Margaret Thatcher grew up as the daughter of a greengrocer. And just as you can wander through a grocery and pick and choose the items that you like, while ignoring those that you do not like, the world’s reaction to Thatcher’s death has been distinctly pick and choose.
And there is much to pick and choose from.
There is no doubting Thatcher’s place in history. As the first woman British Prime Minister she rose through the ranks of what was one of the original boys clubs, indeed two of them, the British Conservative Party and the House of Commons. In rising to the top of it all, Thatcher won her very own battle of Britain, and duly inspired women around the world.
As a woman in power, many noticed that Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” suffered the kind of opprobrium, often by way of appalling language, that men generally did not. Thatcher, then, was a magnet for many things, misogyny being one of them.
She was also a target for much legitimate criticism and, at one point, was literally a target of the IRA.
In delivering his reaction, President Obama chose to assess Thatcher through a narrow prism, that being her staunchness as an ally of the United States during the hard run last lap of the Cold War, and her example to women around the world.
Stated the president in part: “With the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend. As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered. As prime minister, she helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best.”
Many in Britain would even now wince at that last line.
Thatcher was in every sense a game changer, both for Britain and for Ireland, most especially the North, the part of the island she once declared to be “as British as Finchley,” when so clearly it was not.
So as much as you can stroll down the aisle of the Thatcher years and pick ripe plums, you can also avail of a good deal of rotten fruit, especially so if you happen to be the ghost of a dead Irish hunger striker, a broken British miner, or a lost Argentinean sailor.
In dealing with Ireland, British labor unions, and the young conscripts on an aging battleship that was sailing away from the Falklands/Malvinas war zone, Thatcher demonstrated an uncompromising will that was suitable for some situations, and entirely unsuitable for others.
It was this inability to shift, to compromise, to empathize with the point of view of opponents, or even those who were willing to be political partners – Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald being just two – that would eventually exhaust the well of goodwill that Thatcher enjoyed during her first days in power after her 1979 general election win.
The Iron Lady role sometimes worked and often it did not, most notoriously in the context of the 1981 Hunger Strikes when just a little give on Thatcher’s part could have altered the tragic outcome.
Thatcher’s legacy founders on Ireland, as is the case with many of her predecessors. It founders, most ironically, when contrasted to her successors in Downing Street and when compared to the ultimate willingness of opposing parties in Northern Ireland to throw aside years of “out, out, out” and try for something different.
That it was just a few years after Thatcher’s departure from center stage that all changed so utterly in the North only heightens the sense that she viewed Ireland in a manner that was almost entirely one dimensional.
True, she did sign on to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, the template for so much to follow. But she did not embrace the pact without more than a little persuading from one of the very few men in the world that she trusted, President Ronald Reagan.
Margaret Thatcher, her life and legacy, is drawing many verdicts this week.
In the context of Ireland it cannot be a positive one. Given her undoubted political talents and ability to get her way this can only sharpen the feeling of what might have been if she had approached Ireland, and the history of British involvement, with the singularity it deserved rather than damning it to the level of constituency politics.
On her orders, the General Belgrano was torpedoed. When it came to Ireland, Margaret Thatcher torpedoed herself.