Article by Tim Pat Coogan

"What's so wrong with showing nationalism in a favourable light?"

London Daily Mail, Wednesday May 31, 2006

Tim Pat Coogan responds to journalist Ruth Dudley Edward's condemnation of Irish Civil War film 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'

PREDICTABLY, Ruth Dudley Edwards who just last month said 'we should be ashamed of our President, our Taoiseach and every other person who praises the people of 1916' now trains her sights on the intuitively political director Ken Loach for his intention to make the British confront their imperial history.

His film, winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of the Anglo-Irish War and invites comparison between the Ireland of 1920-22 and present-day Iraq.

Miss Dudley Edwards baldly states: 'The truth is that, as empires go, the British version was the most responsible and humane of all.

'With all its deficiencies it brought much of value to most of the countries it occupied. Also, it all happened a long time ago and no one should be forced to apologise for it.' In Ireland, the 'much of value' of which she speaks includes the Famine and, in fairness to Tony Blair, one of his first gestures on taking office was to apologise for Britain's role in it.

But the legacy of empire also includes the Black and Tans, the specially recruited corps of ex-servicemen who, during the period Loach covers, were sent to Ireland to make it 'an appropriate hell for rebels'.

The gusto with which they carried out their task has made their name a synonym for infamy.

It seems to me that Mr Loach would have faced a very difficult task had he tried to make the Black and Tans out to be a bunch of loveable lads. They were a major part of a British policy which at the time was known as 'frightfulness'.

In attacking both the commemoration of 1916 and a film which portrays the Irish War of Independence in a favourable light, Ruth Dudley Edwards is herself pursuing an agenda at least as assiduously as Ken Loach.

If, as she says, his is Marxism, then hers is Crypto-Unionism.

The fact is that were it not for 1916 and the war which Loach has dramatised, Ireland today would still be a handout economy, like either Wales or Northern Ireland.

It was the securing of independence which enabled it to join the EEC and make crucial decisions as the investment in education-which led to the Celtic Tiger.

The core reality behind 1916 and the Anglo-Irish War is that the forces of imperialism led to both occurring.

In seeking to concentrate the debate on the shortcomings of nationalism, it is perilously easy to overlook the existence of a very large elephant in the political drawing-room.

This elephant lumbered into view with the words of Randolph Churchill ringing in its ears: 'Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right.' That statement was the enunciation of a policy whereby, to defeat the Liberals, the British Conservatives went into partnership with the Ulster Unionists to subvert the will both of their own government, and of the ballot box, which had given overwhelming majorities in Ireland as a whole for Home Rule.

The road to 1916 and to the subsequent War of Independence was paved by the Conservatives and the Unionists.

Their sympathisers in the British army and navy made sure that the services could not be relied upon to enforce the will of the ballot box and by way of putting muscle into the Unionist defiance, gun-runnings were staged while the police turned a collective blind eye.

In the fury whipped up by the anti-Home Rule campaign, the Ulster Volunteers were founded and it was only then that the question of an armed response by the nationalists to these happenings became a realistic prospect.

The Irish Volunteers were founded in Dublin to defend Home Rule against the undemocratic forces ranged against it, and a few years later the Irish Republican Brotherhood was able to use a tiny segment of these Volunteers to stage the 1916 Rising.

An unpalatable fact which neither Unionists nor Conservatives like to hear mentioned is the effect of all this in creating the First World War.

There was an opinion amongst the German elite that the opposition to Home Rule had so divided England that she could not attempt to fight a war.

However, the Unionists and Conservatives' line today is that the treacherous Irish helped the Germans by staging the 1916 Rebellion and the Anglo-Irish War became inevitable after the 1916 leaders were executed.

And so we come to the subject of Loach's film.

While it is set in the 1920s, it is no harm to remind ourselves that history repeated itself in the mid-Seventies. A power-sharing executive, which had been set up in Belfast, was brought down by the Unionists, who blocked every road in the Six Counties and commandeered electricity and petrol supplies.

The British Army stood idly by while they did so, neutral against the nationalists.

As this is being written, Unionist intransigence is again preventing a power-sharing executive from being set up under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Unquestionably, a majority exists in the United Kingdom, and in Ireland as a whole, for a peaceful resolution of the 'Irish Question'.

Unquestionably also, the Unionists' allies in the Conservative Party and the armed forces are but a pale shade of orange compared to the virulent hues of the 1916-21 period, or even of the turbulent Seventies.

But the hand of history still hangs heavily over Belfast, as it does over Baghdad. It does no service to the democratic majorities on both sides of the Irish Sea to debate issues such as Ken Loach's film, or 1916, in narrow terms.

Mr Loach is to be stigmatised, apparently, because he shows Irish nationalism in a favourable light but the day is long past when a thought-provoking film such as The Wind That Shakes The Barley can simply be rubbished in condescending tones by a Unionist apologist.

The Americans, in Iraq, have stepped into the shoes of empire once worn by the British, and we can see the consequences on our television screens.

If Mr Loach succeeds, through his use of the Irish issue, in helping to force a rethink on U.S./British policy in Iraq, then he will have done us all a service.