The good news was the invitation to a press preview of Ken Loachs film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley. The bad news was the venue. Yorkgate Moviehouse is a place to which I had never been, as it is close to a loyalist stronghold in North Belfast. Night is also the riskiest time to be spotted and opportunely stabbed, bottled, run over or shot by a sharp-sighted, or, for that matter, drunken loyalist.
Nevertheless I was tempted, and eventually decided to go to the film – as incognito as possible - after Loach won the Palme dOr at the Cannes Festival. In his acceptance speech he said that his film represented “a little step in the British confronting their imperialist history.” In response, Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail demanded to know, ‘Why Does Ken Loach Loath His Country So Much? Which is ironic, because thats first question comes into my mind every time I consider Ruths approach to Irish history.
Later, Loach described the vitriolic attacks on him in the British media as having been motivated by a “deep-seated imperialist guilt”. He said that partition had failed and that the unionist veto on political progress should be replaced by a way of “unravelling the sad legacy of the 1921 Treaty.”
Two days before the preview, Mark Haddock, a senior member of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), was shot six times by his erstwhile colleagues on the outskirts of North Belfast. In the Dail, and elsewhere, Haddock has been accused of also being a Special Branch informer/agent who had been allowed to serially kill to maintain his credibility within the organisation. If the terror of the Tans was a dirty war, then the truth about murderous collusion in the North will prove to be a murkier and even more sinister story if it ever gets past ongoing British attempts to suppress it.
While Haddock lay critically injured in hospital the political spotlight fell on the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Historically the UUP is linked to the original 1912 UVF which illegally shipped guns into Ireland and threatened civil war if Home Rule – that is, some democracy - was given to the Irish people.
For many years the UUPs mantra for refusing to share power with Sinn Fein over its alleged links to the IRA had been “no guns, no government.” Yet, a month ago, at the re-opening of the Assembly, the UUP entered into a pact with the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF. The UVF has killed hundreds of Catholics and was responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Whereas the IRA has declared an end to its armed struggle and has put its weapons beyond use, the UVF has broken its ceasefire, refuses to disarm, murdered four people in 2005 and has just shot Mark Haddock.
The sophistry we heard from UUP leader Reg Empey in defence and justification for what is, in effect, a UUP/UVF pact is something that northern nationalists are well used to. For Ian Paisleys DUP then to come out and attack the UUP for its links with the UVF was a case of the big black pot calling the smaller kettle, given Paisleys associations with loyalist paramilitaries over a span of forty years.
While Irish republicanism is regularly attacked by opinion makers, political opponents, and revisionist historians for being associated with outrageous rebellion, rising and armed struggle, Britain and unionism, as the status quo, are used to getting off lightly, which is why the response to Loachs film has been so vicious.
In the past thirty years alone the IRA has been blamed for everything from firing the first shot on Bloody Sunday, to causing the deaths of the hunger strikers, to being responsible for loyalist violence and unionist intransigence. But with the withdrawal of the IRA from the situation, the real root of violence has been increasingly exposed – partition and the “sad legacy of the 1921 Treaty”.
If it were possible to place on scales on one side the cost in suffering of the subjugation of Ireland, of the unionist ascendancy within Ireland, initially as the British garrison before taking possession of the Northern Ireland state and consolidating their sectarian hold through official and unofficial violence, then a more balanced view of the outbreak of the IRA campaign and its response to subsequent events would emerge.
In a sense, Ken Loach is being attacked for getting the balance right.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is an honest portrayal of how conflict took its toll on the people of one small community in rural Cork during the Tan War and Civil War. Dáil Eireann, the democratic choice of the majority of the people, has been suppressed and British rule is enforced by bayonet and bullet. The IRA fights back and the community stoically suffers great repression in turn. To deter informers and protect itself the IRA Flying Column kills one of its own men – a pathetic, weak, inarticulate youth who betrayed his comrades. The IRA also executes an articulate Protestant landlord (who holds his own convictions) for supplying information to the British and in reprisal for the hanging of two of its men.
It would be a travesty of the universal truths and moral dilemmas the director explores to claim – as have some, and mostly those who have not even seen the film – that it will act as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.
Loach does not balk at portraying the brutality of war from all sides. However, we only hear about and do not see the Belfast pogroms against Catholics in the North (when hundreds died), which is the first instalment they have to pay for the Government of Ireland Act. Partition is thus made a fait accompli (the Belfast Parliament opened in June 1921) even before the Truce (July 1921) and negotiations lead to the divisive Treaty which ultimately divides the IRA and sparks civil war in the South.
I left the cinema stressed and distressed because of the storys overwhelming sadness and could even appreciate – though not empathise – with the pragmatism of the emergent Free State forces who considered full freedom to be elusive. Some balked before the threat of Lloyd Georges “immediate and terrible war”. Some felt that the critical decision to settle was based on the reality of the IRA being poorly armed, having little finances and the people reeling from the terror of the Tans. Some also felt – and how wrong they were - that the Treaty was ‘a stepping stone to the Republic.
Those who remained loyal to the Republic and to their principles (which to them had justified the taking of human life) were tied to a post and shot by former comrades who wept. It was as if everyone had been cheated and trapped – no matter what decision they took. And in a way they were. It was Britain who set that trap. It was Britain who bequeathed to the South a bitter civil war and a restricted body politic. It was Britain who bequeathed to us nationalists in the North no freedom, no justice, and no rights and against which we would react in turn, like our predecessors in Cork and elsewhere.
Whilst Loach shows the heroism of the IRA and that of the people, he dwells more on the sorrows of war and the loss all around of ones loved ones: