Monday, 13 October 2014

'71 (4 Stars)

The title of the film refers to 1971, the year in which the story takes place. Gary Hook, a young English soldier, is sent to Belfast with his squadron. Though not explicitly stated, we're given the impression that he's inexperienced, at the beginning of his service. When a riot breaks out Gary is separated from the other soldiers. The streets of Belfast become an obscure maze as he runs for his life, dodging in and out of houses and running through alleyways, not knowing whether he's in hostile Catholic territory or friendly Protestant territory. Badly wounded and in need of help, he has no way of knowing who he can trust.

The film ably portrays the moral quagmire of Northern Ireland in the 1970's. Things weren't as black and white as outsiders liked to make out. It wasn't just a Catholic-Protestant division. The Catholic IRA was divided among itself, between the pragmatists and the radical hotheads. There were good and bad people on all sides.

As someone who lived through the 1970's, I never ceased to be amazed by the portrayal of the Northern Ireland conflict in the American media. Even though America is better educated today, false opinions still exist in many quarters. This is probably because many Americans are descended from Irish immigrants and have a biased opinion. For most Americans the matter was simple: Northern Ireland was a country conquered by England which wanted to unite with the Irish Republic, but England was violently keeping them under control. Even Ronald Reagan held a speech, criticising England, in which he said that the people of Northern Ireland should be allowed to choose their own government. What he failed to realise was that if they were given a vote the people of Northern Ireland would have voted with a large majority to remain part of the United Kingdom. It was a small minority that was using violent protests to campaign for Irish unity. Far from being an occupying force, the English soldiers were sent to Northern Ireland as a peace-keeping force to protect the lives of the majority of the population from a violent minority.

Of course, the Catholic minority had arguments to justify their cause. They commonly claimed that the Protestant majority were English settlers who had no right to decide Ireland's future and should be expelled from the country. This is partly true, but there are counter-arguments, and the issue is too complex to discuss at length here. However, in America this argument wasn't used. It was and still is a curiosity that Irish Protestants in America support Irish unity, even though the Protestants in Northern Ireland reject it. In America there is an "Irish unity" that doesn't exist in Ireland itself.

(In the above I've used the word "England", even though it might be more correct to say "Britain". This is deliberate, because Americans have difficulty distinguishing between England, Britain and the UK. It was common for critics to speak about the English occupation of Ireland).

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