Month: November 2008

The Bloody Truth

The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday is: “established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the events on Sunday 30 January 1972 which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day, taking account of any new information relevant to events on that day.”

For the families of those who died on Bloody Sunday their stated objective in the long campaign for a Public Inquiry is ‘the truth’. Their hope is admirable. Is their cause attainable? Will they gain closure?

We will ballpark the sum to be spent on the Saville Inquiry at around £200 million, give or take a few million. It has taken years, volumes of evidence, acres of newspaper reporting. One more year is needed, apparently, before a report will be ready. And then? Will the truth be told?

At the end of the Saville Inquiry all we will have is a conclusion based on the volume of information the Inquiry has gathered. To understand just why the Saville Inquiry will fail to find a definitive truth we need to look just a year or two later than Bloody Sunday.

Kathleen Feeney was 14 years old when she was shot while playing on a street in Londonderry, November 1973. She was the second youngest of five children and the sister of an SDLP Councillor.

At the time the IRA said; “The people of Derry are aware that we have admitted responsibility for our actions even when mistakes were made by us and civilians injured.” It continued: “We say categorically that the shooting of young Kathleen Feeney was the work of the British Army and not of the Republican movement.”

Unsurprisingly, street rioting and mayhem ensued after the shooting. The IRA claimed at the time that it had killed a soldier dead in revenge.

Over thirty years later the IRA issued a statement that tells a very different version of events. In a statement released to the Derry Journal the Provisional IRA said: “The IRA accepts responsibility for the death of Kathleen Feeney. Our failure to publicly accept responsibility for her death until now has only added to the hurt and pain of the Feeney family.” The statement continued that: “Kathleen was hit by one of a number of shots fired by an IRA active service unit that had fired upon a British army foot patrol.”

There was an apology to the Feeney family. The statement also made reference to, “an operation against the British Army in retaliation for the death of Kathleen Feeney.” There was no apology for the murder of the unnamed soldier.

We know therefore that the IRA believed it perfectly just to lie to exacerbate division and to increase alienation of nationalists from authority. The killing of Kathleen Feeney was important in this respect. The sister of an SDLP councillor would show that no nationalist was ‘safe’ from the Brits: that the Brits killed indiscriminately. The claim to have shot a British soldier in reprisal placed the IRA as defenders of all nationalists and not just republicans.

Why does this matter in respect to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry? It matters because lying about IRA operations was an essential element of strategy. Anything that reinforced alienation from the British, and in particular induced a hatred of the British Army, was an essential part of building the IRA’s profile as defenders of the Catholic population.

So is it possible to believe IRA claims not to have had guns on the streets on the day? Did the Parachute Regiment shoot without provocation?

How could the IRA ever admit to having played a role on Bloody Sunday? Bloody Sunday shocked, alienated, and radicalised the Catholic population of Londonderry, and further afield. The IRA gained moral justification for its campaign of violence.

The IRA gave no evidence to the Saville Inquiry. For the IRA there is one truth – a truth that allowed a single day to justify murder and mayhem for a generation to follow, and even now…

Pity the families of those who died as a consequence of Bloody Sunday; the fourteen who died as a consequence of that particular day and the scores that followed in the wake. The search for truth, irrelevant of how much money is spent, will probably remain a futile quest.

The IRA lied to further its cause in respect of Kathleen Feeney’s murder. Should we dismiss the possibility that it could not allow the truth to be revealed if that were to undermine a fundamental justification on which it built its murderous campaign?

Poor little Kathleen Feeney was merely collateral damage to the IRA. Her family could be afforded the truth because in the history of the total conflict her death was of little significance to the IRA. Will there be any such closure for the families of those who died on Bloody Sunday?

A Powerful Hunger

If you go to see prison service brutality and the heroism of Bobby Sands then that is likely what you will see in ‘Hunger’, the film directed by Steve McQueen.

If you go expecting to see Republican propaganda on the big screen, then you’ll see Republican propaganda.

Republicans seemed to welcome the movie as a tribute to the courage of Bobby Sands and Unionists condemned the waste of State money that supported the making of the ‘Republican’ movie in Northern Ireland.

The tackling of a subject matter such as the 1981 Hunger Strike makes the movie ‘controversial’? Thought provoking perhaps, but no movie is controversial simply because of its subject. Is ‘Hunger’ a true portrayal – of course not, it is a movie. Is the treatment of the subject matter ‘fair’ – by whose judgement or against what criteria? Does it make Sands the Hero – Steve McQueen, the director, says ‘take a closer look if that is what you think.

There has been a great deal of focus on the dialogue between Sands (played outstandingly by Michael Fassbender) and the fictional Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). This is the most intense piece of dialogue in a movie that largely speaks through its cinematography. The movie is a triptych. To understand the importance of this dialogue it is necessary to explore before and after this centrepiece.

The first part of the film is about the Prison Officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). This is a portrait of a man on the edge. His only fleeting escape is locker room bravado with his fellow officers. Lohan is a lonely man. He dresses alone, eats alone, stands alone. His loneliness is compounded by visits to an aged mother who does not know his name. He is a man who no longer knows himself. Lost.

Then there is the new inmate, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) uncomfortable with his demand for political status, longing for family, out of place among his fellow inmates on the IRA dirty protest. Yet a member of the IRA and therefore obliged to conform, to believe. Trapped.

The focus of the film moves slowly towards Sands as the central subject. The encounter with Fr Moran is gripping. It is Moran who frames final act. He questions Sands’s motive in pursuing a hunger strike to the death. He points to the IRA inmates as being out of touch. Inside too long. Brutalised by the system, and yet of the system. How in such circumstances could any decision be rational? Deluded.

Sands responds as a driven and focused individual. It is his vision, his will, his decision. Moran points to the inmates as a mill stone around the neck of the IRA, the dirty protest as being a no win strategy that took the initiative away from a leadership outside the prison. Sands was taking them into a new no-win battle that would simply draw attention to IRA impotence. Sands does not accept this. Sands believes he is the future. His death will be a new dawn, an inspiration to the next generation. Martyr.

The last part of the movie guides us through the death of Sands. The brutality of the opening part of the movie is contrasted with the serene, humanity of death.

All that is left is the question posed by Fr Moran to Sands: ‘what does death achieve?’

This movie does not present Sands as a hero. He is presented as a man with purpose, but out of date and out of touch. His death was his choice, his decision: as was the death of Lohan. It was right that the film ended on the death of Sands. It was an end in more ways than one.

For the first time since reading Richard O’Rawe’s book ‘Blanketmen’, the end of ‘Hunger’ allowed me to understand why Sinn Fein/IRA/Republicans dislike O’Rawe so much. O’Rawe’s proposition is that the inmates wished to end the hunger strike after four men had died, but the outside command allowed the strike to continue to enable Owen Carron to keep the Parliamentary seat won by Bobby Sands.

Fr Moran points to the deep hole in which the ‘outside’ command found itself at the time of the hunger strikes. There was no military victory possible and the course of political discourse was being driven by factors inside the Maze prison and beyond ‘control’. Ironically the Sands hunger strike provided the IRA with a way out of that hole. The election of Sands and then Carron set them on a political path that has ultimately led them to Stormont.

Sands represents the end of an era. That is why O’Rawe has been cast out of the Republican family. He pointed out that the hunger strike became a vehicle for change; a change that ended the IRA of Bobby Sands and heralded a new political era – not quite the new dawn that Sands had anticipated. Betrayed.

Hunger is a powerful movie. There are powerful performances by the cast. There are powerful undercurrents too.

The prison is turned into a metaphor for a society that is brutalised. People, ordinary people are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence being fed by alienation and disassociation from all else outside this maelstrom.

In Sands there is a man who seeks to inspire a new generation – the revolutionary vanguard to a new United Ireland. Instead, his death served a cause far removed from the one for which he was prepared to die. The Armalite placed on the shelf in exchange for the off the shelf Armani.

Sands. Lost, trapped, deluded, martyr, betrayed.

America is ready for change

Both Barack Obama and John McCain stand for change. Yet despite months of electioneering the nature of that change, whoever becomes President, remains unclear.

With George Bush’s approval ratings, the surprise of the current Presidential election is that Barack Obama is not leading by a far greater margin. The Republican Party is fighting the prospect of losing the Presidential election and perhaps also in both Houses of Congress.

It is a testimony to the strength of character of John McCain and the level of trust and admiration for the man that he has stayed in the race. Polls have been wrong before, and the margins at the weekend before the Presidential election are close enough for McCain to be positive.

That said, it is more than likely that Obama will win on Tuesday. On that day, and with hindsight, the Democrats will congratulate themselves on making the right choice. That will remain to be proven by Obama in Office. Certainly, he won the Democratic nomination by appealing to the Democrat grassroots, more liberal (left) than the overall Democrat registered voter who largely backed Hilary Clinton. In the course of the Presidential campaign he has been more centrist, as far as we can tell.

Will Obama be the pragmatic President or go with the liberal flow, particularly if both Houses of Congress are controlled by Democrats? We don’t know. Despite the huge election spend and thousands of miles travelled on the campaign trail, Obama has stuck to a simple constant message that gives little about the future conduct of President Obama.

Obama has been criticised for keeping the press at bay and controlling a very disciplined campaign. That would be wrong. His team understands that political victory does not happen because you are right, but because you have a message that connects with people and (even more importantly) because you are better organised than your opponent.

If both candidates have offered change, what makes the more inexperienced and relatively unknown quality of Barack Obama more popular? Both represent how Americans would like to believe themselves to be. John McCain represents the brave, redoubtable spirit of ‘never say die’. He is an independent spirit, someone who does what is right rather than what is popular and someone prepared to stand up to vested interests, even those of his own Party.

And yet. John McCain’s heroism is of another war. As the Iraqi ‘surge’ pushes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan out of the headlines, and the battle for economic recovery is more pressing, John McCain’s strengths seem not to be for this era.

Instead it is Barack Obama who represents the moment. America is a ‘can do’ society. There is a belief that anyone can achieve success, no matter their background and no matter their start in life. It matters to America what others think of them: that it appears President Bush has made America unpopular abroad. It matters, equally, that Barack Obama is highly regarded overseas, which was seen to be demonstrated in Berlin – check out the Economist world poll, which reflects that goodwill. Obama aspires, inspires and, because of war and the economy, he is the man who at this moment most completely represents the American Dream. At this point in time, he represents what America wants to believe about itself and what it can achieve.

John McCain might very possibly be a great American President. It is not his time. The Republican Party needs to look at what McCain has achieved in this election, to the electorate he has reached outside the core Republican vote, and to the messages on which he has built his support. John McCain will not have lost the Presidential election, Barack Obama will have resolutely won.

If the Republican Party does not understand the desire of Americans for a change in their political process then it will be the biggest loser on Tuesday 4 November. While Sarah Palin might reassure the core Republican vote, that vote would not in itself elect John McCain, nor will it save Republicans from losing Congressional seats. A mean spirited Republican Party out to punish Democrats for their victory will only end up proving its own unelectability. The Republican Party needs to understand this for its own sake and to ensure that it holds Barack Obama to his message of reaching out across America to build the future, especially as it remains unclear what sort of future that will be.

Even if Democrats take Congress, House of Representatives and Senate, Obama will have been more than a significant part of that success. He be in a position to lead Congress, not follow. He will, in his own right, hold the mandate to fulfil the hopes and dreams of the American people. He will be able to shape America to his own ideal, whatever that is. Along with the American electorate we must all hope that an Obama Presidency will bring ‘change we can believe in’.