THE statues debate is back after a 10ft tall tribute to Margaret Thatcher was attacked within hours of going on display in England. Nine years after her death the shopkeeper’s daughter is still a deeply divisive figure – even in Grantham where she was born. Her long jihad against trade unions and a Messianic belief in the free market condemned many communities to terminal decline. It threw thousands of decent working people into poverty and despair while filling the pockets of barrow boy chancers for whom personal wealth was the supreme achievement.
In 1987 I visited a former mining village in Scotland where the only place of employment was a working men’s club and almost every council house was occupied by a single mother. My guide described the social problems that plagued the place as ‘the result of Thatcher’s macro-economics.’
History will record the Thatcher years as a turning point in the politics of Britain. It forged Welsh and Scottish nationalism into powerful forces which continue to shape the future of the country and may yet lead to its break-up. Her hostility towards socialism, consensus and the ambitions of the European Union influenced a new generation of English nationalists who gave us the government of Boris Johnson and his blustering Brexiteers including foreign secretary Liz Truss – dubbed ‘the Pound Shop Thatcher’ by some of her colleagues.
It will also be seen as a turning point in the history of this island. Thatcher’s legacy in Ireland is equally dismal. She is perhaps the most hated figure since Winston Churchill – a Home Ruler who grew up in Dublin but sent in the Black and Tans and insulted Orangemen in the ‘dreary steeples’ of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Thatcher is loathed equally by nationalists and unionists for making common criminals of IRA volunteers and signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Dublin government a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time in its history. The Irish government’s Maryfield secretariat, at Holywood in county Down, became a focus for loyalist protest for over a decade.
Her decisions condemned Ireland to one of the bloodiest periods of tit-for-tat violence during the Troubles as hunger strikers died and loyalists donned the red berets of Ulster resistance to throw off the ‘Dublin Diktat’. Her secretary of state Tom King was physically attacked in Belfast and hundreds of innocent people paid a higher price as the political temperature rose to boiling point. She was a regular visitor providing security forces with a problem – how to protect her from the many who lusted for her blood. She was number one on the IRA’s hit list and they came close to killing her in the Brighton Bomb of 1984 which claimed the lives of five people, left 31 injured and Margaret Tebbit in a wheelchair.
Thatcher’s fall from power was widely applauded on this island. I remember my first post-Thatcher pint in the Duke of York in Belfast with Daily Mirror chief Joe Gorrod. Even this former British soldier was happy to toast her departure despite a pyrrhic victory in the Falklands War. Her successor John Major had the wisdom to reverse the British government’s direction of travel making the Downing Street Declaration which opened the door to dialogue, the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Erecting statues to controversial people has never struck me as a good idea. All around the world they are a focus for confrontation, nowhere more so than here where the heroes of one tradition are the villains of another. Yesterday is not set in stone and changing times unearth old grievances. Novelist William Faulkner was right, ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’
Throughout Ireland there are memorials to dead combatants and proposals to install new ones often trigger bitter disputes. The phenomenon has a long history. I remember when Nelson was blown off his pillar in Dublin in 1966. It was 2003 before agreement was reached about a replacement. The Spire now stands on the site in O’Connell Street. Roaring Hugh Hanna suffered the same fate in Belfast in 1970 and it was 2008 before Carlisle Circus was adorned with a new piece recognising the city’s Jewish community.
It is right to remember our dead and the province is littered with war memorials to those brave souls who were lost in The Great War and World War Two. My own area is a typical example but Ards and North Down should move on from its martial past. SAS hero Paddy Mayne cuts a sad and lonely figure among the shoppers in Conway Square Newtownards and Nepalese War hero Rollo Gillespie peers down imperiously on the good folk of Comber. Bangor’s Ward Park is dominated by a huge cenotaph. It was not intended but the nearby U-boat cannon serves a dual purpose. It was erected as a tribute to Jutland hero Edward Bingham but U-19 was also the submarine that brought home Irish revolutionary Roger Casement on the eve of the Easter Rising.
Peace freed up funding for many fine arts works all across the north. Belfast has The Rise which symbolises hope but is widely known as ‘the balls on the Falls’ and the Beacon of Hope which polite observers call ‘Nuala with the Hula.’ Derry city has its Hands across the Divide and Strabane has Let the Dance Begin. But the influence of the Troubles reaches further. Taoiseach Michael Martin unveiled a fitting tribute to peacemaker John Hume in the European Parliament at Strasbourg last month.
Some countries have found novel ways of weathering the winds of change. I visited Budapest after Hungary joined the EU in 2004 and found all the statues from the Soviet era had been removed to a city centre park. Those who want to see them still have the opportunity and those who might be offended simply walk on by.
We will need two parks – one in Larne and one in Crossmaglen.