Saturday 18 November 2017

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'

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.

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