Republican News · Thursday 19 November 1998

[An Phoblacht]

Nationalism on film

Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions
Conference at the Irish Film Centre, 13-15 November

A Unionist `go-slow' was the reason behind the lack of momentum in the Peace Process today, stated Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly at this weekend conference in the Irish Film Centre in Dublin.

The conference, coming at a time of change and stocktaking within Nationalism generally, was certainly timely and the format promising. A series of guest speakers and commentators showed chosen newsreel footage of a particular decade and then explained and commented on their choice of footage while attempting to place it in the wider context of the time to an audience of politicians, academics and film-makers.

Professor Paul Bew of Queen's in Belfast looked at the 1950s. His chosen archive footage included an Irish Government short film on housing discrimination in Fintona, Co Tyrone in 1953; the Republican Movement's annual Bodenstown Commemoration in 1955 and an interview with Dublin Minister Sean McBride for American TV in 1949.

The Fintona documentary was particularly interesting. It provided a stark illustration of life for Nationalists in what Bew called the `Golden Age' of Unionist domination. Interestingly Bew rubbished Austin Currie's oft declared claim that the incident in Caledon, Co Tyrone over housing discrimination which sparked off the Civil Rights era represented a one in a million chance. It was instead, insisted Bew, only one example of a systematic pattern that could be traced all over the Northern State.

Responding to questions from the floor Bew suggested that over the next few months if not weeks the leadership of Unionism ``would have to engage in the process of dealing with the wrongs of the past. But their dealing with it may not be exactly what people in Dublin expect''

Bew also pointed out that it was a widely held misconception that Republicanism was moribund in the 1950s as the footage of the 1955 Bodenstown Commemoration clearly attested. The crowd, while difficult to determine with precision, must have easily exceeded ten thousand marchers.

Margaret MacCurtain, leading Womens Studies academic, introduced footage from the 1960s including students striking in UCD in 1969 with interviews of then young radicals Ruairi Quinn and Kevin Myers. Myers' later condemnation and retraction of the ideals of the student radicals was described by Margaret MacCurtain as ``utter rubbish'', much to the amusement and approval of the audience. Poignant footage showed the return of Roger Casement's ``body'' in 1969. The subsequent revelation at the conference that the coffin only contained stones, as the dead patriot's body had been rendered after execution by quicklime, seemed to serve as an appropriate and ironic commentary on the hypocrisy of the assembled politicians, including a young and solemn looking Finance Minister, Charles Haughey.

But the highlight of this section was surely that of a young Bernadette Devlin being hounded by an almost as young Rodney Rice about her Communist credentials. Struggling to come to terms with an articulate, politicised and clearly more intelligent woman, Rice asked what impression the newly elected `street agitator and communist' would make in Westminster. Much to his obvious discomfort Bernadette responded that the closest thing in western Europe to a communist party was the Ulster Unionist Party!

The format of the conference inevitably became more problematic when speakers chose footage to illustrate latter decades. Even the youngest participants had vivid memories of the 1970s and 1980s, the period addressed by journalist Mary Holland. Footage of the documentary At the Edge of the Union was shown. Mary Holland pointed out that what caused the most trouble for its makers was not Martin McGuinness's defence of Republicanism but footage of him feeding his young child and playing football with children. This was not the image of a bloodthirsty IRA terrorist that the British wanted portrayed. Mary Holland spoke about the particular pressures placed upon journalists in RTE who were terrified of being seen to be soft on Sinn Fein. Betty Purcell of RTE, speaking from the floor, confirmed this when she stated that she had been taken out of current affairs and put in a less dangerous area after presenting a report on women prisoners in Armagh.

The PUP's David Ervine presented footage of this year's SF Ard Fheis and the arrival into the RDS of the Balcombe Street four. Stating that this was triumphalist and pathetic Ervine tried to convince the gathering that the emotional scenes of the Ard Fheis had in some way almost succeeded in derailing the peace process . While Ervine was afforded a lengthy round of applause after his delivery not everyone bought his analysis. One Derry film-maker pointed out that for her the footage represented something much more significant. The return of some of our longest serving prisoners represented closure, a homecoming and an ending on one level and a new beginning, a new sense of optimism on another. Anyway, by now Ervine was long gone but the sycophancy of a great number of the Dublin audience towards him far exceeded the bounds of normal hospitality and reserve. There are surely more substantive and less glib voices in the community Ervine represents and in many ways an opportunity to really engage with recent developments was lost.

The weekend was rounded off with a panel discussion chaired by Irish Times journalist Carol Coulter who took the opportunity to question the creation of new myths surrounding the commemoration of Irish involvement in the First World War. Her cautionary words were timely and appropriate because if the weekend had highlighted anything it was surely that history or more accurately histories are themselves a battleground of meaning and contesting ideologies. All in all the proceedings at the Irish Film Centre most clearly illustrated this.

By Michael Tovey

A big hand...



A rounder is a poker player who knows all the angles and makes a living at the poker table, the direct opposite of a sucker. In this above average big city drama, Matt Damon stars as Mike McDermott, a rounder who is trying to kick his card playing, get a law degree and settle down with his girlfriend.

The impetus to quit came when he lost his entire stake to KGB, played by John Malkovich, an infamous player connected to the Russian mafia. Damon's plan works out until the release from prison of his school friend Worm, played by the excellent Ed Norton. Worm is deeply in debt to the wrong sort of people, and Damon feels honour bound to help him get out of the hole. Unfortunately, Worm, an inveterate cheat, proves to be an unstable and disaster-prone partner and soon McDermott finds himself saddled with more than he can handle.

If you'll pardon the pun, Rounders is a well-rounded movie, with a top-line cast and a good strong plot.


Veteran director John Frankenheimer returns to the big screen after a spell in television wilderness with Ronin, a fast-paced and gritty action thriller starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Natascha McElhone.

McElhone plays a Belfast woman who assembles a band of hired guns in Paris to mount an ambush to snatch a mysterious suitcase. The Russian mafia (sound familiar?) is also keen to acquire the luggage, and the film soon erupts into violence, with the case changing hands and the crosses more than doubled. Car chases have become a sad and predictable part of stock thrillers, but Frankenheimer delivers some truly spectacular action in this regard, with protracted mad dashes through the streets of Paris and Nice. There is a rididulous Irish angle to the whole show, republican dissidents being almost as popular as the Russian mafia in Hollywood nowadays, but it ultimately detracts little from a solid and gripping film.

By Martin Spain

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