It’s pointless to fear the power of myth in the movies

Historian Paul Bew’s warning that that the forthcoming movie Easter Sixteen could unwittingly feed the current drive by the violent republicans to re-establish themselves is whistling in the wind. It has to be faced: striking parallels exist which raise the familiar charges of contemporary betrayal. Those who are susceptible to the Real and CIRA’s arguments will rightly treat denial as a sign of evasive weakness. Instead, it should be easily admitted that the 1916 story is a stonking tale. It contains a terrific narrative and at least 16 brilliant major human interest stories which anyone with red blood in their veins and an imagination can identify with. Honest appreciation of the power of the story is the best defence against subversion. Does a deep fascination with the American Civil War make me a racist? There’s no point in denying the force and appeal of the cause which according to one theory, has yet to be fulfilled. According to another theory though, the popular will of the people of Ireland has now been achieved. The thing about popular will which political romantics chose to ignore, is that no test of popular will is definitive forever. It’s the continual testing that counts – not that the men of 1916 ever put their proclamation to the popular test anyway; at the time, and without the threat of conscription,they would have lost, almost certainly. Facing the story and the myths head on is both truer and better than denial and is a sign of a self-confident democracy. Do we match up yet? Two quiet questions might occur to the romantics : do we want to go through all that again? And what was the fate of the dissident movements post –1922, when voters clearly decided enough was enough?

By the way, the dramatic treatment of 1916 I’d like to see is maybe a perverse one, one on the thoughts of Sir Matthew Nathan the Under Secretary, feeling very personally exposed as he receives the news of the shooting of the guard at the entrance to Dublin Castle, and as he was already coping with his frustration at the refusal of the Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell to come to Dublin as the contradictory on-off rumours flew, because he was engrossed in reading a novel in England. The story of the fall of an old regime is often as gripping as the rise as of a new one.

On the Rising itself, it’s taken as read – and remarkably was so at the time – that the immediate executions by firing squad of the 15 – was a serious mistake by any measure. The PM Asquith was regarded as typically dilatory by failing to press for a halt sooner. On the other hand, what other state would have limited its most drastic punishment to 15, at a time when hundreds of thousands had already been killed in the most terrible war in historical memory?

BTW2 – My fear of an easy thriller was laid to rest when I actually saw the movie “Fifty Dead Men Walking” based loosely on the story of Martin McGartland. With whatever the reservations of those most involved, it has the ring of essential authenticity about the mixed motives, the clash of relationships and causes and the mutual ruthlessness involved in how the grip of the informers strategy inexorably bore down on the paramilitaries, leaving a legacy of exhaustion mixed with recrimination which we ignore at our peril today.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London