|Last Friday, a book of condolence was opened at the British
Embassy in Dublin in memory of the late Margaret Thatcher.
There were two big stories here last week.
First, there was the seven year extension Ireland was given in the schedule for paying back its bailout loans.
This was very good news, although the "breakthrough" for the government was spoiled somewhat when the former top International Monetary Fund official involved in our bailout admitted that the rescue plan for Ireland, with no bondholders being burned and the country being crushed by austerity cutbacks, had been a bad deal for us from the very beginning.
The second big story was the ongoing inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar, the pregnant Indian woman who died in a Galway hospital last year of blood poisoning after being refused a termination even though she was miscarrying and the fetus had very little chance of survival. The evidence last week revealed mistakes and incompetence, and also exposed the possible deadly effect of our Catholic-inspired law in such cases.
We will be coming back to both these important stories in this column in the coming weeks. But this week it is right and proper that we mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, particularly in view of the misguided and badly informed reaction in some quarters to her death. Her funeral is taking place in London this week.
Thatcher was an extremely divisive politician and was badly wrong in some of the decisions she made as British prime minister. But she was not an evil witch whose death should be celebrated, as it shamefully was in parts of Britain and Ireland in the past week.
I was not an admirer of Thatcher. She dogged a large part of my career, as she did that of many journalists of my generation. (We always seemed to be writing headlines with Out! Out! Out! in them.)
But at least I was there when she was in Downing Street. A lot of those comparing her to Hitler or Stalin last week -- comparisons which are ridiculous -- were in junior school at the time.
She will always be remembered in Ireland, of course, for the hunger strikes and the inflexibility that led to the deaths of Bobby Sands and those who followed him.
At the time l was assistant editor of the Irish Press, and I remember well the long nights when we waited until the small hours of the morning before printing the paper because we knew that another hunger striker in the H-Blocks in the Maze prison was at death's door.
It was tragic, macabre and also frustrating because lives were being lost on a point of principle. They wanted to be recognized as political prisoners with the right to wear their own clothes instead of prison clothes. She was determined that they be treated as criminals and wear normal prison clothing.
Looking back now, it may seem extraordinary that this symbolic issue led to horrific deaths. But the symbolism involved, the point of principle, was vitally important to both the men "on the blanket" (because they would not wear prison clothes) and to Thatcher. In the south, of course, we had a more pragmatic attitude to the issue. Republican prisoners locked up down here were allowed to wear whatever they liked as long as did not cause any trouble!
Was Thatcher right to be so inflexible on this? Probably not.
But she was inflexible about everything, which is why she was called the Iron Lady. And having taken such a public stance on the issue she would not retreat, at least not at the start.
The death of Sands and the nine other hunger strikers in a gruesome sequence that went on for weeks and weeks made her a figure of unrestrained hatred in Ireland, and elsewhere. She became -- and remained -- the ultimate hate figure for Republicans, as we have seen from their reaction to her death in the past week.
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