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Or Other, or Both

Previous page: John Fergus O’Hea, ‘Rejoice, Oh! Greatly’, Weekly Freeman, 4 June 1887, still from Mother Ireland, 1988. Courtesy Anne Crilly
Art historian and critic Isobel Harbison examines works by Northern Irish film-maker Pat Murphy and films produced by the Derry Film and Video Workshop (DFVW), set against a backdrop of mainstream British TV programmes and films orientalising and othering Northern Irish culture. Presenting more complex and under-represented subjects and histories, films by Murphy and the DFVW not only constitute a visual culture counter to British neo-imperialist representations, but also create a space to rethink ‘the mechanism that lies at the heart of the institution of citizenship’.
Previous page: John Fergus O’Hea, ‘Rejoice, Oh! Greatly’, Weekly Freeman, 4 June 1887, still from Mother Ireland, 1988. Courtesy Anne Crilly

1. Northern Ireland: A Border, a Backstop and ‘Isolated Images’

On 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, was ratified by the governments of the Republic of Ireland, of the United Kingdom and of the Assembly of Northern Ireland. Sections 3 and 6 of the document articulate how the agreement was to accommodate multiple political identifications both by members of the representative assembly and by the people of Northern Ireland. In ‘Strand One’ of the agreement titled ‘Operation of the Assembly’, assembly members were to ‘register a designation of identity – nationalist, unionist or other – for the purposes of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes’, and in Article 1, the two governments were to:

(i) recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland; 
(vi) recognise the birth-right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland. 01

I write this essay from London as the unity of the United Kingdom has been brought into question, and as the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) have become undermined. This evolves from a clutter of interconnected histories: a convoluted, partially interrupted and complicated four hundred years since the full colonisation of Ireland; a century since the partition and establishment of devolved governance through the Parliament of Northern Ireland; seventy years since the ratification of the Republic comprising twenty-six counties south of its maintained border; a half a century since the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland, regularly referred to as ‘The Troubles’; two decades since the BGFA was signed in 1998; five years since the 2016 European referendum results; three years since the Northern Ireland Protocol was drafted (originally called ‘the backstop’) by Theresa May’s government as an appendix to the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement; eighteen long months since Britain voted in Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and six months since Johnson’s government proposed the Internal Market Bill, empowering ministers to pass regulations on internal trade, even if contrary to the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.

When queried about the legal integrity of the Internal Market Bill and its harmful impact on Northern Ireland by multiple domestic and international legal scholars, judges, diplomats and politicians, Johnson’s government cited a 2017 Supreme Court ruling stating: ‘Parliament is sovereign as a matter of domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK’s Treaty obligations.’ 02 Opposition to the International Market Bill was ubiquitous because it allowed Johnson’s government to legally override previously agreed conditions of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which, in turn, had carefully maintained many of the terms of the BGFA. Not incidentally, details of the Internal Market Bill were published on 9 September 2020, the same day as the official launch of Festival UK* 2022, the rebranded Brexit festival – a dubiously timed series of projects across the United Kingdom aiming to ‘showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world’. 03

The 2016 referendum and its aftermath have arguably stoked the greatest threat in the modern history of the UK. The results showed a kingdom divided with Northern Ireland and Scotland voting to remain in the EU, overpowered by majorities voting to leave in England and Wales. The subsequent withdrawal plans have regularly pivoted on the tenability of the Northern Irish Protocol (or backstop), a precautionary constitutional measure to guarantee no hard (i.e. land) border appearing between Northern Ireland (non-EU) and the Republic of Ireland (EU). Such a construction of a hard border would have significant implications for trade, and for those living on either side of it and represents both a practical and symbolic breach of the terms of the BGFA. Reinstating a hard border would block the free movement of citizens, services, capital, commodities and opportunities, also inevitably impacting or restricting the fluid negotiation of citizens between identificatory positions. As I write, in spring 2021, there exists a ‘regulatory border’ (or Irish Sea Border) where trucks entering Northern Ireland by ferry must declare meat and dairy through customs. However, further significant political upheaval resting on border negotiations in the region/state of Northern Ireland seems inevitable. 04

In London, it has become clear from conversations, media and proclamations from the British government how relatively little is taught or understood of the interconnected and often conflictual histories of these small islands. This was perhaps most grievously exposed in January 2019, when Dominic Raab, the UK’s First Secretary of State, previously Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and a graduate of Law from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, admitted publicly under questioning that he had not read the 35-page BGFA from start to finish ‘like a novel’, a small task that would seem to many as essential to a negotiator trying to understand the background and basis of their sole political goal. With displays such as this, confidence in the United Kingdom’s unity wavers. And as for Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to wage her campaign for Scottish independence. But as the consequences of withdrawal from the European Union start to appear and be felt, there seems to be a widespread appetite for accelerated familiarisation with the intricacies of these histories. In January 2021, the Labour Party began rolling out educational material (including videos) for its 500,000 members on the history of Northern Ireland’s BGFA, in which the party played a key role. ‘It’s not taught well enough in schools’, conceded Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 05

This turn has been preceded and complemented by the production and availability of numerous serial and feature-length documentaries on the subject of Northern Ireland broadcast on UK television and online streaming platforms. The BBC has broadcast a number of documentaries in the last two years focussed on Northern Ireland, from the eight-part Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History, to The Day Mountbatten Died.06 In the latter, designer India Hicks, the granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten,  concludes, ‘the damage that was done was so much deeper than any of us could have imagined… I certainly try not to hold resentment in anyway. And that’s hard. But forgiveness is important. One has to move on.’ Hicks is an English aristocrat, and the documentary focusses on the killing of her grandfather and brother, among others, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in August 1979 while holidaying at their summer castle in the Republic of Ireland. Hicks’s account of her trauma and grief – real and unenviable – is given considerable air time, significantly more than any other affected Irish or Northern Irish citizens interviewed. Her experience is set in inverse relation to the year-round residents of Mullaghmore for whom, the Scottish narrator reads, ‘a sense of shame lives on’.07

This editorial weighting and prioritising of grief of one subject over many others by the UK’s public service broadcaster in this hour-long prime-time documentary is not uncommon, but it serves as an anachronistic reminder of Edward Said’s claims that ‘all kinds of preparations are made for [Empire] within a culture; then in turn imperialism acquires a kind of coherence, a set of experiences, and a presence of ruler and ruled alike within the culture.’ 08 Writing about the connection between culture and empire, Said observed: ‘The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.’ 09 Although Said defined imperialism and colonialism respectively, as ‘the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory’, and as ‘the implanting of settlements on distant territory’, 10 in the case of Northern Ireland whose territory is neither distant nor foreign, to consider it within this paradigm still seems resolutely true when considering the interweaving of culture and imperialism within the islands’ interrelated histories.

The BBC’s editorial weighting is relatively consistent with the presentation of Northern Ireland in mainstream broadcast and publishing media since the UK voted out of the EU. As a political constituency it is frequently referred to as something of a problematic object because of the obstacle the backstop has posed to swift and therefore economically favourable withdrawal agreements. This narrative has been consistently privileged over the substance of the lives of its people who face intense political, economic and social disruption following its or their severance from the EU. 11 Editorial in broadsheet and broadcast media regularly prioritise the perceived interests of the State, that is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland, as it is understood from the historical centre of Empire – London, England – over the lived realities of its peripheries’ constituent citizenries.

To this situation, online streaming services provide a pointed if consistently problematic set of antagonisms. A proliferation of feature-length documentaries present histories of Northern Ireland to UK and international domestic audiences through US corporations like Netflix and Amazon. At the time of writing, Amazon Prime hosts Alison Millar’s The Disappeared (2013), Brendan McCourt’s Collusion (2015), Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned (2017), and Osama Rai’s Fractured Peace (2017), while Netflix subscribers can watch Valeri Vaughn’s Art of Conflict(2012), Brendan J. Byrne’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days (2016) and Maurice Sweeny’s I, Dolours (2018). Though oppositional to the ‘problematic object’ editorial, many of these documentaries are composed of various visual repertoires of violence that dramatise and sensationalise past events to incite, excite and divide viewers, rather than foreground historic and ongoing efforts towards solidarity, diversity and equal rights. Frequently the polarising narratives supported by these two production spheres, imperialist and capitalist, respectively, continue to feed public perceptions of the region/state as one founded on and continuously generative of ‘trouble’. Few documentarians seem to aim to accommodate complex and regularly negotiated identity positions in Northern Ireland, including, in the terms of the BGFA, ‘nationalist, unionist or other’, or, ‘Irish or British, or both’.

In an interview with British film-maker and theorist Claire Johnston published in 1981, Northern Irish film-maker Pat Murphy said, ‘I grew up watching that kind of material on TV and concluded, finally, that it was not simply a question of anti-Irish bias and censorship, it was a problem inherent in a kind of documentary form which has a notion of objective truth and which uses a vocabulary of isolated images, constant climaxes, held together within the narrative authority of the voice-over.’ 12Her frustration with how documentary long-form reduced the complexities of life in Northern Ireland prompted Maeve (1981), widely considered to be the first Irish feminist film.13

Maeve, 1981, 16mm, colour, sound,1h 50min, stills. Directed by Pat Murphy. © British Film Institute. Courtesy the BFI National Archive

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