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Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions
19 Nov 1998 :
Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions was just held by the Film Institute of Ireland, in association with RTE at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin last weekend, 13th-15th November in which academics, politicians, and film-makers viewed documentary footage drawn from The National Archive, and discussed the history of nationalism and national identity in 20th century Ireland. The interesting line-up of speakers who choose film footage relevant to concepts of the Irish nation included politicians, republican and loyalist, in the forms of Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, who are both Belfast members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The widely respected journalist Mary Holland also contributed, as did leading historians including Gearoid Ó Tuathaigh, Paul Bew and Joe Lee, and former US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith was present at Saturday's proceedings.

The opening address on Friday evening was delivered by An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who presented a raft of questions he considered relevant to the conference. These included queries as to whether or not the idea of the nation was compatible with the Internet and if there could exist a "sane" nationalism. The Taoiseach said it was a particularly appropriate moment to debate the subject of nationalism, in the wake of the good Friday agreement and the economic transformation of the country.

On Saturday morning Gerry Kelly spoke of becoming a rebel due to what he witnessed and out of love for family and neighbours and so it seemed that any vision of four green fields had not been immediately relevant in that context, although he commented on archive footage of the Easter Rising and the funeral of Michael Collins describing these events as a lost opportunity of a compromise between Unionism and Nationalism.

This brings us to Prof. Ó Tuathaigh's selections and address which covered the key De Valera decades of the Thirties and Forties. What drew most comment from the audience here was Fr Browne's silent footage of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The speaker perhaps unsurprisingly employed the name of Cecil B. de Mille, for indeed it was very like an early Hollywood epic, though it depicted a different kind of Roman triumph.

What also had an audible impact from this selection was a British Movietone clip concerning election time in the Free State in 1933. We were treated to an obviously staged, "stage-Irish" political clash in rural Ireland. Punch figures dressed like refugees from the last Flying Column on earth stumbled through their lines concerning the rights and wrongs of De Valera before a scuffle took place but it was the positioning of the donkey and goat in the foreground, as interested parties, which cast the scene in a new light. This touch, worthy of Gogol drew laughs, laughs that gained in confidence as the sheer surrealism of the sketch unfolded.

When it came to his turn Prof. Paul Bew who selected a 1953 anti-partition film which focused on housing discrimination in Fintona, Co.Tyrone, and was gratified to discover from an elderly member of the audience, that it had been made by an Irish army officer native to the town, who had had to film through car windows the council housing given to Protestants. Prof. Bew pointed out the geographical dimension to such discrimination, which was designed to help maintain unionist dominance in local government in areas west of the River Bann. He told his audience not to expect an apology for such injustices from unionism of the type he thought we were looking for and went on to say that his remarks were not too comforting for southern listeners. Did he not realise that, for many southerners, any unionist voice of reason and moderation can only be a comfort, due to the absence of the expected stridency and intractability?

On Sunday morning Mary Holland's contribution dealt chiefly with the issue of censorship and she placed emphasis on the fear element and its logical part in Dublin's strategy during the Troubles, rightly or wrongly. Viewing documentary footage from the 1970's and 1980's she cautioned that "there's always a tendency at these conferences to think that these audiovisual images have an automatic authority which is not always the case". She contrasted her experience in covering the troubles for RTE and British television say while there was a greater understanding of the situation in RTE there was greater caution, while British media showed a greater willingness to challenge the official view.

Footage covering the 1974 bombings in Dublin formed part of the next session when she was succeeded by David Ervine, who turned out to be the undisputed star of the conference. His choices concentrated on bombing atrocities, on the need to put such a human cost behind us and, as a political swipe, on the tumultuous reception given to the Balcombe Street gang at the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, which he saw as having given totally unnecessary jitters to unionist voters. This last element's effect was aided by his access to extended footage of the occasion from RTE's archives, never shown on TV.

Ervine is a gifted speaker and his oratory was so effective on this occasion that at its end he had to extend his arms to dampen down the lengthy applause. Speaking without notes, his punchy delivery and skills at eliciting emotion perhaps enabled him to remain unchallenged on a number of points including his mention of the concept of "British nationalism". That is perhaps a contradiction in terms, given the diverse and increasingly self-assertive cultures of England, Scotland, Wales and divided Ireland. One does not have to be an Irish republican to look at history and decide that the word "imperialism" sits more easily than "nationalism" with the word "British", if one is forced to choose between them.

Furthermore, his description of the Donegal Celtic affair as a case of "bullying" echoed Paul Bew's use of the word "threat" to describe republicanism in the same connection and it similarly escaped comment as regards the complexity of the issue. In terms of the bigger picture, the team should have been allowed to play against the RUC, in a robust manner, but the widely reported depth of feeling about the police expressed to the Patten Commission in West Belfast only days earlier should remind us of some qualification to the perspective of the unionist speakers.

These are relatively minor quibbles, however. David Ervine predicted that once the Good Friday Agreement was implemented, the North would soon outstrip the South in terms of socio-economic progress. He praised the changes that have taken place in a pluralist direction in the Republic and asked for a growing exchange of views between nationalism and unionism - a request that complemented Mary Holland's assertion of the counterproductive effect of censorship, which she saw as having "hermetically sealed" the republican movement in its own circle of ideas and opinion.

When Luke Gibbons, a lecturer in communications at Dublin City University, later got up to give talk entitled "Nation, Narrative, History", he devoted some time to discussing Neil Jordan's Michael Collins. He pointed out that there seemed to be evidence in the film for the contradictory judgements that it represented an end and a possibility of a continuation of a particular narrative of Irish history and that the assassination encapsulated this. Whatever one's evaluation of it, the film is the closest thing we have to a modern national epic. The confident handling of the subject matter brings to mind the issue of confidence per se. When responding to a question from this source about the example of Catholic self-confidence in Northern Ireland, David Ervine said he remembered listening at fourteen to Ian Paisley telling him he was being sold out, even before the Troubles had started. To him that exemplified the shroud that had been thrown over his people's minds by their leaders. In the new Europe, where globalisation seems to entail devolution to the regions as the nation state diminishes in significance, all the people of Ireland can look beyond London and Dublin and grasp the interests they have in common.

The dissipation of the fear element, in whatever quarter, is essential for self-confidence, and this requires economic, political and cultural empowerment. Only so much can be achieved through the courage and vision and energy of individuals and minority groups. The hope is that the footage of violence that a generation of Irish people have grown up and has been the main representation of Northern Ireland, in particular, around the world can be replaced with new images and representations of this island and its people which will not reinforce tradition divisions but illuminate and represent a shared future.

 

John Flynn 19/11/1998




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