In the Name of the Father

By David Pallister

There have been two broad reactions to In the Name of the Father. The first is that, despite the small errors and big changes in reality, it is a brave and moving attempt to bring the scandal of miscarriage of justice, visited by the British state on the Irish, before a wider public. The second is that the mistakes and the conflation of events, which have antagonised those like the Maguires who might have expected to support the project, have fatally undermined the central message. And in the slipstream of that frustration which says, ‘it didn’t happen like that’, there has resurfaced more of that frothy scum, emanating from furtive corners of the establishment, which holds that the Guilford Four, or some of them, might not be as innocent as the law now declares.

The heated fraction debate, legitimate when a film touches sensitive current political event, and involves people still intensely emotionally involved, has had the effect of foreclosing critical scrutiny.

In one of his many defences, Jim Sheridan explained that his real purpose was to find a story that portrayed a relationship between a father and a son that avoids the Irish stereotype of the father as violent and drunk – epitomised perhaps by Farrington in James Joyce’s Dubliners short story ‘Counterparts’, a lowly clerk longing for the glare and rattle of the pub and the safety of the snug.

By all accounts Guiseppe Conlon was a caring father, though he had difficulty in reining in the thieving excesses of his errant son Gerry. But in the simplification of this film, aimed as much at Dayton, Ohio as the local Odeon, Guilford, the point not only has to be made, but underlined in dayglo. So in the film, Guiseppe is at first a pitiable man who wears the label ‘victim’ on his jacket and then, in adversity, attracts a halo around his head. Similarly, the transformation of the scruffy scallywag Gerry, at first contemptuous of his father, into a sleek, striding hero, finally taking responsibility for his life, admits of no lurking damage that 15 grinding years behind bars can do to a 20-year-old youth. Their final, healing rapprochement is an apparently uncomplicated triumph of celluloid imperatives. This lack of dimension, which gives the film the reductive imagery of a cartoon, is pervasive. It is also sloppy in its dealings with ancillary cultural and political phenomena of the period. Gerry and Paul Hill are placed in a London squat inhabited by hippies in a happy, psychedelic dope haze.

As a reporter, I covered the big London squatting cases in the mid-70s – in Euston, Hackney, Finsbury Park and, the most famous of the lot, Elgin Avenue. These were people who often had jobs, who tried to improve the property rather than burn the floorboards for heat and who often considered themselves as part of a wider political and communal statement. Here the simple equation dissolves into parody: squat equals hippie equals dope equals brainless.

A central problem for Sheridan was how to deal with the IRA and Conlon’s relationship to the nationalist and, coming from the Lower Falls, the wider republican traditions in which he grew up. Although the IRA man (based on Joe O’Connell of the Balcombe Street gang) at first appears his mentor in anti-imperialist Irish republican history, and a man who demands respect in a brutal and prejudiced system, he ends up, by recklessly and callously immolating a prison governor, as just another Irish murdering bastard. At a stroke, Conlon can turn his back not only on this man becoming a monster, but on all that he stands for.

The film does convey a sense of the iniquities of the British criminal justice system, although the brunt of the attack falls most directly on cynical and corrupt policemen. What it fails to articulate is that collective paralysis, reaching up to the highest levels of government and the judiciary, which could not countenance the ‘appalling visit’ so fearfully described by Lord Denning in rejecting the civil action taken against the police by the Birmingham Six.

Oddly, the Birmingham case, the most celebrated of the miscarriage of justice cases which led to the Prevention of Terrorism Act – allowing the Guilford Four to be held for seven days’ interrogation – is nowhere mentioned. And never once in Conlon’s 15 years inside was an impression given that police fabrication of evidence was an on-going practice.

In fictional film there can be no dissent from the view that the facts should not get in the way of a good story (although the myriad absurdities in the court scenes, straight out of LA Law, are inexcusable). But In the Name of the Father regrettably also plays fast and loose with the context of an event that not only retains a high profile in the public mind, but is actually still the subject of a judicial inquiry by Sir John May.

Just as Spielberg clearly took the view that the story of Schindler’s List was too important to tamper with, so Sheridan should have realised that the story of the Guilford Four should have been approached with a sense of public responsibility. Its significance, in an understanding of the relationship between Britain and Ireland, is too important for it to be a backdrop for a father-and-son drama.

And yet. That may not be how the punters, seeking entertainment, view it. By all accounts, its core message, that a great miscarriage of justice was perpetrated on four innocent people, will linger. And we all know the impact of the movies.

For it raises, yet again, for film-makers and story-tellers all, the problem of how to deal with a political event, The Troubles, which is so central to the fabric of British politics and yet so ignored. Tom McGuire chose another, gentler approach in Dear Sarah, based on Guiseppe’s correspondence with his wife, which was all the more powerful for its simple tales of a family torn apart. The Crying Game put a credible human face on the way in which some recruits can be drawn willy-nilly into the IRA. Tougher choices about the role of the British state have been addressed in Shoot To Kill and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda; Ronan Bennett’s BBC screenplay, Love Lies Bleeding, showed in the style of a dense thriller how the negotiators can be as ruthless as the men of physical force in achieving their aims.

It has taken a long time for any of these explorations to appear on the screen because of a climate of fear that intimidates artists from facing some of the realities in Ireland, north and south. The potential has always been there. Listen to the Protestant Rev. William Arlow, assistant secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, talking about his secret meeting with leaders of the IRA in 1974 when a cease-fire and negotiations were also on the agenda: ‘We met informally the night before in the hotel and somebody said, “Let’s have a drink”, so we drifted off towards the bar. We were astonished and a little bit embarrassed when most of them declined to take alcohol. McKee [ex-Belfast commander] and O’Bradaigh [ex-chief of staff] explained that there was no discourtesy meant. They were just temperance men and that gave pause for thought. We got talking and one of them said he wanted to see an end to the military campaign. His children were up and coming and nearing the age when they would be caught up in it. He didn’t want them to go through what he had gone through. Twomey [Belfast adjutant] said he went back to the area where he lived to discover what was happening. Young people had been running wild, creating a nuisance, especially for the old people at night. “Is this the kind of Ireland I’m fighting for?” he asked and the answer was, “It isn’t.” And when they started to talk in these terms, men concerned about their children and their church, then I began to see that these men were not the monsters I thought them to be.’

It has taken 20 years for film-makers to begin even to capture a suggestion of what Rev. Arlow discovered. And who would dare to try and make a film about the brutal Shankill Butchers that placed them in families and community? Protestant sadists, republican bombers, even Serbian rapists are not naturally inclined to their excesses. The task of the artist is to explain how these horrors came about.

David Pallister, a journalist on the Guardian, worked with Gerry Conlon on his book Proved Innocent