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Maurice Hayes: Savage poetic irony shows Thatcher's hidden side


Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the film 'The Iron Lady'

Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the film 'The Iron Lady'

Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the film 'The Iron Lady'

AT least King Lear was allowed the best part of a millennium before the fall from power, the loss of faculties, the desertion by friends and the descent into madness were recycled for public entertainment. Margaret Thatcher has not been so lucky.

There is a savage poetic irony in the release of state papers for 1981 portraying a dominant and domineering figure at the height of her intellectual and political power virtually simultaneously with the release of a film in which she is powerfully, and movingly portrayed as a sad prisoner of dementia. Incidentally, the papers do much to qualify the received Irish view of Mrs Thatcher as impervious to advice and persuasion, implacably waiting to claim victory when the last hunger striker had died or surrendered. For a variety of reasons, she is seen to have modified her attitude and to have been prepared for compromise in the end.

The recent papers do not tell us much about the period of the hunger strikes that was not already known, or intuited -- a situation that no one had really wanted, which all sides had blundered into and could not find a way out of. Accidentally or otherwise, it proved to be the game-changer, the turning point in an intractable struggle that fundamentally altered the direction of modern republicanism and the face of contemporary Irish politics. The papers are better seen less as revealed truth than as raw material for further analysis and investigation by historians, journalists and others. They were not generally written, as some historians seem to think, with an eye to being read by them in 30 years' time.

Mostly, they are working papers compiled under the pressure of events and the inability to cope with or even explain them adequately. In the blizzard of commentary in the media there is very little recognition of the fact that the documents were created by civil servants, mainly senior civil servants, a class that is currently the butt for every disgruntled hack looking for a headline.

And yet it was these men who patiently held the fort, who grappled with issues of life and death in the course of a bloody conflict that threatened to engulf the nation. For a small band who are inordinately represented in these current papers, this was the cause of finding peace in Ireland and stable relations between Ireland and Britain -- and a settlement of conflict which was consistent with the national interest and with basic human rights. One voice more than any other resonates through the Irish papers, that of the late Dermot Nally, as a calming influence on the impetuosity of ministers and others, focused always on the national interest and the wider picture.

In attempting to make sense of the hunger strikes, even in the avalanche of paper now becoming available, there is one gaping hole -- the absence of anything from what might be called the other side, the non-governmental actors. In the various fields of activity, governments in both jurisdictions may lay bare their secrets (or as much of them as they are prepared to divulge at present), revealing doubt, uncertainty, ignorance, prejudice or lack of judgement; while the others get away with reconstructed, sanitised memory, unsupported by, or unassailed by, contemporaneous documentation.

It is too much to expect that paramilitary organisations or ad hoc bodies operating under threat of arrest should achieve the same level of documentation as state agencies. But the point has to be made that until bodies like Sinn Fein and the IRA (or former members) come clean on their contribution to the events of the last four decades, to the level of transparency that they are demanding of the State, the history of the period will remain incomplete and speculative.

Another hole in the narrative, at least in the papers reviewed in the media, is the lack of any account of the role of the prison officers and their union in prolonging the hunger strike, or preventing a compromise settlement.

The prison officers had been engaged in a bitter attritional struggle during the dirty protest, in which both sides had become brutalised, and were subject to a campaign of murder of off-duty officers.

There is a strong argument that had they not forced the prison authorities to welsh on the terms of settlement of the first hunger strike, the second might not have occurred. For those who had lived with the problem at the level of government this might have seemed like the end, the collapse of all their hopes and efforts.

For a less committed and idealistic politician than Garret FitzGerald, it might have been the time to throw in the towel. And yet, with patient diplomacy, and the work of Dermot Nally and his colleagues and British civil servants led by Robert Armstrong, there emerged the ground-breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement five years later.

Like Koestler's "active fraternity of pessimists" they would wait in the trough of the historical wave, ready to take advantage of any new horizontal movement. 1981, post the hunger strikes, was one such occasion. Oddly enough, among the first to recognise it as such were those in the republican movement who later engineered the shift from armalite to ballot box. In retrospect, they might have got more out of it than most.

Irish Independent