If you really want to rehabilitate your image, if you really want your enemies to suddenly start singing your praises even though all they’ve ever done is condemn you, all you need to do is die.
The death of Margaret Thatcher proved that yesterday.
From every corner of the globe, all we’ve heard about for twenty-four hours is the trail-blazing female head of government, the tough old free market advocate and cold warrior, the straight-shooting stateswoman who rose from being a humble grocer’s daughter to Baroness Thatcher.
For the whole of her political life, she was inflexible, arrogant, reactionary, and downright belligerent. She’s dead now. Just like that, she’s outspoken, principled, determined, and downright brave.
I’m an Irish Catholic, raised along the lines of powerful Irish Catholic values. Bearing that in mind, my reaction to Thatcher’s death ought to come as no surprise:
May the Lord have mercy on her soul.
I’m an Irish Catholic. I don’t wish anyone dead. I know the comfortable acceptable stereotype says I’m supposed to be tribal and hold grudges in perpetuity over the smallest grievance. Forgive me if I don’t hold to the script.
Forgive me also if I choose not to participate in the frantic wailing revisionism. Forgive me if I choose to remember Margaret Thatcher as she was, not as we’ve suddenly decided, out of hypocritical politeness, we’d like her to have been. Forgive me if I choose not to unsay today what I said yesterday about Margaret Thatcher just because today she is dead.
This is not tribal. This is not holding a grudge in perpetuity over the smallest grievance. When it come to the Irish, the grievances against Margaret Thatcher are titanic.
It could be fairly argued that the period of Thatcher’s premiership was the nadir of the euphemistically-named Troubles in the north of Ireland, if not the nadir of the whole Anglo-Irish relationship in the twentieth century. That has everything to do with her, her policies, and frankly her attitudes, especially as they concerned the Irish.
For all her supposed disdain for the aristocracy, this middle-class woman was an empire lady through and through. She believed in those good old colony days of a British Empire on which the sun never set. She adored the Victorian values from the days when Britain was the mightiest nation on Earth. Her attitude toward the colonized was classic British Empire: you are inferior. Your culture, your laws, your language, everything about you is inferior to us. We are civilization’s greatest achievement and you should be thanking your lucky stars that we are permitting you the privilege of being one of us. If we catch you being anything other than properly grateful, we will treat you like the criminals you are.
That’s exactly the attitude Thatcher had toward Britain’s oldest, last and arguably most brutalized colony.
You saw it in her manic embrace of the Britain’s criminalization policy toward the republican movement in northern Ireland. Anyone who objects to British rule is a criminal. Anyone who breaks the Queen’s peace will feel the Queen’s vengeance. Who gives a damn about their bellyaching about an apartheid system designed with the express purpose of keeping nationalists and republicans in second-class status? The desperation that young men and women might be driven to under those circumstances is irrelevant. They’re breaking British law. You don’t try to understand people who break British law. You don’t try to do anything repair any alleged injustices in that law because there are no injustices. It’s British law. British law must be followed. Anyone who can’t do that needs to be thrown to bloodthirsty interrogators, jury-less courts, and modified rules of evidence. They need to be treated no better than petty thieves or rapists. Put them into jail and make them wear convict’s uniforms. If they protest, beat them down. If they protest again, beat them down harder. Let them wear blankets, sleep in their filth, starve themselves. Do whatever is necessary until the Irish understand that they’re a conquered crushed people who’d better start cringing before their betters.
That was Margaret Thatcher’s attitude toward northern Ireland, or at least her attitude toward the nationalist and republican communities. The loyalists? They were just zealous defenders of the realm to her. Oh, she did some of the song-and-dance about Britain being some poor put-upon referee caught between warring tribes of savages but if they wanted to kill some upstart human rights lawyer, so much the better. You needed the loyalists to keep those treacherous Fenians in line.
This all might sound like an oversimplification of Thatcher’s northern Ireland policies. Then again, Thatcher’s policies toward Ireland were very simple. Sinn Fein and the IRA were the “men of violence” and that was that. Murder is murder as she so self-righteously asserted. Nationalists and republicans were enemies of the British Empire. For Thatcher the empire lady, dealing with enemies was simple.
And as she ran into people like Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, people who wouldn’t cringe for her, who could outmatch her resolve, it galled her.
She didn’t get it. She couldn’t figure out what these dirty little terrorists were ready to fight and die for. All this for Ireland? Dirty protests and hunger strikes and election campaigns to counteract “Rule Britannia”? At a meeting with Irish Cardinal Tomas O Fiach during the 1981 hunger strikes, Thatcher browbeat the Cardinal about the north and said she thought the hunger strikers were just trying to prove their manhood. The idea of principled Irish people with the courage of their convictions was beyond her comprehension. Courage and principle were British values, alien to the Irish as far as she was concerned. She asked O Fiach, apparently in all seriousness, why the Irish couldn’t be “friendly” just like the Germans were, even though they had once been enemies of the Crown. O Fiach told her the Germans could afford to be friendly since the British were no longer in occupation of the Ruhr. I can only imagine the blank stare His Eminence must have received.
All this is Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in Ireland. It is a legacy that directly led to a portion of the Anglo-Irish conflict as vicious as any in its 800 year history. It is a legacy of repression, divisiveness, cruelty, and sheer bloodthirstiness. For all the niceties being parroted over the last 24 hours, that is her record. That cannot and should not be rewritten. That is Margaret Thatcher.
Baroness Thatcher quoted the Prayer of St. Francis as she took office at 10 Downing Street. The almighty nerve of the woman. Perhaps she went to her grave genuinely believing she lived that prayer out. Certainly many others seem to think she did. Anyone who knows the facts, certainly the facts in Ireland, knows that she sowed hatred instead of love, injury instead of pardon, despair instead of hope, and darkness instead of light.
But may the Lord have mercy on your soul, Margaret Thatcher.
It won’t change what you did.