Ruth Dudley Edwards, Guardian
Ken Loach is being predictable and morally lazy in making yet another sympathetic portrayal of Irish republicanism.
As an Irish historian living in England, I have become inured to the self-flagellation of nice, well-meaning, leftish people like George Monbiot when it comes to Ireland. They see only negatives when they consider the record of Britain in Ireland and are blinkered by ignorance and blinded by romance when they look at violent republicanism.
I began my career as a biographer of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly – two leaders of the 1916 rebellion. I viewed them sympathetically, as I view all my subjects, but I could not but conclude that they had no more justification for revolution than did the Provisional IRA more than sixty years later nor the Real and Continuity IRAs now. They were leaders of a tiny cabal: Ireland was a democracy, and Home Rule was on the statute book.
The British reaction to a revolution in the middle of a world war was harsh enough to alienate Irish public opinion, while too mild to smash violent nationalism. (Salient figures: 450 deaths, of which 116 were soldiers, 16 policemen, 242 civilians and 76 insurgents.)
Although there were only 16 executions, they aroused the sympathy of the hitherto unbellicose Irish and in 1918 won the election for Sinn Fein, though there was no mandate for future violence. Yet violence had become respectable. The unnecessary war of independence began when in January 1919, a handful of Irish Volunteers took it on themselves to kill two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. From then on it was a war on anyone in uniform – British or Irish – or with unionist sympathies. Ken Loach set The Wind That Shakes the Barley in County Cork, but I’m told there is no mention in it of the ethnic cleansing of Protestants in several villages.
To deal with IRA terror, early in 1920 the British government dispatched ex-servicemen to join the RIC. Inadequately trained and ill disciplined and without even a proper uniform (they became known as the Black and Tans because of their odd mixture of khaki and black), they met terror with counter-terror and raids with reprisals: violence and brutality escalated on both sides during 1920 and 1921. (About 1,400 died, including 600+ security forces and 550 IRA).
This was a terrible period, though not as damaging for the Irish psyche as the civil war that followed, when a minority of republicans showed their contempt for the Irish electorate by taking to the gun rather than accept the Treaty with Britain, which the Irish parliament had ratified. The atrocities of previous years were exceeded in the war of republican against republican. (Around 1,500-2,000 died.)
Ken Loach spoke of the “legendary” brutality of the Black and Tans, and indeed their nastiest deeds have gone down in story and song and have never knowingly been understated. The reason why I won’t be going to his film (which I couldn’t see before I wrote about it as it had been shown only at Cannes) is because I can’t stand its sheer predictability.
All films dealing with Irish republicans show them as tormented idealists who sometimes do things they shouldn’t: the British or unionists are portrayed as cynical, brutal and despicable (for example Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins). So Loach was doing nothing brave in taking a sympathetic look at republicans: he was being morally lazy. What would have been interesting and worthwhile would have been for this champion of the underdog to look at events from the standpoint of some wretch of a Black and Tan who had survived years of war only to end up in Ireland being shot at from behind hedges.
Loach has explained to the republican Daily Ireland that partition has failed and that the “unionist veto on change must be removed”. He is, therefore, even more militant than is post-agreement Sinn Fein. The only republicans who now oppose the principle of consent in determining the future of Ireland are the dissidents who are still trying to kill and maim for Ireland. That puts Loach on the side of those who murdered 29 people and unborn twins in Omagh in 1998.