Is demonising Mrs Thatcher over the hunger strike also being laid to rest?


It was said of the republican “long war “ – (was it by Danny Morrison? – if not it ought to have been) – that one death in Britain was worth about 20 –  or 100? in Northern Ireland.   The corollary is that one of the lessons repeated in the welter of Thatcher press coverage is how little concentrated attention has tended to be paid in Britain to even the worst horrors of our Troubles. In the list of Thatcherite landmarks the hunger strike barely features apart from the broad context before and after of the murders of those strong pro- Unionist Conservatives Airey Neave and Ian Gow, Lord Mountbatten and the victims of the Brighton bomb. The main significance of all of these lay across the water.

My own response to the hunger strike at the time was equivocal. I thought it was a barbaric political weapon even as I stood over the grave with my film crew as Bobby Sands’ body was being lowered and IRA gun salute was fired. But that view was tempered by common humanity when I met and interviewed some of the families at the time. It was their loss, actual or prospective that they stressed, not the Cause.

In the Daily Telegraph list of Thatcher coverage the hunger strike barely figured. The same for the Sunday Times and the Guardian. More surprisingly apart from stories about Sinn Fein’s reaction to her death, the same is true for the Irish Times. It’s very possible I’ve missed something of note and I’m happy to be corrected. If I’m right though,  isn’t the restraint  surprising when she could be held to have had the power of life or death  over  the hunger strikers’ lives?

Not surprisingly the version of Thatcher the enemy of Ireland is rejected in neo-revisionist  Indy comment.  I select two pieces. I don’t claim them as typical of the wider southern reaction but they may be another sign of changing times  about some of the previously most incendiary issues.

John Paul McCarthy

Her most irritating characteristic from our perspective was the way she took hold of our most tender political contradictions and fed them back to us with that stare and in that tone of voice.

On the H-Block nightmare, she analysed that situation the way Jack Lynch did when faced with Sean MacStiofain’s threat of self-immolation in 1972. Lynch explained that “the challenge to the institutions of the State is direct, deliberate and unmistakable. The Government have no choice but to meet it. The consequences that may ensue are regretted by the members of the Government as they no doubt are regretted by everybody with a normal human concern for human life. The consequences, however, are not of the Government’s making”.

It’s one thing for Irish nationalism to absorb this kind of critique when it’s delivered in a Cork accent, quite another though to hear it played back via a megaphone in Finchley.

…in acting like Lynch in 1981, Mrs Thatcher made people aware that the hunger strikes constituted a mere variation in Provisional tactics. The people who brought us the car-bomb and the no-warning pub bomb in the Seventies had now opened another front. The assassin had become the kamikaze.

Her stewardship here taught the Provisionals a hard lesson.

Eilis O’Hanlon

…we always had a complicated relationship with Thatcher that parallels our complicated relationship with England. A sense of being overshadowed and bullied by their mere presence. Both so big that we can’t escape their shadow.

Republicans certainly sought to exploit that ambiguity by filling the vacuum after her death with their own fairy tales about the hunger strikes. The truth is we’re nowhere near to understanding that terrible time, and, when we finally do, the story will be more complex than the cartoon which dominated Irish airwaves last week. The notion that Mrs Thatcher killed Bobby Sands is as absurd as the unionist countermyth that the blanketmen were depraved criminals who wanted to starve to death out of sectarian spite. Yet maybe the feminist and republican narratives of Thatcher were an appropriate illustration of the intellectual morass into which her opponents have sunk.


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  • SamFanto

    Iron Lady? [Text removed – Mods]

    There have been (up till Friday, maybe since too) 5 nights of rioting in Derry – check out this (see entry for 12/4/13): – a good rejection of Martin McGuiness telling people not to celebrate her death. Also check out this.

    I heard that after the Brighton bombing she suggested shipping out all the Catholics from the 6 counties. Probably the early onset of Alzheimers…

  • Mick Fealty

    For her enemies, I think that quote from Shakespeare, that John used, probably applies… “all good buried with her bones…” or something… Margaret Thatcher’s debts will be cancelled by her death, but much of the rage has already, in Britain, been transfered onto her most favoured political son, T Blair.

    She did, and McCarthy notes above, teach the Provisionals a tough lesson (which continued for most of the 90s)… and it simultaneously opened the door to another way of doing business…

    I wonder though about this and other attempts to channel history in ways that are helpful to current politics. All politicians do this one extent or another, but Sinn Fein are engaged in a caressing of the past on an industrial scale.

    I suspect will not prove productive in the long run…for the simple reason you cannot self narrate your own history (and expect to be believed), that’s for historians and other inquirers after the ‘truth’ to decide.

    We are, to borrow from Eilis O’Hanlon above in the agit prop, cartoon era of political history… in which artificial binaries are manufactured in other to condition our political choices in the present…

    Paddy Manning ( on dealing with other forms of “pernicious binary yoking”:

    “We should contest every term, dispute every assumption, allow nothing to be built in to language. If language is reduced to a list then we won’t lose the argument, there will be no argument to lose.”

  • SamFanto

    PS Even though I’ve been on loads of demonstrations against Brutish poolicy in Ireland since 1969, I should say that I don’t support republicanism any more than I support any other form of capitalism…

    I’d say that the ideology of sacrifice, encouraged by Christianity, was one of the factors in the death of Bobby Sands, and the others, not just Thatcher.

    The best things that ever happened in Northern Ireland, apart from the few non-sectarian strikes, were the short-lived Derry street councils of 1969, the looting in Ballymurphy and Derry in the same year and the massive rent strikes in the Catholic areas in 1971 following internment.

    The rest has been pretty disastrous, with very little for the working class to learn from apart from the negative lessons of what happens if you support one would-be capitalist gang against another (would-be or actual).

  • Barnshee

    I would have thought ” celebrating ” the demise is not wise Establishing a precedent in NI inviting as it will similar events on the demise of some of the”saints” in republicanism

  • SamFanto

    Of course for politicians to advocate celebrating the demise of a political opponent could mean that it would set a precedent for their own death. But politicans are very rarely the victims of the success of their opponents actual practical policies (though electorally they may be) – it’s us, the working class, who invariably are, and it’s us who should be celebrating her death even if it happened far far too late. I’ll also celebrate Blair’s death, and McGuinness’s and Paisley’s and that of republican or monarchist “saints” in politican’s clothing wherever they are. Those who are part of the state are the enemies of the masses of individuals everywhere.

  • Greenflag

    There’s only one kind of person that the average Englishman detests more than a loud arrogant in your face American tirading about the lack of adequate toilet facilities or the weather and that’s the high pitched marble toned voice of a bossy Englishwoman which the late Baroness Thatcher exemplified to an almost Oscar winning degree.

    Love her or loathe her she more than any other British politician unintentionally I would add created the the political mood among the nationalist/republican community in Northern Ireland which transformed the political fortunes of SF and made them the biggest political party on the nationalist side .

    She was no demon. She reflected the middle class values of middle England and never quite understood or empathised with the effects her economic policies had on vast areas of the North of England , Scotland and Wales much less Northern Ireland .

    In the light of economic and global political events since her ‘reign’ I would say that she did not ‘save ‘Britain’ but could be said to have bought it some time to readjust to the changing European and global economic climate . Blair followed suit by and large -But time is running out for Cameron & Clegg and even Milliband the younger as it is for all our western politicians in the face of the new rulers of the Earth 🙁