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Film world's rare focus on loyalism often hazy

Why do fictional representations of loyalism obscure more than they reveal, asks Aaron Edwards

Published 25/09/2015

Resurrection Man
Resurrection Man
Fifty Dead Men Walking
Five Minutes of Heaven
Odd Man Out

Look fella, it's a nasty business, but this sort of thing has to be done, for the country's sake. Right?" So runs a line spoken by Kenny, the main character in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's 1995 film Nothing Personal, which starred James Frain, Ian Hart, John Lynch and Michael Gambon.

It is a powerful scene in which we witness the leader of a loyalist paramilitary gang articulate his principal motivation for killing to a new recruit, before they head out to stalk the dimly-lit labyrinth-like streets of 1970s Belfast in search of those they have labelled "enemies of Ulster".

It is 20 years since Nothing Personal got its major theatrical release and in the intervening period there have been only a handful of big screen films featuring loyalist paramilitaries.

Perhaps the two best-known films are Resurrection Man (1998) starring Stuart Townsend, James Nesbitt, Derek Thompson, Brenda Fricker and veteran Belfast actor Jimmy Ellis, and Five Minutes Of Heaven (2009), marked out by the powerful performances of its two leads, Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.

By and large the majority of film depictions of paramilitary violence have been shot through the lens of republicanism. Odd Man Out (1947), The Crying Game (1992), In The Name Of The Father (1993), Some Mother's Son (1996), Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), Hunger (2008) and Shadowdancer (2012), to name but a few, are all well-known examples.

This dearth of film portrayals of loyalists has only been marginally improved upon by playwrights writing about Protestant working-class life, from Sam Thompson's Over The Bridge (1960) through Graham Reid's Billy plays (1982-84), Stewart Parker's Northern Star (1984) and Pentecost (1987), and beyond to the loyalists portrayed in Gary Mitchell's plays Trust (1999), As The Beast Sleeps (1998), later adapted as a made-for-TV drama, and In A Little World Of Our Own (1997).

In recent years Mitchell has been joined by Robert Niblock, who has had two plays staged, A Reason To Believe (2009) and Tartan (2014), which focuses on loyalist paramilitaries.

For the most part these fictional representations of loyalists have been reasonably accurate - especially when they are created by people who lived cheek-by-jowl with paramilitary violence.

It was the American novelist Norman Mailer who once wrote that the point of fiction was not to "recapture an experience; we write to come as close to it as we can" to it. And who better to get us as closer to the reality than those who have experienced it at first-hand?

So, why then have loyalists been conspicuous by their absence in visual representations of the Northern Ireland conflict?

The academic Connal Parr makes the case that voices articulating different, three-dimensional interpretations of loyalism mainly go unheard, because they are lost in the deluge of ridicule and mockery that too often passes for informed comment.

Parr is onto something here. It is interesting, for example, that we treat loyalist and republican violence so differently, something reflected in the films mentioned above.

After all, the same destructive urge in Ulstermen and Irishwomen that drove them to kill other human beings is present in those who commit acts of violence elsewhere in the world.

So what makes violence in Northern Ireland so different? For anyone who has ever interviewed loyalist and republican paramilitaries, there is a tendency for them to put their violent acts in the context of the society that gave rise to them.

In other words, they blame "conditions at the time" for propelling them into violence.

The problem is that many of the individuals who took actions similar to the ones depicted on screen or even on stage were conscious of what they were doing, and not simply swept along by a tsunami of communal fear and loathing.

In short, they were acting rationally, according to the beliefs they held at the time and in light of the prevailing political context in which these violent acts were perpetrated.

In her travelogue, A Place Apart (1978), which details her cycling tour of Northern Ireland in 1976, the writer Dervla Murphy advocated that we "peel off the terrorist labels and look at the individuals underneath and try to understand why they are there".

Curiously, to even suggest that we try to understand the motives behind loyalist (and republican) violence in Northern Ireland is seen as conferring legitimacy upon them.

In another sense, this call to apply a wider lens to something so obviously emotionally-charged as nationalism - be it Irish nationalism or Ulster unionism - is difficult in a place where society, culture and politics are so deeply divided.

However, by simplifying complex and multi-layered motivations, we risk perpetuating negative stereotypes of loyalists and reduce their whole demeanour to angry, flag-waving Neanderthals who cling onto an outmoded view of the world.

In reality, the maintenance of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is no more antiquated a political belief than the one held by republicans that Ireland should be politically united because it is an island.

Equally, to say that loyalist paramilitaries only became involved in violence because their political beliefs were threatened is to ignore other motivations like revenge, peer pressure, or even "in the heat of the moment", that explains political violence elsewhere in the world.

Is it any wonder that we lack cultural representations of loyalists whenever we reduce their actions to one-dimensional motivations that obscure more than they reveal?

Dr Aaron Edwards is a historian, writer and the author of UVF: Behind The Mask, which will be published by Merrion Press next year

Belfast Telegraph

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