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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Hunger feeds a need to understand past

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The release of Hunger, Steve McQueen's powerful film about Bobby Sands death on hunger strike in 1981, underlines the case for a conflict centre in the Maze which would give the history of the conflict.

The film is not just propaganda, as some have alleged. It is a far better film than others, such as Some Mother's Son, which explored the H Block theme. But like all works of art it is a partial representation and should not be taken for history. Events and people it omitted need to be given their place and others whom it sketched in with a light touch need to be fleshed out in detail.

There is a telling, but understated, moment in Hunger when Sands, played by Michael Fassbinder, acknowledges the murder of a prison officer. It comes during a 25-minute dialogue with Dominic Moran, a fictional priest based loosely on Father Denis Faul.

Moran notices that Sands head is scarred and bruised. "How's the other fellow" he asks. "He's a lot worse" Sands replies, with an air of satisfaction. His facial injuries were received, a few scenes earlier, when he was dragged from a cell to be washed. He spat in the face of an officer, Ray Lohan, who punched him in the head.

In an earlier we had seen Sands passing a secret communication to another prisoner for delivery to a visitor to pass on to someone outside. Later we see Lohan in the back of the head and dies in the lap of his elderly mother during a visit to a nursing home. The implication is that Sands had ordered the guards killing.

I have not seen this little tableau remarked on in other reviews and I didn't grasp the full importance of the sequence until a second viewing of the film.

As it notes in the closing credits, 16 prison officers were killed during the course of the protests in September 1976, and the end of the 1981 hunger strike in which Sands and nine other prisoners died.

Lohan's murder, a fictitious incident, represents the violence carried out by the IRA outside the prison.

McQueen does not mention why Sands was in jail. He was arrested in a car with other IRA members after the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry and a subsequent shoot out with the police. It would have made for a dramatic chase scene at the start of the movie but McQueen does nit use it. We are left to wonder about the nature of the political offence for which Sands, and two prisoners were jailed. All we hear about is the length of their sentences.

The film ends abruptly with the death of Sands. We do not see the co-ordinated rioting on the evening following his death, during which a milkman, Eric Guiney, 45, and his son Desmond, 14, were killed when bricks were thrown at the milk lorry, and a police officer, Philip Ellis, was shot dead by a sniper.

McQueen's film concentrates on the IRA's ability to endure, even embrace, suffering in pursuit of its objectives. But throughout the troubles, they inflicted more suffering than they endured. The Provisional IRA killed 1707 people during its campaign and, if other republican groups are included, the total comes to 2,056 out of 3,524 deaths recorded on the University of Ulster's Conflict Archive on the Internet (Cain).

There is also the effect of the hunger strike, which, against the initial expectations of the outside leadership, lifted republicans from a position of near defeat and isolation to one in which they could grow both politically through Sinn Féin and militarily through the IRA's escalating campaign.

Hunger leaves us with the impression that the prisoners were on their own, but there is the evidence of communications between Sands and Gerry Adams that there was co-ordinated strategy to exploit the H Block issue. Papers deposited Belfast's Linenhall Library by Sinn Féin show that in August 1980 Sands wrote to Adams with plans to make "H Block more common than shamrock"; to field prisoner candidates in elections on the outside and even form "a provisional type government" with Sinn Féin substitutes for any prisoners elected.

The election of Bobby Sands as an MP in an April 1981 by-election is mentioned in the film credits. But his intense involvement in the campaign, and Sinn Féin's promise that if people voted for him they could save his life, is omitted. Hunger avoids the corrosive but plausible allegations put forward by Richard O'Rawe, a former H Block prisoner and Sinn Féin press officer. A public-relations officer for the IRA's protesting prisoners at the time, O'Rawe argues that an opportunity to end the strike after four deaths was ignored in the interests of electing Owen Carron, a Sinn Féin member, to replace Sands.

The prison protest has since been used by Sinn Féin to win support, but the period also contains booby traps for the party. History is seldom as straightforward as we would wish.

Of course no film can convey the whole sweep of events or draw out all their implications because drama requires focus and selection. We would not expect a film about the Battle of the Somme to take in the full context of the first World War, stretching from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the Treaty of Versailles.

McQueen homes in on the personal. The scenes of filth and squalor during the dirty protest, when prisoners refused to slop out and spread their excrement over the walls because they were not allowed to wear their own clothes, are graphically depicted.

In the film, the Sands character argues that if the hunger strike fails the defeat will be temporary because it will ensure that "out of the ashes ... there will be another generation" to take up the struggle. He evokes the tradition of blood sacrifice advocated by Padraic Pearse.

But Pearse's message was transmitted to the historical Sands via a work of fiction. Sands memorised the bulk of Leon Uris's 890 page bestseller Trinity and recited it to fellow prisoners over a period of days. Curiously Uris based the central character in Trinity –Conor Larkin- on Martin McGuinness whom Uris and his wife Jill met and photographed in Ireland.

Unlike McGuinness, Larkin makes a conscious decision to give his life against hopeless odds. Before he dies he tells his girlfriend "a defeat may somehow stir the ashes of our people into a series of more glorious defeats ... the true job of the brotherhood is not to expand to win but to sharpen its teeth to die hard."

That did not happen in the case of Sands sacrifice, whatever the film suggests. Instead the hunger strike helped pave the way for politics, compromise and accommodation by the very man whose appearance and demeanour inspired Uris to create the character who Sands found so compelling.

It is a complex story which deserves to be told in depth. At the Maze, a 360 acre site, one of the H Blocks, the prison hospital where Sands died, and some of the fencing and a watchtowers are already protected structures. They are ear marked for conflict resolution centre but the DUP are wary of approving the plan in case it will be turned into a "shrine for terrorism."

The example of other prison museums shows that this need not happen. We have the opportunity to achieve something unique at the Maze, to help us understand our past as well as attracting interest across the globe and European funding. All communities in Northern Ireland should take charge of this shared legacy. It is too important to be left to movie-makers and novelists.

November 11, 2008
________________ Sunday Times

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