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.
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.
…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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London