Bloody Sunday

At last: some honesty on Bloody Sunday

David Granville reviews Bloody Sunday, London Weekend Television, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, broadcast Sunday 20 January 2002, and now on general release in cinemas

ONE OF two new films to put the spotlight on the massacre of unarmed civilians in Derry by British troops on 30 January 1972, Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday attracted praise and vilification in almost equal quantities. Given the film's attempt to portray events as they occurred rather than the long-discredited version clung to by unionist politicians, the British military and key sections of Britain's intelligence, judicial and political establishments, it doesn't take a genius to guess who's been giving the praise and who's been throwing the brickbats.

James Nesbitt's portrayal of leading civil-rights campaigner and nationalist MP Ivan Cooper is both credible and creditable. Like Cooper, Nesbitt, is of northern Protestant background.

The actor, familiar to many as Adam in the highly successful series Cold Feet, has answered positively those who questioned his suitability for the role and won many new admirers for his sympathetic performance as Cooper.

The nonchalant superiority and arrogance of the British military lite is portrayed equally forcefully by Tim Pigott Smith as Major General Robert Ford, the then overall commander of the British ground forces in the north.

The film shows how doubts and concerns about the tactics deployed were deliberately overridden and ultimately subverted by the authorities' need to cover up the truth about the massacre.

The increasing desperation with which the military vainly attempt to come up with any evidence to justify for their murderous actions -- and the clear indication that their only solution was to lie and plant evidence on the victims -- will come as a welcome recognition of what relatives, friends and campaigners have insisted from the beginning.

The film also raises the question, albeit as a virtual aside, of overall political responsibility for Bloody Sunday. As part of his efforts to psyche up his colleagues for a provocative show of strength against the so-called 'Derry Young Hooligans', Ford reminds one that he has the full backing of the then prime minister, Edward Heath, in achieving this objective.

The portrayal of Ford also provides one the film's most chilling moments as he washes his hands of any responsibility by casually reminding his subordinates as he leaves military HQ that he has only been there as an observer.

Although the film captures the air of optimism which arose during the civil-rights campaign, this is undermined frame by frame as British army's plans to teach the 'young hooligans' a lesson unravel as the film progresses.

The tension is further accentuated by the anger felt by many young demonstrators at the British presence and eventually explodes into terror and chaos as the paras make their move to 'sweep up' demonstrators and open fire indiscriminately on demonstrators.

The constrictions of time rule out anything more than thumbnail sketches of other key civil rights campaigners, including Kevin McCorry, Eamon McCann and Bernadette Devlin. Nevertheless the film hints at the tensions within NICRA brought about by the ultra-left tendencies of the those associated with the People’s Democracy.

Based largely on first-hand accounts of events provided by those involved on all sides, the film's attention to detail is exceptional and only one scene seriously jars.

This follows the massacre, when the friends of one of the young victims join others lining up to be handed out weapons by the IRA.

That many young men, and some women, flocked to the ranks of the IRA following Bloody Sunday is beyond question, to suggest that anyone who turned up was simply handed a weapon is way off the mark.

But this is an understandable use of dramatic licence, reinforcing the point made by Ivan Cooper in the post-massacre press conference that, through their actions, the British had destroyed the civil-rights movement and handed the IRA its biggest-ever victory.

While neither the tactics adopted by militant republicanism nor the eclipse of the civil-rights movement can be attributed to Bloody Sunday alone, that it made a significant contribution to these developments and marked a turning point in the conflict, ushering in nearly three decades of bloody conflict, sectarian violence and misery is beyond doubt. It didn’t have to be that way.

Had the British government not seen the survival of the Faulkener government at Stormont as its primary objective, and instead adopted a positive approach to civil rights, it could have turned out very differently.

The importance of films such as Greengrass's Bloody Sunday is that they bring controversial and painful issues to a mainstream British audience.

And the people of Manchester, Birmingham and London are just as in need of the truth as the residents of Derry or Belfast -- perhaps even more so given our government’s role and the fatuous simplicities, distortions and outright lies fed to the British people about the conflict in Ireland over the years.

This is unlikely to be a comfortable experience for anyone -- even as someone who was not there on the day, and who did not lose a friend or relative, this was a difficult film to watch.

For those who were and did, the trauma relived must have been virtually unbearable, no matter how tempered with the firm realisation that the truth about these terrible events is finally being allowed to be told.

Bloody Sunday gives eloquent response to the charge that inquiries like the one being conducted by Lord Saville, which has cost £40 million to date, are a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Whatever the final bill, it will be a mere bagatelle against the cost -- human and economic -- of the Irish conflict over the last 30-odd years. This film will help British people to understand where responsibility for it lies.

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:50:57.
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