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Unionists outraged as public money used to fund film about Bobby Sands' IRA hunger strike

DUP blasts BBC and NI Screen for handing at least £76,000 to controversial project

By Deborah McAleese

Anger has erupted over the use of public money, including a contribution from the BBC, to fund a controversial film about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Called 66 Days, the documentary - which claims to be the "definitive account of a self-created Irish martyr" - received tens of thousands of pounds in public funding from the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen.

The film is a cinematic portrait of Bobby Sands' 66-day hunger strike at the height of the Troubles in 1981. It will be shown as part of the Feile festival, before going on general release at cinemas next month.

However, unionists reacted furiously over public money being used to fund the controversial documentary.

But both organisations defended their involvement in the project, which Belfast director Brendan Byrne insisted was not a partisan film.

Northern Ireland Screen revealed they handed £76,000 to the project.

The BBC would not disclose how much it contributed. A spokesman said the corporation did "not publish details of individual programme costs".

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DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he objected to licence fee money being used for the project, and he also accused Northern Ireland Screen of getting its priorities wrong.

"I haven't seen the film, but my fear would be it will glorify someone who was in jail because he was a criminal and, secondly, committed suicide so he could encourage more people to become criminals," he added.

"Can anyone in all conscience vote that public money should be used for this?

"I'm sure other unionists, and even plenty of non-unionists, will agree with me. Do they really think this is a good way of spending public money, to keep on stirring the pot about the past? This strengthens the case that licence fee money should not be compulsory, especially if it is being abused this way.

"As for NI Screen, they keep lobbying people like me for more money to promote the film industry in Northern Ireland. If they have money to fund films like this, then they need to decide where their priorities lie."

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said he would be "very angry if public money had been used for propaganda purposes, rather than a factual documentary". "I don't believe it is an accurate depiction," he added. "I believe that it depicts him in a way that Irish republicans might prefer him to be depicted. He was a terrorist."

BBC NI said it sought to reflect the differing views and experiences of local communities across its range of programming.

"Some of this includes Troubles events and legacies," a spokeswoman added. "All of it is carried out with the utmost care and sensitivity, and 66 Days forms part of this wider, and still developing, BBC programme portfolio."

Northern Ireland Screen said that within its Opening Doors strategy for the years 2014-18, it made "a specific commitment to landmark documentaries of stories of relevance to Northern Ireland".

"This intervention is designed to encourage local production companies that specialise in factual programming and documentary production to raise their ambition beyond local markets and to consider producing content that is targeted at international audiences," a spokesperson for the organisation said.

"Pre-sales of 66 Days to Swedish and Danish television confirmed its international potential, as well as Content Media coming on board for international sales. Northern Ireland Screen provided Lottery funding of £65,000 to the production of 66 Days and Lottery funding of £11,000 towards the development of 66 Days."

The documentary, which was written and directed by Ardoyne-born Brendan Byrne, is based on extracts from the late republican's prisoner's diary, eye-witness testimonies, unseen archive, reconstructions and animations.

While it looks at the key moments leading up to Sands' death, Mr Byrne insisted that it was not a partisan production.

He added: "This is a film which has lessons in it for nationalism and lessons for unionists, so it's not partisan. I'm not an IRA supporter, and this is no flag-waver for the IRA. This is an earnest, honest attempt to examine perhaps the most important event in the second half of 20th century history."

  • The film will be shown on July 30 at the Omniplex Cinema, Kennedy Centre, and will be on general release from August 5

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