Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

15
From Rule Britannia to
Cool Britannia
Politics, 1979–2007

Louis Mountbatten, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and cousin to Queen Elizabeth, was the last Viceroy of India at the time of the British departure. On August 28, 1979 he was taking a late morning cruise on his 28-foot fishing boat, at Mullaghmore on the Irish coast. With him were his daughter and her husband; her mother-in-law, the Dowager Lady Brabourne; two grandsons; and another teenage boy helping to crew. Suddenly the boat exploded, killing Mountbatten and two of the boys instantly (the Dowager Lady Brabourne later died of her injuries), and shattering the boat into an array of pieces no larger than a matchbook. The work was instantly recognizable as that of the Provisional IRA (Borders 1979).

In the late 1970s, the Troubles in Northern Ireland entered a new phase. The Provisional IRA had reorganized into cells, and pushed forward its political agenda through the use of terror tactics. Large numbers of IRA leaders had been arrested, and were being held in H-block of Long Kesh prison, nicknamed “The Maze.” Although the IRA prisoners wanted political prisoner status – which would have conferred, among other things, the right to have visitors and to wear their own clothing rather than prison uniforms – they were, instead, treated like the rest of the prison population. Prisoner disobedience quickly accelerated to include hunger striking by October 1980.

The two separate hunger strikes received widespread publicity. One of the hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, emerged as the prisoners’ leader; and so fierce was public support for the strikers that Sands was elected to Parliament while in prison. But by 1979, the context of British-Irish relations had changed, with the succession to the post of Prime Minister of a woman determined to restore Britain to its former imperial self-confidence. Margaret Thatcher’s will was even more immovable than her signature sprayed hair. Despite the relatively small concessions at stake in granting political prisoner status to the H-block prisoners, Thatcher categorically

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