66 Days: fear, anger and a lost grip on control

I was invited to and duly attended the premiere of Bobby Sands: 66 Days last Saturday night. Alex Kane was also in attendance and he produced this well considered piece in Monday’s Newsletter.

After the film’s showing, a question and answer session took place with former republican prisoner, Seanna Walsh, The Impartial Reporter’s Denzil McDaniel and Brendan Byrne, the film’s producer.

McDaniel had also written a piece on the film which can be read here.

Byrne has produced a very good film that has already been well received, and I would not be surprised if it finds itself in line for further accolades in the time ahead.

The subject matter is clearly a sensitive one in a society as divided as ours, and Sands’ stature and international recognition is such that it is easy to understand why a film producer would seek to use his story as the basis for a production.

Alan has provided a detailed review of the film in an earlier piece on Slugger. My take on the film would be somewhat more positive than Alan’s.

I enjoyed the use of footage throughout which allowed the viewer to get a sense of the context in which events unfolded.

Sands’ background growing up in Rathcoole has never really been explored, and it was fascinating to listen to a man cast into the public spotlight on account of his son’s death at the hands of fellow loyalists, Raymond McCord Snr, describe how he used to play football alongside Sands in the area.

The manner of Sands’ death has ensured that he is destined to remain a figure casting a long shadow over this period of Irish history, and Byrne uses Sands’ own words through his poems and correspondences to articulate how he would have perceived events unfolding at the time and his attitude to them, including his own hunger strike.

Unionist ‘outrage’ has already been proclaimed, including objections to the involvement of the BBC in the production of the film.

I don’t believe most unionists are ‘outraged’ about this film. Whilst many would be wary of a film production which looks at the life of the leading republican icon of the modern era through a singularly republican prism, that most certainly is not this film.

The dominant narrative throughout is provided by an ardent opponent of republicans, Fintan O’Toole, and reference to IRA killings including of prison officers, politicians and civilians throughout leaves no one in any doubt but that republicans created victims throughout a dark and brutal conflict (there are no other kinds of conflict.) The film includes a significant reference to the dreadful killing of Joanne Mathers, which was referred to in an important manner by the film maker in the post-screening discussion.

To me, Byrne’s core theme is that Sands’ death after his by-election triumph sparked republican interest in electoral politics and, once that decision was taken, the path to ceasefire and compromise was inevitable. Indeed, he correctly refers to how the IRA’s killing of Mathers on polling day for the Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election highlighted the contradictions and frictions that would develop and be exposed as they sought to broaden popular support for republicanism via electoral politics whilst slowly reaching the conclusion that armed struggle was not only failing to deliver the hoped-for advances but ultimately also standing in the way of making further progress through Sinn Fein.

The thoughts and perspectives of republicans involved in the conflict are also explored and articulated, with contributions from fellow prisoners of Sands and other leading republicans providing an insight into how they had approached the hunger strikes (there were two at the prison), the preceding dirty protest and subsequent move into electoralism.

Any reasonable observer would conclude that Byrne is his own man and was not of a mind to be unduly influenced by any political figures in terms of shaping the narrative of his production. Indeed, several prominent republicans made a point of highlighting elements they disagreed with during the post-screening discussion, including Seanna Walsh, Tom Hartley and Alex Maskey, all significant contemporaries of Sands within republicanism from that era. Byrne’s own transparently critical comments regarding ‘Sinn Fein speak’ in a recent Irish Times interview further confirms that his integrity is beyond reproach.

And yet the ‘outrage’ continues.

This morning’s Newsletter featured a claim by prominent Ulster Unionist and Victims campaigner, Kenny Donaldson, that the film was ‘terrorism idolatry.’

I featured alongside Kenny on The Nolan Show this morning to discuss his accusations. Within the first exchange between Kenny and Stephen Nolan, it was confirmed that Kenny had not yet even watched the film.

In itself, that is revealing.

What lies behind the ridiculous reaction of a number of Unionist politicians and commentators to the production of this film is an inability to accept that there are differing interpretations of our past, and present, and indeed opposing visions of our future in this society. This failure to appreciate and come to terms with the essentially contested nature of our past leads to these ultimately vain efforts to close down what they do not like.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ulster Unionist MP, Tom Elliott, has also been quick out of the blocks to condemn the production of the film. Naturally, he hadn’t seen the film before commenting either.

In 2011, the same Tom Elliott wrote a letter to the editor of the Impartial Reporter demanding that Mary Lynch, a columnist from a republican background, be axed from the paper on account of her views (the Fermanagh Orange Order made the same demand.) The editor, Denzil McDaniel, wisely dismissed the calls.

This time, anger is employed to pursue that agenda. On other occasions, it’s fear.

Yet neither anger nor fear are what this is really about.

Rather, it is about control, or to be more accurate, a struggle to come to terms with a loss of control.

During our discussion this morning, I pointed out that public funding- from the EU as well as the British and Irish governments- contributed towards the construction of museums for the Orange Order in recent years.

I have visited the museum at Schomberg House, and wrote this article about that visit.

There is no effort at objectivity, nor was there any expectation from the funders that anything other than a subjective narrative of our past and present would define a trip to this museum.

Yet I would contend that such funding through public monies was appropriate as it provides for a means to articulate an Orange narrative. There are plenty of opportunities to contest the Orange perspective, but allowing it a voice is important.

This week, as part of Feile an Phobail (the West Belfast Festival), the Duncairn Cultural and Arts Centre hosted a staging of “The Man who swallowed a dictionary,” a play produced by a loyalist about the former loyalist prisoner and PUP leader, David Ervine. A presentation on behalf of the UVF-linked ‘ACT- Action for Community Transformation’ followed. ACT is a loyalist grouping which, according to its own website:

“….is a transformation initiative which supports former combatants province-wide, in the post ceasefire climate. Through tailored training and support, ACT builds the capacity of its members, supporting them to engage in the social, economic and political structures of Northern Ireland. ACT also encourages its members to embrace new, positive leadership roles within their local communities.”

As you can see from the Mid Ulster ACT twitter account, it is quite openly supportive of the role played by members of the UVF during the conflict.

The evening passed without any comment nor condemnatory statement from political leaders within nationalism. Given the historical links and roots of the Belfast festivals within republican communities, it is highly likely that political representatives from the mainstream nationalist parties were supportive of the decisions to include these events in the festival programmes.

A willingness to allow for expressions of the Other, and recognizing the legitimacy of alternative perspectives, does not equate with agreeing with those perspectives. From the standpoint of political leaders, it is important because it helps prepare the grassroots for what a shared society in the post-Good Friday Agreement political landscape must look like.

Continuing to push against this has not helped with the process of developing a stable and outward looking unionist community. Indeed, the instability within unionism that has manifested itself through flag protests and parade protests and camps is rooted in the failure of political leaders to prepare the grassroots for the reality of a shared society and state developing in which the once all-dominant unionist narrative would lose its pre-eminent place.

In spite of repeated efforts to raise fear and anger, there will not be any other way.