Friday 18 October 2019

Brass neck and iron will hardened hearts during the hunger strikes

MARGARET Thatcher is the reason Gerry Adams is sitting in Dail Eireann and Martin McGuinness in Stormont.

Her inflexibility during the hunger strike period, not merely during the Bobby Sands era, but earlier in the strike led by Brendan Hughes, led to a tidal wave of nationalist support swamping the SDLP and revivifying Sinn Fein with the blood of martyrs.

The Hughes strike could have ended the problems in the H Block if Thatcher had been prepared to cut a deal along the lines concluded by the Dublin government with the Provisionals in Portlaoise.

But at the last minute the prisoners failed to get access to 'civilian-type clothing' – tracksuits, provided by their relatives – and were frustrated in their attempts to come off the 'no wash' protest.

Hughes called off the protest thinking that one of the hunger strikers, Sean McKenna, was near death. The British thought so too and believed that he would break rather than die. Thatcher wanted a win, not a compromise, possibly steeled in her resolve by the murder of her friend Airey Neave by the INLA. The attempt by the IRA to kill her at Brighton can only have hardened that resolve.

However, Bobby Sands, who took over from Hughes as the leader of the subsequent hunger strike, knew that this one would be to the death and so it proved, with resultant emotional consequences throughout the six counties and with an overspill here with lasting effects.

Whether Thatcher's 'Iron Lady' nickname in fact portrayed her real character, she did prove herself capable of winning battles, though whether history will judge her a winner in the overall wars is another matter.

'Attila the Hen', as republicans scornfully termed her, defeated the miners' strike led by Arthur Scargill with the aid of the notorious strike-breaker, who she imported from America – Ian MacGregor – and MI5, who tapped phones and helped her in her confrontational approach, which involved the use of baton charges and mounted police.

But she fissured British society and her destruction of the trade union movement and her determined assault on the British welfare state and the NHS, while it won her the approval of Ronald Reagan and his "trickle down" economics, arrested the development in English society which had been going on since the days when Lloyd George took the first steps towards welfare for all.

Thatcher could play the Iron Lady role to a thunderous approval from the right, both in England and the US, but she left a very clear scorchmark on Europe where she displayed her 'Attila the Hen' qualities to the full at the expense of Europe's beliefs in Britain's bona fides over Europe.

PERHAPS her most egregious use of the age-old trick of distracting her public's attention with a foreign war came over the Falklands. Thatcher's reputation over Ireland, while it was borne down by the hunger strikers, was ironically borne up by the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, which she concluded in the face of anguished entreaties from Garret FitzGerald and others that the riptide unleashed by the hunger strikers' deaths would sweep away the SDLP if she did not act.

The agreement, which Charlie Haughey at first denounced, was recognised by the unionists for what it was, a decisive step forward by Dublin into Belfast affairs. Agents of the Dublin government henceforth would be in Belfast as of right, southern accents would increasingly be heard in the corridors of power north of the Border.

And the shadow of the Tricolour began to fall across the Union flag, to an extent which elicited the recent loyalist protests over a reduction in the number of days in which it is to fly over City Hall now dominated by nationalists.

So far as England is concerned, Thatcher helped to validate Napolean's famous description of England as being a nation of shopkeepers. This daughter of a grocer was to lead the Tory Party for nearly 13-years, thereby eliciting the judgment of David Cameron that she was Britain's greatest peacetime leader. Supporters of Tony Blair might say: "Well he would say that, wouldn't he?". But in more unbiased reflection I think it fairer to say that for all that Cameron, the old Etonian, elicits images of elitism, England, and probably Ireland, are better off with the Cameron variety of 'Toryismunbiased' than with Thatcher's habit of creating fairly bloody battlefields and claiming them as symbols of democratic progress.

Tim Pat Coogan is a historian

Irish Independent

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