I was going to write about QE2’s pre-cooked speech in the event of nuclear war, but I find myself roadblocked by the heading on the BBC website today: “Margaret Thatcher Maze prison escape shock revealed“. The story, from recently released papers, shows how the conflict here was as much a propaganda war as a physical one. I know I shouldn’t, given that a prison officer died in the wake of the escape, but it’s hard not to hug oneself as you read bewildered British government reaction. This, you’ll remember, a government led by a woman who a few years earlier said “A crime is a crime” and there could be no distinction between republican prisoners and ordinary criminals.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office tried sticking fingers in the dyke: “You should take every opportunity to limit the propaganda benefit the IRA will reap from the outbreak” it told all its outposts throughout the world. “The Provisionals clearly regard the latest escape as a propaganda tonic for their flagging morale". On the grounds that the case was still sub judice, they were urged not to divulge details of the escape or any suggestion of bungled security. And we get Thatcher’s own scribbled reaction to the matter “Even worse than we thought”.
Well yes, Mrs T. The average Joe or Josephine, even though neither might have had sympathy for republicanism, could not but react with admiration to the escape. The problem for you, Thatcher, and the British government, was two-fold. You’d been insisting, as I say, that republican prisoners were just common criminals - yet here they’d organised something no common criminals had ever come near: thirty-eight men breaking out in one meticulously-organised manoeuvre from the most high-security of prisons - even if half of them were recaptured soon after. But most damaging of all, Thatcher, you were up against the movies.
In the movies, when a break-out is shown, invariably the sympathy of the audience is positioned, not with the prison authorities, but with the escapees. The weight of that viewpoint was such that not even the Iron Lady could prevent it crashing around the ears of the British government.
I’m subject to correction but I don’t remember the mainstream media ever providing a detailed picture of the escape, how it was possible, what the risks were and how they were overcome by the men who escaped. Would that be simply that I have a bad memory? Or would it be once again a case of the docile British and Irish media falling meekly behind the British government’s stated wishes?