Telling the Truth About Ireland

By Ronan Bennett

The arrival last December of the Sinn Fein delegation at Stormont was an embarrassment to many: to John Major, who said it would turn his stomach to talk to Gerry Adams (an Adams visit to Downing Street cannot be far off – Major’s stomach may yet be spared, but only because he does not seem destined to remain in office much longer); to those politicians in all the major British and Irish parties who for years said there would be no negotiations with the ‘men of violence’; and to the pundits and columnists who slavishly followed this line. With a small number of honourable exceptions, it is not in the nature of their mandate or make-up for politicians to go against the flow; and however much journalists try to dignify their work as challenging and confrontational, when it comes to an issue like the conflict in Ireland – in which the conventions governing reporting and comment are so deeply rooted as to have become articles of faith – their output has more often been a hymn to the inviolability of government policy. That we got nothing better should not come as a surprise: politicians and journalists have to accommodate the various pressures of their own constituencies – voters or readers – and it is unreal to expect from them much in the way of imagination or innovation.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-1.jpgFirst communion, Long Tower Chapel, Derry. Photo: Mike Abrahams.

But last month’s events are also a stark reminder of the failure on the part of artists in their representation of the conflict. I have covered this ground in a number of articles, arguing that the majority of novels, plays and films treating the war in Ireland have been conceived, written and realised under the influence of precisely the same conventions which have underpinned media reporting and government policy. In summary, the conventions are: that it is an irrational and bloody slaughter without solution; that both sides, Republican and Loyalist, are as bad as each other, driven by ‘tribal’ or ‘psychopathic’ instincts; that normal, sensitive people do not get involved, or if they do, it is reluctantly or through intimidation, and as soon as they are in, they want out; that the British presence may at times be heavy-handed and inept but at bottom it is well intentioned and indispensable – soldiers and policemen are reluctant pigs in the middle; that there is no realistic alternative to continued British rule. The result has often been a reliance on cliché and a sense of predictability about much of the output. I do not propose here to look again at examples of the conventions at work, but rather to explore some of the pressures on artists, specifically those involved in film drama, to keep within the set parameters.

The pressures are many. Some are subtle and psychological. Others, like good old-fashioned censorship, are obvious. The broadcasting ban, that heavy-handed but effective tool of censorship aimed primarily at Republicans, has only recently been withdrawn. Peter Taylor, the documentary film-maker, says Ireland is the one area British journalists are not allowed to cover freely. Martin Bell, the BBC reporter on the spot in the North at the outbreak of the latest phase of the ‘Troubles’, recalls that when he toured West Belfast in 1969 he saw that almost all the violence had been directed at Catholic families, who, as a result, fled their homes in fear of their lives. The then-controller of BBC Northern Ireland refused to allow him to say this, insisting instead that the violence be described as coming from both sides. (Bell’s earliest reports, inter alia, helped lay the ground for the enduring ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ convention.) The instances of direct censorship are well known and too numerous to mention here. Although intended in the main to apply to news reporting, censorship of this sort contributed to the environment in which drama about the conflict was made. The journalist Tom McGurk, who wrote the screenplay of Dear Sarah, an early TV film about the Guildford Four case, told a seminar of the Derry Film Festival in November that the atmosphere at the BBC in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s simply didn’t allow for a truthful representation of the conflict.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-2.jpgLeaving for school during an army and RUC raid, Springhill Estate, Belfast. Photo: Mike Abrahams.

Things at the BBC have changed; the atmosphere has eased. But only so far. Danny Morrison, Sinn Fein’s former director of publicity now nearing the end of a prison sentence, was, while in jail, commissioned by a BBC Northern Ireland radio producer to write a play. When this became known, the Northern Ireland controller stepped in and quashed the project, writing to Morrison to say that work by him would be offensive to much of the BBC’s audience. This undoubtedly is true. But if we follow the logic of this intervention, it becomes disturbing: if broadcasters avoid what is controversial and ‘offensive’, how then do they defend their output as art, for art, surely, if it is to mean anything, must be in tension with its audience. Would it not be a good thing for an audience to hear a genuinely alternative point of view, whether it originates with a Republican or a Loyalist? If, as Eamonn McCann once said, you try to tell the story from the middle, you are telling it from a place no one in the North inhabits, no one recognises. It simply isn’t a credible portrayal of the situation; it is also bad art.

It’s not just the BBC. When three Republican ex-prisoners, one of them a survivor of the 1981 hunger strike, approached me for help in getting off the ground a film about the hunger strike, I wrote to a number of TV executives and commissioning editors among the ITV companies. One, a man with a good record in dealing with Irish stories in documentaries, wrote back saying it was unlikely his company would take up the project, given the subject matter. Fortunately, there were others within the broadcasting establishment – notably John Willis and Alan Fountain at Channel 4, and those at the Irish Film Board – who took an interest and gave encouragement and financial backing to the hunger strike project. It is impossible in a liberal democracy for censorship to be monolithic.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-3.jpgFuneral of Larry Marley, Ardoyne, Belfast, 1987. Photo: Mike Abrahams.

It was John Willis who also came up with what I believe to be the most imaginative and provocative idea for a film about the conflict. The premise was simple: Britain decides to pull out of Ireland, what happens? I was asked to collaborate with Peter Kosminsky, the drama-documentary director, in developing the script. Supported by Willis and David Aukin, we were given complete freedom with narrative, themes, characters and hypotheses (provided these were grounded in reality). Unfortunately for our project (though not, of course, unfortunately in a larger sense), events began to unfold with a speed that made a credible narrative impossible to construct. Kosminsky and I decided we could not continue and the idea was shelved.

More insidious and more potent than overt censorship is the impact of politically-motivated critics, censorship’s reserve troops. With such a polarised conflict, it is unrealistic to expect that critics will put aside their own loyalties and preju­dices. Yet the political disagreement lying behind much hostile criticism usually goes unacknow­ledged: a piece of work is pronounced bad, not because of its politics, but because of its inferiority as art. One of the paradoxes about writing about the Irish conflict is that there exists more space in England than in Ireland to express a broadly nationalist point of view. My fiercest critics are the anti-nationalist Irish, those engaged in what they call a ‘revision of the myths and pieties of Irish nationalism’, and they do not mince their words.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-4.jpgLife After Life, Lorcan Cranitch as Leo Boyle and Bridget Turner as Frances Doyle. Photo: Christopher Hill.

To give a flavour (from a review of my second novel, Overthrown by Strangers): ‘It is a novel whose ethic is dedicated to the recovery of the word `terrorist’ from opprobrium…an ethic where the morality of the murderer involves Augustinian distinctions…It is an ethic, too, where the individual is despised, though understood theologically as weak, and the communal exalted…the moral sleight-of-hand is that the rejection of the individual might be read as consent to the social…the reader is treated to a seminal treatise in the norms of fascism…[it] is a cry from the grave against the civilised discourse that the new Ireland represents.’ Reviewing A Man You Don't Meet Every Day, a film I wrote about IRA bombers in London, broadcast on Channel 4 last November, the TV critic of the Irish Times wrote that it was stomach-turning to have to watch it after seeing a documentary about survivors of the Birmingham pub bombings. And there’s plenty more where these examples came from.

To some extent, it is always possible to ignore such criticism – particularly when it is counterbalanced by positive reviews. Yet it would be naïve to underestimate the cumulative impact of sustained criticism of this sort: how long before it influences commissioning editors? Perhaps it never will, but the anxiety exists. I know of one Irish writer who had several successful plays performed in the 1970s. Praised by the critics, he told me that he found himself in interviews being led into saying things about his work that were at odds with his original intentions. The critics had misinterpreted his material and he – partly, it might have been, out of a peculiar but understandable form of politeness and partly out of a desire not to be confrontational (a young playwright does not like to contradict experienced critics who have suddenly and flatteringly taken him up) – he at first went along with their anti-Republican perspectives. When eventually he said, ‘Well, no, you’ve got that wrong. What I’m saying in fact is this…’, he found himself quickly dropped.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-5.jpgLove Lies Bleeding, Mark Rylance as Conn Ellis and Elizabeth Bourgine as Sophie Alen. Photo: Christopher Hill.

Not all hostile criticism works so crudely. A more subtle critic of my work argues over the issue of ‘language’. The use of words like ‘Republican’, ‘Loyalist’, ‘Nationalist’, ‘Unionist’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, he maintains, is rooted in a past which confined discourse to false polarities. What is needed, he argues, is not a rehearsal of ‘old’ politics, but a ‘new language’ to reflect a different political agenda, one which transcends the issue of partition and British rule. Because ‘language’ has the ring of discourse about art, about authentic art, this criticism is, on the surface, more penetrating: it makes an implicit claim to intellectual rather than political objection. Yet, at bottom, it is the same political exception to the work on show. I argue that one can hardly discuss the conflict without recourse to these labels, inexact as they often are. If you talk of ‘transcending’ partition and the issues the division of Ireland has thrown up, you are saying partition is not important, and that is to take a side in the conflict. The ‘language’ criticism is not about finding new ways to express ideas, but hostility to an idea the critic dislikes, not for artistic reasons but political ones.

I have attempted to explore the complexities of political commitment in the Irish context from a committed point of view, rather than pretending that exploration is a disinterested one. So far, I have not been overly troubled by overt censorship or politically-motivated criticism. In fact, the opposite – I have had only encouragement from producers and commissioning editors. There now exists, I believe, greater freedom, more space to look at the conflict from a different perspective.

telling-the-truth-about-ireland-6.jpgOpen-air flute practice, evening, West Belfast. Photo: Laurie Sparham.

Problems remain, however – problems of narrative and realism and the limits and distortions they create through the necessity of boxing human, psychological, emotional and political complexities into marketable filmic packages. The order of narrative, its density, the tidiness it demands impose an unreality that some find objectionable or inherently incredible when set against a situation like the conflict in Ireland. The thriller format of Love Lies Bleeding (broadcast on BBC 2 in September 1993) – the script, because of a co-production deal, was commissioned as a thriller – created further, still more artificial, conventions. Some Republican friends objected to the idea depicted in the film of the IRA using violence to resolve an internal division over a proposed cease-fire in order to get to the negotiating table. They pointed out that in fact there has been no serious split within the Provisional IRA’s ranks since the movement was born (after a split), almost a quarter of a century ago, in spite of almost daily media warnings of such an eventuality. I was aware of this when I wrote the film; I was also aware that ‘splits’ between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ is one of the staples of films and fiction about the IRA.

It might have been possible to find a narrative line that allowed me to avoid this, but – working to a brief others had laid down – I did not find it. Looking back, however, I have no problem defending Love Lies Bleeding: for all the artificiality of its form and the overstatement of thriller, it prefigured real political developments (the cease-fire and talks between Sinn Fein and representatives of the British government), and showed IRA volunteers not as psychopathic gunmen but as men and women from a community pursuing a concrete political project. For me, radio has provided another medium in which to explore the conflict. Supported by sympathetic producers/directors, Pam Brighton and Noah Richler, I found the medium in many ways more flexible than film: the room for words, for the exploration of ideas as I went along, for mixing drama and memoir, for metaphor was so much greater.

It might be that the truest filmic representation of the conflict in Ireland cannot be found in narratives of this type, in which the story’s emphasis is on a single person or a small group of people. Exploring the conflict through the lone hero or protagonist produces in me profound uneasiness, for the war is very much about communities, and, in the past, the desire to tell the story through the eyes of an isolated individual has led some dramatists and writers up some predictable blind alleys. It has nearly always been to pitch the sensitive individual, watching the horrors in a impotent humanistic rage, against a desensitised – at times downright barbaric – community. Alienation, confrontation, emigration is the pattern of such work. What’s needed perhaps, what might be truest to the authentic experience of the war, is an Irish equivalent of Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, but this would first mean that the putative makers recognise the existence of a genuine political struggle, instead – which has been the norm until now – of passing it off as the demented work of isolated crazies.

There is, in trying to make drama about the conflict from a politically engaged standpoint, a more general problem of art and politics. Unfashionably perhaps, the politics I admire are those of commitment and passion; pragmatism I see not as politics but management. While writers of fiction are happy to satirise and take an oppositional point of view, they are on the whole less comfortable with affirmation. Irony, detachment, distance are the watchwords.

Though many are happy to moralise and deliver homilies on subjects close to their hearts, affirmation is for sentimentalists. And there is a problem about reconciling affirmation and art, commitment and writing. One obvious danger is that the desire to make a clear statement of where the artist stands can lead to something simplistic and embarrassing. The dramatist who has a character come on and give a speech of affirmation invites ridicule, especially if the piece has opted against narrative in favour of more ‘experimental’ forms. If the art is swamped by the politics, it is no longer art: the desire to affirm has led to something not far removed from propaganda.

For me as a novelist and dramatist, the central problem is how to reconcile the commitment, which is at the heart of my politics, with doubt, which is the heart of my writing. By its very nature, it is not a problem that admits of resolution; in many ways I have used articles like this in an effort to think through aspects of my writing that have emerged post production. It is simply not possible, as far as I can see, to write meaningfully or well from a position of certainty. Art and politics demand different – sometimes incompatible – things from the writer, whose overriding concern must always be to turn out work of value. There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Perhaps, the best indication of success in reconciling the conflicting demands is when different critics read into your work different things: there were those who saw Love Lies Bleeding and A Man You Don't Meet Every Day as indictments of the IRA, and those who thought they were sympathetic to the organisation and its aims.

Irish politics and the relationship between Britain and Ireland have been transformed by the Republican initiatives of the last year. Events moved in a way politicians and journalists said they never would, and for the most part TV and film drama mirrored this perspective and the prejudices and limited vision underpinning it. Now that the conflict is nearing its end, we wait to see whether film-makers, with the privilege of hindsight and in a less fraught atmosphere, will make a better fist of representing its realities.

Ronan Bennett writes political comment, novels essays and plays. His novels, The Second Prison and Overthrown by Strangers, were published in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Television screenplays include Love Lies Bleeding for BBC 2, which won the Silver Medal at the 1994 New York TV Festival, and A Man You Don't Meet Every Day for Channel 4. He is currently working on two original feature film scripts, A Further Gesture, specially written for Stephen Rea, and A Lake of Ashes.