Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

U-turn if you want to: unionists soften view on Iron Lady

Glowing tributes by unionist leaders on Lady Thatcher's death show just how far their world has changed since 1985, says Peter Shirlow

A protester wears a mask depicting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a party to mark her death in central London's Trafalgar square, Saturday, April 13, 2013
A protester wears a mask depicting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a party to mark her death in central London's Trafalgar square, Saturday, April 13, 2013
Margaret Thatcher
Flowers laid outside the home of Baroness Thatcher in Belgravia, London following her death this morning after a stroke
Margaret Thatcher fielding questions with Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe (background), at a press conference, in London
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI, wearing his Saturn hat, greets former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 27, 2009
File photo dated 11/05/83 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher receiving Soviet writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn at No 10 Downing Street, London
File photo dated 24/10/2000 of former Conservative Prime Ministers Sir Edward Heath and Baroness Thatcher check their watches as they listen to the debate at the Conservative Party Conference annual conference in Bournemouth. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. November 1976: Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher makes a 'victory' sign outside her home in Chelsea, London. (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, London, at the start of her third term in office. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
FILE - APRIL 8: Lord Bell, spokesperson for Baroness Margaret Thatcher, announced in a statement that the former British Prime Minister died peacefully following a stroke aged 87. Margaret Hilda Thatcher, nee Roberts, as the Conservative candidate for Dartford, Kent, and before she married husband Denis. (Photo by Chris Ware/Getty Images)
1980: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. British Conservative politician and first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher speaks at the Tory Party Conference on in Brighton, East Sussex circa 1980. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1985: (FILE PHOTO) Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 85, Britain's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Reports on April 8, 2013 state that Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke.. Please refer to the following profile on Getty Images Archival for further imagery. http://www.gettyimages.com/Search/Search.aspx?EventId=108930459&EditorialProduct=Archival British prime minister Margaret Thatcher holds a chimpanzee in 1985. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
File photo dated 08/11/05 of Margaret Thatcher at the memorial service for former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, at Westminster Abbey in central London. Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said
The death of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher has divided opinion across Northern Ireland
Prime Minister David Cameron pays respects to Margaret Thatcher
Crowds gather in Derry's Bogside to 'celebrate' the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Crowds gather in Derry's Bogside to 'celebrate' the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Crowds gather in Derry's Bogside to 'celebrate' the death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher
Crowds gather in Derry's Bogside to 'celebrate' the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Crowds gather in Derry's Bogside to 'celebrate' the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
People celebrate the death of Baroness Thatcher in Brixton
People celebrate the death of Baroness Thatcher in Brixton, south London
Meryl Streep has paid tribute to Baroness Thatcher
Geri Halliwell has tweeted about Margaret Thatcher's death
Morrissey has attacked Baroness Thatcher after the former prime minister died
Members of the armed services will line the route of Baroness Thatcher's funeral procession to St Paul's Cathedral
A man lays a bunch of flowers outside the home of Lady Margaret Thatcher in Belgravia, London following her death
Margaret Thatcher pictured with her husband Denis in 1999
Margaret Thatcher waves to well-wishers after her 1983 election win
Margaret Thatcher arrives at 10 Downing Street after winning the 1979 election
The Union Flag is lowered to half mast at the Houses of Parliament after the death of Baroness Thatcher
Baroness Thatcher has died following a stroke
Margaret Thatcher at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton in 1980
Baroness Thatcher's death left some Twitter users with the impression that the singer Cher had died
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has died following a stroke
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Visit to Northern Ireland. Mrs Thatcher talks to Siobhan O'Hars (left) and Katherine O'Hare during her visit to Rathmore Grammar School, Finaghy. 19/6/1978 BELFAST TELEGRAPH ARCHIVE
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Visit to Northern Ireland. Director of the Belfast Tool and Gauge Company, Mr David Woods (left) discusses the workings of engineering components with Margaret Thatcher and department foreman Mr Robert McCullough at the factory. 6/3/1981 BELFAST TELEGRAPH ARCHIVE

In 1985, during the Anglo-Irish Agreement crisis that led to closer inter-governmental relationships, unionist ire was expressed in word, mobilisation and violent reaction.

Ian Paisley was to denounce Margaret Thatcher as "the Jezebel who sought to destroy Israel in a day", while the usually mild-mannered Jim Molyneaux spoke of stench and deceit. Enoch Powell rose to proclaim that Thatcher's actions would be penalised by a "fall into public contempt".

Contempt was displayed when the massive gathering of unionists outside Belfast City Hall heard the memorable "Never. Never. Never" bluster of Paisley.

There is no exact figure on how many turned up, but we could guess at somewhere around 100,000, watching golf balls fly through the air at the hapless RUC.

Less than a year later, the future first minister, Peter Robinson, led 500 marchers into the village of Clontibret in Co Monaghan to protest against the imposition of the agreement.

For this action, he was fined around £1,500 for unlawful assembly. The wise-headed Garret FitzGerald knew the agreement would not immediately shift politics in Northern Ireland, but would begin a new direction.

Margaret Thatcher, for her part, was to claim that she had been duped into signing, but, irrespective of that, once the process was set, it was to be done so in stone – she never wilted.

The then-15 unionist MPs resigned and stood in by-elections in 1986 to continue the anti-agreement stance. Although those who stood were virtually guaranteed re-election, the unionist electorate did not march in massed ranks to the ballot box to express their rage – an early sign that certain sections were drifting away from the impassioned, fervent and fiery maelstrom of local politics.

Peter Robinson's generous tone last week after Mrs Thatcher's death reminded me of SE Hinton's coming-of-age novel That Was Then, This Is Now.

Robinson spoke of her as a positive and transforming force that led to a better Britain, but that he had twice been excluded from Westminster for unparliamentary language against the Iron Lady.

In noting that he classified politicians as either time-servers or those of conviction, he firmly attached her to the latter.

In some sense, conflicting words – given previous actions. But, possibly, also a sense that to bend a little achieves a lot.

Arlene Foster also spoke of Thatcher's single-mindedness and colossal status and praised her for being an "unashamed" free-marketeer.

Not remembering that the actions of 'Monetarist Maggie' had done much to harm a Protestant working class which was dependent upon heavy industry and a traditional working way of life.

They – like the workers of Scotland, Wales and the north of England – remain hammered, alienated and excluded long after the Thatcher period.

Economic alienation is one of many reasons why the Protestant working classes merely dribbled on to the streets to join the flag protest. Mass rallies are a thing of the past in a society that went through violence and then experienced relative peace.

There is no easily-defined 'Catholic' or 'Protestant' community now, but more varied groups that sit on various ideological, economic and cultural planes.

No constants now in a society (of course, for Margaret Thatcher, no such thing existed) that has fractured even more beyond the orange and green.

The growth in mixed marriages, fewer voters, the rise of Northern Irishness and the experience and affluence of sharing are far removed from the chaos of 1985.

Irredentist ideas and feelings bubble and rise from time to time, but unionists simply wanted, or grew to accept, compromise.

There is no capacity now to kick-start a type of unionism that simply acclaims 'No', or 'Never' – it has been tried and gone nowhere.

The year 1985 was a defining moment, as it was the point of recognition that there was an alternative to violence, that Irish nationalism had to be recognised and that the will of the people could no longer subvert the sovereignty of two parliaments.

As we know, Thatcher's downfall was her initial 'strength'. There is always a point when the hounding, demanding and asserting of your will over others will simply earn one enemies.

When she pronounced "You turn if you want to", she did not realise that, when those around her did, she would fall into the political wilderness.

She was simply inflexible in what is always a changing world. The local political leaders of that time, whether unionist or republican, had themselves been 'Iron Men' and proponents of inflexible beliefs and ideas.

However, they understood more than Thatcher that positive change comes not from blunt actions, but through the understanding that compromise is not a weakness. In her own words, she opined that "disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction".

The high road found in Northern Ireland has taken us far beyond such selfish principles.

For unionist leaders, they should remain minded that 1985 was a lesson in learning that Northern Ireland had and continues to become a very different place.

Respectful condolences are a reminder of how far the DUP and others, who were less commiserating, have been stretched since the dreariness of the Thatcher era.

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