Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?

October 31, 2008 · Print This Article

Debate around the film ‘Hunger’ has sparked a wider debate about the poor portrayal of the unionist cause in the arts generally. Discussions have taken place on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster, Arts Extra, Sunday Sequence and feature writers in various newspapers have explored the subject. The respected journalist David McKittrick has written an interesting piece in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?

By David McKittrick

Why oh why — Ulster Protestants and Unionists lament when a movie such as Hunger appears — why can our cause not be depicted sympathetically up there on the screen? Why is it that the IRA gets all the attention? What about us?

Hunger sets out to show how and why IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands deliberately went to his death to advance his cause. It is the latest in a long line of feature films focusing on aspects of Irish republicanism. In some of the scores of Troubles movies the IRA is presented as freedom fighters; in some it is shown as evil; in some its members are depicted as conflicted individuals, often trying to leave violence behind.

Unionists and Protestants in Northern Ireland have two problems with this. The first is that there is so much concentration on republicanism. The second is that their community is, in movie terms, practically invisible.

One far-fetched loyalist view, voiced this week, was that Hunger was part of “a carefully coordinated revisioning of the Irish republican movement”. Belfast Protestant playwright Gary Mitchell added: “If you judged Northern Ireland purely on the basis of films you would think there are no Protestants here.”

Although many movie-makers are clearly anti-IRA and anti-violence, many of them simultaneously display a fascination with the organisation and the republican cause. Even those who deem it evil, nonetheless find it interesting.

But few writers or producers — inside or outside Northern Ireland — find the Protestant community interesting, few identify with it and few have sought to champion it or even express its concerns. As a result republicans have basically had the big screen pretty much to themselves.

Hunger sets out to provide an examination of the personal and political motivations of Bobby Sands. Yet there is no Protestant equivalent to it: the republican tradition is regarded as a rich source of cinematic material, but not the Protestant perspective.

Proposals for movies told from a Unionist point of view are rare, according to Richard Williams, CEO of Northern Ireland Screen, the Belfast agency which helped finance Hunger.

“There isn’t a pile of projects in our office that we’re somehow rejecting,” he said. “That sort of material is rarely written — we receive more material that has a broad nationalist slant to it.

“Interestingly, writers from a Protestant background have a tendency to just shift away from here and ply their trade elsewhere. But even when they do stay here, they’ve a tendency not to write about this sort of thing.”

One very obvious exception to the trend of Protestant writers either leaving or opting for non-troubles themes, is the talented playwright Gary Mitchell, who comes from a working-class background and has written a number of well-received works. His work has been hailed as an unflinching warts-and-all portrait of ordinary loyalists, including members of paramilitary groups. With the emergence of Mitchell working-class Protestants at last seemed to have found a dramatic voice.

He once described just how distrustful loyalists are about the arts. “I believe that there is a deep-rooted ignorance of the arts within loyalist communities,” he said.

“This is the reality I have always come across within loyalist areas — that they do not trust drama. They will tell you coldly that drama belongs to the Catholics — drama belongs to the nationalists.”

Mitchell was apparently destined to write for the screen, but his career was interrupted when unwanted drama entered his own life. The paramilitaries he wrote about did not like his work, and expressed their displeasure in traditional backstreet fashion. They attacked his home in a loyalist part of north Belfast, forcing him and his family out. He has been living at a secret address ever since. There could hardly be a starker illustration of just how alienated from the arts many on the Protestant side are. And this is only one facet of Protestants’ problematic relations with the outside world.

For example, journalists who visit Northern Ireland often speak admiringly of the presentational skills of Sinn Fein, while saying they find loyalists shockingly poor at the business of winning friends and influencing people. One Unionist writer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, has spoken of “the Ulster Protestant’s fantastic ineptitude in public relations”. Another sympathetic commentator, Bruce Anderson, wrote: “In one competition the Ulster Protestants invariably win — year after year, they always retain the Pulitzer Prize for anti-public relations.”

Unionism’s difficulties with cinema are in other words just part of a deeper problem centring on relations with the outside world.

In movie terms everyone knows the IRA, but many in Hollywood and elsewhere know little or nothing about loyalism. Outsiders who take the trouble to research the Protestant paramilitary undergrowth generally recoil from what they find.

They quickly discover that loyalists killed over a thousand people, the majority of them uninvolved Catholic civilians, often in sectarian assassinations. This is, to say the least, unpromising territory for a feature film.

On the Protestant political side meanwhile there are not a lot of figures who strike a positive international chord. There was talk at one stage of a biopic of the Rev Ian Paisley but, unsurprisingly, it has not emerged. The underlying reality is that the world finds much of interest in the republican story. There is violence, intriguing personalities, a sense of the underdog pitted against the might of Britain. Add in some swirling Celtic music by the Chieftains or Enya, and a movie can easily take shape.

The perceived Protestant narrative, however, is one of a reactionary frontier community grimly holding on and opposing change. That may be something of a parody, but it is enough to make film-makers shudder and turn their attentions elsewhere: they find the republicans intriguing but the Protestants problematic.

There are several ironies here. One is that for decades scores of non-Irish movies have featured songs by Van Morrison, who is an east Belfast Protestant, though a non-political one.

Another is that movies are today regularly made in Belfast, many of them in the absolutely huge paint hall which still stands on the spot of the now-defunct shipyard.

The yard was once a great symbol of Ulster Unionism, but the film-makers now use it for themes such as horror movies and science fiction. Rarely if ever do they shoot anything to do with today’s Protestant predicament.


18 Responses to “Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?”

  1. Margaret Wernerspach on November 1st, 2008 11:39 pm

    It does not surprise me that Protestant Unionism and their paramilitary groups are not understood by the rest of the world.
    They are clinging on to the old way of a Prostestant parliament for a Protestant people. I don’t believe that the RUC, by changing its name, is fooling anyone.

    I was a Catholic raised in a Protestant country, Scotland. So, I know what it’s like for Catholics in Scotland. However, it’s not as bad as what Catholics had to live with in the north of Ireland. And the “Troubles” had nothing to do with religion. It has always been about power. There would have been no IRA if Catholics had been treated equally when Ireland was partitioned at the point of a gun.
    To be honest, I don’t like Orange Unionism and feel no empathy for them. Well, our country is not that great either when it comes to race. I hope to see Senator Barack Obama become our next president. We still have racists in this country but, thank God more peope are seeing the light. You cannot come together if you preach hate. Auld Paisley was great at that. He deserved the face he ended up with. That’s what hate does to a person who would rather have power over treating all people in the north equally.

  2. Salvatore on November 11th, 2008 12:14 pm

    Many people asked me here in italy why there are no films or books related to protestant reasons…
    They have no reasons i replied…they have no purpose…and i added that everywhere in the world people support irish struggle…this is the reason why there are no films related to unionism apartheid….

  3. Seán on November 20th, 2008 12:48 pm

    Films aren’t always made about the ‘good guys’ so why not make a film about unionist majority rule in their little protestant state for a protestant people, im sure that would be fascinating!

    I doubt that unionists would agree to a film being made on their history because as much as alot of them would like to return to those old ways, it wouldnt portray them in a good light around the world.

  4. Derek Smith on November 27th, 2008 7:38 pm

    I was born and i live in London. I am a Protestant. I fully support a united Ireland however. I am disgusted at the heinous acts my country has perpertrated in Ireland in my name.

  5. Stephen Todd on November 28th, 2008 5:55 pm

    Being born Catholic or Protestant is not a matter of idelogical choice, simply chance. Perhaps in the current global climate of doom and gloom we should seek out our common interests as Irishmen. The North has improved beyond recocognition and the amount of reconcilliation can give our children hope of a positive future.
    Most films are about Republicans because it is a story that has to be told. Likewise when Ulster Protestants start to share their experiences I am sure there will be plenty of interesting stories and maybe even films. Republicans tend to suffer in public Unionists in silence.

  6. Jamal Smith on October 13th, 2009 4:49 am

    I grew up in the North-West of England and was raised Catholic. Where i grew up, it has to be said was a very rascist place to be. I even attended a Catholic High School, and the amount of rascist slur coming out of that school was horrific. When I was 18 I had the amazing chance to go and study in Belfast for a year. I thoroughly enjoyed it apart from one occasion. One night myself and a few other students went for a night out in Belfast. Little did we know that the majority of pubs in Belfast are split into Catholic and Protestant. But to keep a long story short, we went into a Protestant pub and somebody overheard me talk about my Catholic upbringing. For this I was thrown outside strraight on my face and faced a massive amount of abuse. This was only 1 and a half years ago. I will deffinatly not be returning that particular part of Belfast!

  7. ed on October 16th, 2009 8:11 am

    unionists seem like thugs. they never seem to be able to articulate…and Paisley at the top of the pile I saw the speech he made on the day of the Sands funeral. Talking about Sands as a criminal. An elected MP who had put himself through a torturous death on hunger strike. A poet, a thinker, a social worker, a freedom fighter. A brave, brave soul. Paisley acted disgustingly, a disgrace to humanity let alone the supposed charity of his religion.

  8. Jim on August 5th, 2010 8:14 am

    I personally find it disgusting that people here could say that any IRA man is a freedom fighter. I live in England, yet my dad’s side of my family all live in Northern Ireland and are protestant. The film industry portrays these poor, oppressed freedom fighters, yet from my background I have seen the previously untold story. For a start my Granddad was shot dead by the IRA whilst driving a school bus to a protestant school, and you take pity on these people?

    Also, I am currently and English and Film student, hoping among all hope to become a screenwriter. If this is fulfilled i would also like (too much horror to some) depict this other side, undoubtedly to take a lot of stick. Yet not to make you pity or feel sorry for them, but to inform and show Protestants are capable of art.

  9. Sean Doherty on August 7th, 2010 1:41 am

    Jim do you take pity on the barbaric shankhill butchers who were obviously protestants ? There was bad on both sides and also the RUC and british army.

  10. tbhoy67 on August 7th, 2010 7:57 pm

    well jim on august 5th….if you make it into film remember also to point out the fact that YOUR SOLDIERS invaded THEIR country in the first place and murdered women and children as well as raping only GOD knows how many…..remember also to point out the fact that YOUR soldiers were at their BEST when opening fire on unarmed civillians or shooting them in the back

  11. pete on August 11th, 2010 6:10 pm

    hi jim i read your post with great interest,i remember the british army raided my grand parents house in gibson street in the falls area,my grandfather was 84 years old then,and a british soldier ordered my grandfather to stand and they searched him and while doing this another soldier held a rifle to his back,now lets get real here,this is a side which outsiders refuse to listen to ,they seem to be in denial,so may i suggest to you that do some ground work,first,as you have a long way to go in life in the film industry carrying that one sided attitude.best wishes,peter.

  12. Greg Tersakian on August 16th, 2010 7:44 pm

    As a historian of Armenian descent I did a lot of research about the Irish conflict. I always tried to keep a balanced view and did all the possible efforts to stay as neutral and analytical as possible. But the more I read and understood, the more I became a strong believer in the Republican cause. I have great trouble understanding how any Unionist can hold up his/her head high and honestly say that they were not racist and abusive towards their fellow Irish Catholics. Racism, social and economic abuse was the norm before and after partition, and it is a shame that the voices of reason for a more just community in the North was totally suffocated by the Unionist street forces and their leadership until the Republicans stood up and made their voices heard loud and clear.
    Both sides did huge mistakes and committed crimes, but the verdict is that justice and truth was definitely on the Republican side.

  13. Jim on August 19th, 2010 9:22 am

    In all honesty, i must admit, as soon as posted this i though ‘you haven’t thought this through here jim’. I personaly do not condone any of the brutality throughout the troubles, however the seemingly unbalanced opinions caused anger to bubble inside of me and i quickly (without thought) responded. I wish none of this happened as it caused great trauma, heartache and so much more on both sides. of the conflict.

    Yet i still feel that the sympathy for the IRA is disgusting. I am sorry if this causes offence.

  14. pete on August 19th, 2010 3:49 pm

    hi jim this bobby sands trust site is not the place to be posting these type of comments this site is just for the brave 10 hungerstrikers and the memories people had during this important part of the war,so i suggest for you to search other sites to air these type of comments,as thay often offend,best wishes,peter.

  15. justin on September 2nd, 2010 3:03 pm

    I was rasied catholic in the UK. My maternal gandparents were born in Eire ( Mayo and Kerry). My parents are both English and as grandparents moved to England after the end of WW2. I was aware of the troubles from what i saw on the TV in the very late 70’s and the early 80’s. I even was aware of who Bobby was even at the age of 7/8 because of the news. I was told that my great uncle Paddy ( my grandads older brother was a memeber of the IRA during the 40’s & 50’s which did shock me to be honest.
    I saw the film ‘Michael Collins’ years ago which started to make me think. My Grandma was still alive then and I asked her about him and she told me what she knew and had tears in her eyes. It got me thinking even more about NI. I have just seen ‘ Hunger’. I was so moved by this film.
    OK, sorry , not a very well structured commenting going on here but in a nutshell, I am proud of my extended family’s involvement all those years and I think Bobby was a hero. I cant say these things out loud at home as I would be ridiculed for it.

    I just want to add that the innocent people who died in the troubles must be remembered as there were some tragic instances.

  16. Sean Doherty on September 5th, 2010 2:47 am

    I think it is disgusting that jkim comes on here and says the ira are disgusting.This site is about bobby and the hunger strikers and not some slandering,abusive place for someone who does not know much abou history.

  17. gordon wilson on September 26th, 2010 10:52 am

    this is set up so that bobby sands will never be forgot,so that hes close to us in our way..rip songbird

  18. Thomas Brennan on March 17th, 2012 3:31 am

    Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations, was featured in Belfast, NI.
    He observed living conditions on both sides of the Peace Wall. Bobby Sands was shown in a mural smiling. Proving to be a lasting reminder of hope for a better future. Bobby Sands spoke of the movement being inspired by Ghandi’s non violent protest. I have read Bobby’s collection of poem’s and his life as a prisoner. The suffering must have been unbearable. He spoke of how violent and and sadistic the Screws were. The writings allowed Bobby to transcend the pain and misery. Laughter to lift the spirits. 3-17-12

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