|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.
But the reality is far more nuanced than today's Republican and/or Sinn Fein leaders like to remember.
For a start we now know that before the last three hunger strikers died Thatcher was willing to compromise, but the IRA leadership outside the prison would not agree because by then they realized the enormous electoral boost Sinn Fein would get from the deaths.
The evidence for this came later from Maze chaplain Father Denis Faul among others, including a senior Republican who was in the H-Blocks at the time. There has been some argument about the details of the deal, but there is no denying that a deal was on offer and was turned down by the IRA outside the prison. So maybe Thatcher was not the only devil of inflexibility involved.
Not that you would have thought that listening to Gerry Adams last week talking mournfully about all the "hurt" that Mrs. Thatcher had brought to the people of the North and elsewhere.
Gerry and some of his old buddies know all about "hurt" -- just ask the children of Jean McConville or hundreds of other innocents.
In fact Thatcher was as flexible and engaged on Ireland as other British prime ministers before and after her, in spite of her Iron Lady posturing.
She allowed back channel talks with the IRA, in spite of the 1979 murder of her friend Airey Neave, a senior Tory politician, and the Brighton bombing in 1984 which almost killed her and her Cabinet.
In spite of that outrage she remained calm and balanced in her approach to the Irish question.
In spite of publicly humiliating then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret FitzGerald with her dismissal of the Irish options for the North with her Out! Out! Out! press conference, she went on to sign the Anglo Irish Agreement with him in 1985, just a year after Brighton. That was the bedrock for everything that followed, giving the south a say on what happened in the North, and it eventually led to peace. She may have talked tough, but she got things done on the Irish question.
Outside Ireland, she is remembered most for the Falklands War. It was also ridiculous, and deadly of course.
What she should have done was faced up to the colonial absurdity of the situation, negotiated an interim deal with the Argentineans and re-homed any islanders who were not happy in the U.K.
The Americans were willing to broker talks. But the Argentinean Junta had jumped the gun and invaded.
It's worth remembering that both the UN Security Council and the European Union (then the EEC) had condemned the invasion by the Argentineans. The then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey tried to distance Ireland from the situation, but there was little sympathy internationally for the Argentinean dictators.
At home in Britain, Thatcher became famous as the prime minister who broke the power of the trade unions which in the late 1960s and 1970s had a stranglehold on the British economy.
Archaic work place rules and demarcation (who does what) enforced by the unions had made Britain highly inefficient, with poor productivity. This was true not just in the massive nationalized part of the British economy but in much of private industry as well.
By the 1970s I was in journalism, and to us in the newspaper industry it was a nightmare as the print unions fought new technology and protected the huge pay packets of some workers who did very little work.
Of course we all claimed to hate Thatcher, but very often she was right. And she certainly was right about the need to rebalance the power structure in Britain away from the unions.
With her coiffed hair, immaculate dress and upper class voice, it was easy to make fun of her as a Tory toff. But of course she wasn't a toff at all. She was a corner store grocer's daughter who was bright and who worked her way up.
And it was that background of practicality, hard work, attention to detail and self-reliance that formed her. She had no time for slackers, and she passionately believed that people must earn their own way rather than always rely on the state.
She admired the free market, and in her 11 years as prime minister she turned Britain in that direction. She had the courage to state her beliefs and fight for them Above all, she was dogged in the pursuit of her aims (the lady's not for turning).
Calling her the inflexible Iron Lady misses the point. She was simplistic in her approach rather than inflexible, not always an advantage when dealing with complex issues. But at least it was always clear what she wanted.
Sadly, we can't say the same for today's leaders, either in Britain or anywhere else.
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