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Bobby Sands documentary has a vital piece missing...voice of the loyalist community

A new movie about Bobby Sands is drawing in audiences while the totems of unionism come under nightly attack... Henry McDonald reports back from the front line of a low-intensity 'cultural war'

Published 10/08/2016

A scene from Bobby Sands: 66 Days
A scene from Bobby Sands: 66 Days
Bobby Sands
Figurehead: Sands election poster

Critics of the new Bobby Sands documentary have cited bias, a callous disregard for the IRA's victims and even the glorification of terrorism as the main failings of the film. Yet these criticisms are totally unfair, as there is plenty of balanced commentary in it, particularly from the Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole, who on camera brilliantly lacerates the philosophy behind the Provisionals' so-called "armed struggle".

However, the real failing of this film, its central weakness, has to do with its intellectual vacuity. If there is any lack of balance, it is in the inability of film-makers, in particular, to tackle subjects, both current and historical, that resonate with the unionist/loyalist community.

The unionist-loyalist community is part of the overall Troubles story, but appears relatively invisible in terms of TV and film, beyond documentaries and television news.

In one sense, this is partly their own fault. Television and radio journalists will tell you that, when it comes to public events, demonstrations, parades, marches, or funerals, they dread covering loyalist gatherings, because of the hostility and menace connected with them.

Republicans, by contrast, go out of their way to facilitate the media, which they believe they can manipulate to get their message to the world across.

This extends beyond hostile, often threatening, attitudes toward journalists and camera operators and seeps into a wider indifference towards how unionism/loyalism is portrayed in other art forms.

It is telling that the most important dramatist to emerge from the Ulster Protestant working-class since the ceasefires, Gary Mitchell, cannot return to his own community, because he wrote a few uncomfortable truths about it in his plays.

Moreover, it is bitterly ironic that the greatest drama ever written where the central characters are young, working-class unionists was written by a Donegal Catholic.

Frank McGuinness' masterpiece, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, is a sensitive and sympathetic anthem for these doomed Ulster youth.

Yet McGuinness wrote it in 1985, and nothing as powerful and important, at least on stage, about the unionist-loyalist community has been produced since.

There are nightly attacks on Orange halls across Northern Ireland, which are nothing more than cultural vandalism against a section of the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community.

To their credit, nationalist politicians - up to and including the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness - have condemned the attacks on Orange property. It is time, however, that others in civil society - from the arts to human rights groups - speak out more forthrightly about these continued attacks.

And for the community at the sharp end of this cultural vandalism, there have to be voices inside who have stories to tell, films to make, documentaries to produce, poems to pen.

There is virgin territory to explore when it comes to the Ulster loyalist experience beyond the trenches of the Western Front, or even the conflict zones of the Troubles.

Why has no one yet told a story, in book, or film, about that community's role in the Second World War and the national effort to defeat Hitler? Or the flight of the Protestants from counties that are now in the Irish Republic into modern-day Northern Ireland? Or, fast-forwarding to the 21st century, why is no one writing about the present-day Protestant working-class and how their lives are coloured by de-industrialisation, immigration, drugs, alcohol and the backwash from the Troubles?

The major flaw in the Sands documentary is the attempt to make a tentative connection between Sands' dying after 66 days on hunger strike and the current political settlement in Northern Ireland.

This is, in large part, due to the fact that the film-makers fail to ask the most important, indeed the most obvious, question of all about Sand's life and death: would the IRA O/C in the Maze prison really have put his life on the line for a political outcome that was a replica of the one he and his comrades sought to destroy seven years before the hunger strike took place? Would the death fast have reached is tragic conclusion so that we could arrive at Sunningdale Mark II?

Sands' family will tell you (if anyone bothers to ask them) that the young IRA prisoner certainly would not have contemplated sacrificing himself in order that we end up with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

I do not know if Sands' family were approached to take part in this film, or not, or if they declined to participate in it.

What I am certain of is that the family - including his sister, Bernadette - have stated in the recent past and on several occasions that their brother would never have supported the present dispensation.

Of course, the Irish have displayed a tendency, through the generations, to call up the dead and drag them across the floor to advance current political positions, pragmatic U-turns, or the maintenance of a hard line stance. So, we should always be cautious about assuming what a dead person would have supported (or opposed) had they lived.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that many of the other hunger strikers - and especially the three Irish National Liberation Army prisoners who starved themselves do death - would never have backed "Sunningdale for slow learners" (to use Seamus Mallon's phrase).

Again, the families of Patsy O'Hara and Mickey Devine from Derry will tell you that these INLA inmates would have been resolutely opposed to the power-sharing settlement 17 years after that dreadful summer - if anyone bothers to ask them.

The Sands' documentary does raise another cultural question about how the Troubles is played out on film, television, the stage and the page.

A binary, black and white narrative storyteller, whether they are pressing a computer keyboard, or standing beside a movie camera, will always present conflict as one between angels and demons - good versus evil.

Real life, as we know, isn't like that and behind the headlines, when the gunsmoke clears and the media move off, the picture is much more complex.

Uncomfortable facts can get in the way of such binary narration, such as the one, for instance, which reveals that republicans actually killed more Catholic civilians than the Army did from 1969 to 1997.

As for emerging artistic voices from the loyalist and unionist communities, polemic and PR never creates true art. Simplistic binaryism that fails to raise uncomfortable complexities will never paint a comprehensive picture of a society at war with itself.

The challenge is on for fresh voices to emerge out of a community that for too long was dangerously stereotyped and pigeon-holed in the "villain" category.

Belfast Telegraph

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