14 May 2009 Edition
Marking 30 years since Margaret Thatcher came to power
BY SEÁN Ó FLOINN
WITH the possible exception of the genocidal Oliver Cromwell – whose men butchered thousands of Catholics in Ireland in the mid-17th century – nobody provokes such vitriol and anger from Irish republicans as Margaret Thatcher. Just over 30 years ago, on 4 May 1979, Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister. She continued at the helm of British politics for over 11 years, leaving in her wake deep social unrest, mass unemployment, poverty and death. She had the audacity to paraphrase St Francis of Assisi as she first arrived at 10 Downing Street, stating: “Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Thatcher became notorious for her obduracy and inhumanity with her refusal to negotiate with the 1981 Hunger Strikers, which culminated in the deaths of 10 republican prisoners. These men were fighting for their five demands. Thatcher was adamant that she would not negotiate with “the men of violence”, rather hypocritical in that she befriended and supported US war-monger Ronald Reagan and Chile’s murderous dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.
Even after Bobby Sands secured 30,493 votes and became MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, making a mockery of the British Government’s attempts to criminalise the republican struggle, and her insistence that the ‘terrorists have no mandate’, Thatcher remained intransigent, insisting:
“We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime. It is not political.”
It must be noted that Special Category Status (POW status) was removed in 1976 by a Labour Government but Thatcher was insistent on carrying on. When Bobby Sands MP died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days of a tortuous and selfless brave hunger strike, Thatcher remarked:
“Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life.”
Always first to claim that she was protecting democracy against evil, Thatcher’s government hurriedly ratified the Representation of the People Act, which prevented other IRA prisoners from contesting elections. The British criminalisation policy was shown up, with fellow Hunger Striker Kieran Doherty TD for Cavan/Monaghan, blind and on his deathbed, defiantly declaring:
“Thatcher can’t break us; I’m not a criminal.”
Thatcher was a fervent unionist, once proclaiming that “Ulster is as British as Finchley” (her north London constituency which first elected her MP in 1959). She revelled in her nickname ‘The Iron Lady’, given to her by the Soviets.
Her record in the North of Ireland became synonymous with controversial policies.
From 1982, the infamous shoot-to-kill policy was employed by British forces (the SAS being the main culprits) carrying out extra-judicial executions of IRA members and suspected republicans. In tandem with collusion, it was a method of eliminating political opponents without recourse to the law. All of this, obviously sanctioned in the British corridors of power, resulted in many unarmed republicans being executed by British forces. The British Army and RUC were also culpable of deliberately killing suspects without any attempts to arrest them and bring them to trial. This was Thatcherite democracy in action. The ‘supergrass’ (paid perjurer) system was also deployed from this time, rewarding informants with financial gain and immunity from prosecution. Nevertheless, many convictions based on the supergrass testimonies were later overturned.
In the early hours of Friday 12 October 1984, an IRA bomb ripped through Brighton’s Grand Hotel, location of the Tories’ annual conference. Thatcher was extremely fortunate to escape with her life as the explosion destroyed her bathroom. The subsequent IRA statement urged Thatcher to “Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”
On 15 November 1985, Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave a formal role in relation to the North to elected representatives of the 26 Counties, albeit restricted to matters of security and the treatment of Catholics. Gerry Adams dismissed this as “a powerless consultative role given to Dublin”.
Thatcher displayed equal ruthlessness in her own country. Her name is inextricably linked to neo-liberalism, privatisation and free-market capitalism. She became known as ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’ when, as Education Secretary in the mid-1970s she presided over education cuts, including the abolition of free milk provision for schoolchildren. In 1975, she surprisingly became leader of the Tories. In power, she reduced public spending in education and housing. Unemployment rocketed to 3.6 million while manufacturing crumbled.
On 2 April 1982, Argentina attempted to reclaim the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and Thatcher ordered a military response. The war lasted over two months, claiming 258 British casualties. Thatcher’s domestic popularity rose on a wave of jingoistic nationalism and she cruised to a second electoral victory.
She continued selling most of the large national utilities to private companies. In 1984, she shifted her attention to trade unions, particularly the National Union of Miners. She was adamant and largely successful in neutering the power of British trade unions as she labelled the miners, with their just demands and courageous working-class defiance, as “the enemy within”. It was a calculated attack and an act of class warfare on behalf of the powerful and wealthy.
Thatcher’s rejection of imposing economic sanctions in 1986 on apartheid South Africa further exposed her immorality. Thatcher also caused outrage with her complete support for Pinochet in Chile, who violently ousted the democratically-elected socialist leader, Salvador Allende. She commended the bloodthirsty fascist on “bringing democracy to Chile”.
NO SUCH THING AS SOCIETY
In 1987, Thatcher infamously stated that there is “no such thing as society... only individuals and families”. She signalled it was not the state’s role to provide housing for the homeless or financial assistance to the poor. It was essentially up to individuals to work hard and sort out their own problems. Her beliefs spurred on personal greed. Her introduction of the Poll Tax was instrumental in signalling the beginning of the end for the Iron Lady as thousands took to the streets to protest. According to this highly inequitable tax, she thought it positive that “the duke and the dustbin man” should pay the same amount of local tax despite the differences in their wealth and the value of their property. Protests culminated with 200,000 angry protestors engaging in pitched battles with police in London’s Trafalgar Square.
When she resigned in November 1990, she was driven away from Downing Street in tears. She left behind a quarter of British children in poverty and a country in the depths of recession.
By her own admission her greatest achievement was the creation of ‘New Labour’, a party addicted to privatisation, profit and capitalism. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who adopted Thatcherite policies, have brought Britain to the brink of economic collapse and social implosion. New Labour’s affair with Thatcher continues with current attempts to privatise the Royal Mail postal service.
At 84, now Baroness Thatcher’s time on earth is coming to a close. A state burial has been mooted but this has been met with murmurs of opposition. The Iron Lady’s reign was too corrosive and divisive for so many people who suffered from it.