Bobby Sands: 66 Days is an alarming film. It’s republican propaganda with scant effort at balance and the vague hint here and there that the IRA may have been a little off with their campaign of murder and chaos. Perhaps more worrying than this is the reviews, which seem to be universal in their praise, especially when it comes to balance.
What the hell is the “balance” this film has? I attended the first screening in the Irish Film Institute and the audience in the packed cinema seemed to hang on every word Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin of Sinn Féin (the IRA’s political wing) had to say in the Q&A afterwards. The absence of those who weren’t pro-IRA cheerleaders on the panel should have been telling. They applauded his disagreement with Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times (essentially, the film’s narrator), even though he didn’t go into detail with why he disagreed. Was it because Fintan went on one of his romantic solo runs, with analysis that’s best left to the drama critic’s page or that he didn’t seem to agree with violent republicanism and didn’t give the IRA his unqualified endorsement? Maybe something else? Ó Caoláin didn’t elaborate, but the applause from the vast majority of the attendees indicated that they approved of whatever he meant.
Fintan didn’t seem popular with the crowd and the most critical contributions were of his selection for the provision of editorial comment. The director stuck by his choice and firmly defended O’Toole, particularly because he shared his thesis that Sands was responsible for the transformation of the IRA from a difficult-to-support murderer of civilians to an organisation that understood the importance of electoral politics… and its move away from the use of physical force. This is a deeply flawed view as the IRA campaign of terror and murder extended far beyond the death of Sands. They still haven’t turned their backs on violence and are prominently involved in organised crime on the island of Ireland. They run lucrative smuggling operations in cigarettes and laundered (“provo”) diesel. The laundering of diesel is hugely damaging to the environment, but what’s the environment to an organisation with no regard for human life? Sinn Féin is one of the wealthiest political parties in the British Isles and not all of its funding comes from misguided American donors. They robbed £26.5m from the Northern Bank in 2004 (well after the 1994 “ceasefire” and 1998 Good Friday Agreement), but a blind eye was turned by the British and Irish governments because it was an inconvenience to the “peace process”. Some of its members murdered Robert McCartney in 2005 and the organisation (Sinn Féin) publicly did all they could to make it difficult for his sisters in their campaign for justice against the IRA. IRA members murdered Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996 when he and another policeman tried to stop them from robbing a post office. Sinn Féin campaigned tirelessly for the McCabe murders to be released as political prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement and one of its TDs (members of parliament), Martin Ferris, was there to meet Pearse McAuley and Kevin Walsh when they were released after only ten years (but not under the Good Friday Agreement). McAuley is a psychopath and is, again, behind bars for a frenzied knife attack on his wife. Still, people like this have the support of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin often enjoys a special position in the Irish media (particularly RTÉ, but also in many other left-leaning orifices that fall for their pseudo-Marxist revolutionary stylings in spite of their National Socialist-fascist-violent-criminal reality). They can disassociate themselves from the violence and crime by claiming that it’s unsanctioned by the leadership (which hasn’t gone away, you know, as republicans still remind people from time to time), but at the same time give them their public support and attack those who criticise these murderers, particularly when it’s from within the nationalist community and might cost them votes. Sinn Féin politicians often crow on about “equality”, but where’s the level playing field in a political landscape where other parties don’t maintain an active subversive army and funding from organised crime? Sinn Féin can have its cake and eat it when it comes to saying one thing and doing another. Gerry Adams & Co. trot about preaching human rights and often speak very well when it comes to understanding the importance of the citizen in a democracy. Like Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin at the post-film discussion, these words have little actual meaning. They sound nice and can win votes among the uninformed, but that’s about it. I cycle through four or five electoral constituencies in Dublin on my way to and from work very day. The night before the last Irish general election (which was on the 26th February, 2016) it was after nine o’clock when I was cycling home. Election posters were everywhere and had been even from before the campaigning began. On the morning of the election I was one of the first to vote in Clondalkin village, arriving at the polling station just before seven. Going in to work, I noticed that many of the election posters had had stickers placed on them overnight. Completely unsubstantiated things like “I’m a liar” and “I voted to evict families” were stuck over the mouths of candidates from established political parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour). The same kind of sticker was also present on Sinn Féin posters, but with appealing statements like “opposed water charges”. Where’s the “equality” where other political parties, as low as they may stoop, do not have their army of criminal “volunteers” running around doing odd jobs for them? In short, I simply cannot agree with the thesis of the film that Sands ushered in an era where the IRA turned its back on violence. It is an organisation that recognises the importance of electoral politics, but also one that uses all and any means to achieve its goals. Its strategy was (and still is to an extent) both the gun and the ballot box, depending on which gets the best results. In such a situation with an uneven playing field, those who do not inform themselves or do not vote do their country a huge disservice. The Nazi party only needed 39% of the total registered electorate’s vote to achieve power and there was a high enough turnout in the 1933 election (88.74%).
Chilling. I found the response to this film simply chilling. The information age hasn’t ushered in an era where people actually like to check facts and read up on history. Those who only consume through the medium of cinema are hugely short-changed when it comes to Bobby Sands. Hunger (2008) stands out as a film unafraid to show brutality and unpleasantness everywhere, with Sands a fanatic who could not be reasoned with. Structurally, Bobby Sands: 66 Days is flimsy. Its spine is a count down of the days of Sands’ hunger strike with occasional excerpts from his diary. As the film progresses, these vertebrae become more strung-out as it becomes more of a talking heads documentary starring mainly members of the IRA or other republicans. Among the contemporary contributors there are very few providing a non-republican view beyond a biographer of Margaret Thatcher and a former prison officer from the H-blocks. During one of the film’s most surreal segments, where it claims that the government of the Republic of Ireland didn’t care a jot for the plight of nationalists in Northern Ireland, there’s a contribution from a former Irish ambassador. The government of Charlie Haughey is roundly criticised for its response and it is explained that southerners simply didn’t care about their northern brethren. There’s no mention that Haughey and Neil Blaney had previously been charged with attempted smuggling of arms into the north. The music, imagery and animation of the film are emotionally positive towards republicanism but negative when it comes to everyone else. Even when showing people waving black flags and wearing the fascist uniforms of the IRA and firing illegal firearms at funerals, there’s positivity, with footage of women marching while the narration explains that everyone was involved – fascist fun for all the family! These are people who claim to be the legitimate army of Ireland (literally calling themselves Óglaigh na hÉireann, the same as the Irish defence forces) and whose aims include subverting the Irish Republic and replacing it with one of their own making. The talking heads spout the odd “fact”, with plenty of opinion. It was “obviously” a conspiracy that Northern Ireland was founded as a sectarian state since it was majority unionist by design. Observations such as this are thrown out there but omission abounds. What’s wrong with the founding of a majority unionist state? If there was a vote tomorrow in Northern Ireland on a united Ireland it would fail. That’s democracy. What wasn’t democracy was the gerrymandering of electoral districts and granting votes to property owners. The civil rights of nationalists in Northern Ireland was a huge issue, but one that terrorism and the indiscriminate murder of civilians in the north and mainland Britain was not the solution to.
The omission doesn’t stop there. There’s not a hint that Sands and the other hunger strikers were used as pawns by the IRA and allowed to die for the cause. It was everyone else’s fault that they died and non-republicans’ antipathy towards these men was reprehensible. To the film’s credit, it does stand up to the mindlessness of violent republicanism from time to time, criticising the IRA for continuing its campaign of murder during the hunger strikes, particularly for the murder of Joanne Mathers for collecting census forms. She was only 29 and her murder was allegedly sanctioned by the now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness. Such criticism is infrequent, however. Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a dangerous propaganda piece and should not be watched by those unwilling to inform themselves of the facts. I did have a question and some observations for the Q&A at the end of the film but was too slow in formulating my response. Luckily, an Irish Times journalist managed to get some points across and corrected several factual inaccuracies. I was almost alone in applauding him. Such is the prevalence of Titanic Syndrome in every generation: there’s the potential to be more informed, enlightened, “better”… but little of the follow-through. Sure, wouldn’t that be too much like hard work? Full steam ahead towards sobering reality!