nine factories across the North, employing some 2,400 people.

The British PM spent approximately 50 minutes at Desmonds’ Drumahoe warehouse where she was given a guided tour by Mr. Desmond and met employees.

She was accompanied on the visit by her husband, Denis, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tom King.

While in Derry, Mrs. Thatcher met the then SDLP leader John Hume and the Mayor of Derry, Colr. Anna Gallagher.

Mr. Desmond told Mrs. Thatcher it was good that she was being given the opportunity to see another side to Northern Ireland - a prosperous private sector.

After signing the company’s visitors’ book, Mrs. Thatcher told the local workforce that it was a great pleasure to visit the factory. She said both she and her husband, Denis, were “great fans” of Marks and Spencer - the high street giant which Desmonds’ supplied clothes to for many years.

Before leaving the factory, the company presented the British PM and her husband with dressing gowns. Mrs. Thatcher left by helicopter from a nearby school where pupils turned out to wish her farewell. See the ‘Sunday Journal’ Movie Guide this weekend for Erin Hutcheon’s review of ‘The Iron Lady’.