Commentary Magazine


In the Name of the IRA

In the midst of his highly publicized 48-hour American visit, Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), found time on Larry King Live—that podium of presidents—to issue a rousing endorsement of In the Name of the Father, soon to be honored by seven Academy Award nominations. It was a “very good dramatic presentation,” said Adams, and would give Americans an idea of “British injustice in Ireland.”

By contrast, well before its release, much of the London press gave the film a particularly frigid reception, calling it a “farrago of rubbish” and claiming that its poisonous portrayal of British justice was based largely on malign fictions, which at this critical juncture could only further envenom Anglo-Irish relations. According to many of the British papers, the film would unquestionably create new sympathy among ignorant American audiences for the IRA, still an unrepentant terrorist organization which refuses either to repudiate violence or to endorse the proposed new Irish-British peace negotiations that are supported, with the lone exception of the IRA, by everyone in London, Belfast, and Dublin—including both major Irish political parties. Responding to these and related concerns with a refreshing directness, one of the movie’s stars, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson (Howard’s End), said, “I don’t give a f___.”

So the battle lines are drawn, as it were, between those attempting to determine whether In the Name of the Father will further the cause of justice in Britain and peace in Ireland, and those who “don’t give a f___” whether the film is truth or lies and care only that it accomplish its didactic goal, which is apparently to vilify the British judicial system—with a somewhat hazier endorsement for the proposition, “Brits out!” (of Northern Ireland).

In the Name of the Father is nominally “based” on an autobiographical book called Proved Innocent by Gerry Conlon, one of four persons convicted of killing five innocent people and injuring 64 more in 1974 in a pub bombing in Guildford, England—the four thereafter referred to in Britain as the “Guildford Four.” Another member of the Guildford Four is Paul Hill, who, in addition to the role he was convicted of playing in the Guildford bombing, still stands accused of an entirely separate IRA murder in Belfast, and who (a quaint detail) has recently married Courtney Kennedy, the daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy. This makes Paul Hill the nephew of both Senator Edward Kennedy (who strenuously lobbied the Clinton administration in February to reverse its position against letting Gerry Adams enter the country) and of Jean Kennedy Smith, the present U.S. ambassador to Dublin.

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The story of the “Guildford Four,” “Birmingham Six,” “Maguire Seven,” and other persons accused of being IRA “active agents” in a series of bombings that left 40 innocent people dead and hundreds wounded is hardly a minor legal squabble. On the contrary, the 1974 bombings having horrified all of Britain, the case is one of the longest and most bitter chapters in the annals of British justice, unprecedented in modern times, which after years of investigations and trials has cost British taxpayers some $30 million—something on the financial scale of Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-contra investigations but awakening far stronger emotions in the general populace.

Conlon and other members of the Guildford Four were first convicted and served fifteen years in prison. But during the 1980′s, amid heated allegations of police brutality and fabrication of evidence, the sentiment grew among British liberals that the Guildford Four had been improperly convicted—in British legal terminology, that their convictions were “unsafe,” that they had not been proved guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the eyes of their partisans, furthermore, they were totally innocent, and in time they were freed to great joy in the liberal community.

Criminal proceedings were then instituted against the three detectives charged with misconduct during police interrogation of the Guildford Four. But, just last year, these detectives too were found not guilty: not a single one of the accusations of brutality and fabrication of evidence had stuck. A whole chorus of new testimony was heard at this second trial, some of which had not been deemed admissible during the earlier appeal hearing. To be brief about it, it seems that a member of the Guildford Four (the only one under consideration in the second trial) had “sung like a canary.”

The not-guilty verdict for the police detectives set off a whole new chorus of protests, to the effect that the Guildford Four had been guilty of the bombings all along and should never have been released. Even the Maguire Seven, close relatives of Conlon, turned against him. His uncle, Pat Maguire—who had spent many years in prison thanks in part to his nephew’s testimony— declared that Conlon “should be put back in prison for what he’s done to my family,” and blamed him for creating the whole tragic mess to begin with.

So what with the Guildford Four found on appeal to be not guilty, and the detectives accused of falsifying evidence against them also found to be not guilty, Britain now awaits the results of a special government inquiry into alleged miscarriages of justice under retired Lord Justice of Appeal Sir John May, who will make his report sometime after the appeal of the conviction for murder of Senator Kennedy’s nephew.

The London Sunday Times suggested last May that the verdict vindicating the police detectives had changed the story of the Guildford Four completely, and it was therefore very difficult to see how the people then in the process of filming In the Name of the Father were going to be able to provide their movie with a “suitably heroic ending.” But in this the Sunday Times demonstrated a vast innocence of the ways of the movie world, and of the curiously low level of honesty displayed by those making films “based on a true story,” as In the Name of the Father is advertised.

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If we were to take its argument as fact, In the Name of the Father, directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), is the story of an outrageous miscarriage of justice. We first meet Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), a petty thief, as a rebellious youth in the streets of Belfast, caught up in a riot between Catholic locals and British troops (a fiction; Conlon took part in no such riot). Sent to London by his father, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), whom Conlon despises for his submissiveness (actually, Conlon adored his father), he arrives in London with his friend Paul Hill in the early 1970′s and falls in with a gang of squatter-hippies (“We don’t believe in property or law—only love”) in the seedy flats of Kilburn, London’s main Irish district.

On the night of the Guildford bombing, Conlon and Hill are shown resting in a park, where they meet a homeless old man lying on a bench. Later in the evening, Conlon robs a prostitute’s apartment, which provides him with a nice amount of ready cash. But he and Hill are shortly picked up by police, acting under the new Prevention of Terrorism Act, and after seven days of brutal interrogation under the malign leadership of Police Inspector Robert Dixon (Corin Redgrave), they confess to the Guildford bombing, which has created a tremendous stir. Not only are Conlon, Hill, and two others (the Guildford Four) sentenced to many years in prison, but other friends and members of their family, the Maguire Seven, are also sent to prison as part of the conspiracy, principally on testimony by the Four.

In prison, however, Conlon meets the real IRA architect of the Guildford bombing, Joseph McAndrew (Don Baker), who confesses not only to Conlon but to the police that he is responsible for the bombing and that Conlon, Hill, and their friends are consequently totally innocent. The police believe him without question, but, led on by the diabolical Inspector Dixon, refuse to exonerate the Guildford Four. Inspector Dixon knows perfectly well the Four are innocent, but does not care. There is “public pressure.” They are “Irish scum.” And that is enough for him. Knowing the court is condemning innocent people, Dixon visibly gloats when they are convicted.

I should point out that there is no Inspector Dixon. He is a fiction. There is also no Joseph McAndrew, the IRA bigwig who in the film plans the Guildford bombing. He, too, is a fiction. Moreover, Conlon’s “perfect” alibi, that he was busy on the night of the bombing robbing a prostitute’s apartment, is something less than perfect in that he robbed the prostitute’s apartment ten days later. And so we sail on through this sanctimonious movie, from one fictitious character to another, with “perfect” alibis whipped up out of thin air, and all presented with great polemical fervor.

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But to return to In the Name of the Father’s “ true” story: with the “blatant outrage to justice” represented by the conviction, with totally innocent men rotting for fifteen years in prison, a white knight must surely come forth to free them. And this white knight appears in the person of a female solicitor, Gareth Peirce. One wonders if Emma Thompson gives a f___ about the extent to which the role she plays is fictionalized—indeed, almost entirely fabricated. In the movie, Gareth Peirce is a quite wonderful person, as well as a wonderful solicitor. Poring over police records, she discovers, by an implausible accident, another “perfect” alibi: a police interview with the man on the bench in the park which the prosecution has withheld from her—and which she goes on to use as the winning piece of evidence in the appeal.

In fact, the real Gareth Peirce learned of the police interview with the homeless old man on the bench in the park (actually a young greengrocer in a hostel) because the prosecution—exactly as it should have done—had communicated this information to her. But it was considered of such little importance that it was not even mentioned during the appeal as grounds for quashing the conviction. What the real Gareth Peirce actually discovered in the mountain of papers—none of which was concealed from her—was that some of the interrogation notes for the first trial, which were supposed to have been taken “contemporaneously,” were written later, which made them “unreliable.”

It was these “noncontemporaneous” notes, and two other seemingly technical details, which on appeal led the magistrates to consider the original convictions “unsafe.” Even before the detectives were put on trial last year, the London Financial Times editorialized that there might after all be a relatively benign explanation of such modest chronological discrepancies, and that in slightly altering the times and notes of the interrogations the detectives might have felt “they had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide.” And, indeed, in the detectives’ trial, it counted heavily in their favor that they had had the critical notes in their custody for years and could have shredded them at any moment. Yet in Jim Sheridan’s movie, during the appeal in 1989 that won the Guildford Four their freedom, solicitor Gareth Peirce works herself into a near frenzy at the Old Bailey pleading the iniquity of the police and the Guildford Four’s innocence—a speech that, alas, will not go down in the history of British law for the simple reason that it was never delivered. It is another fiction.

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An artistic judgment is hard to deliver on a film as feverishly polemical and as fast and loose in the presentation of its arguments as In the Name of the Father. It is rather as if an assemblage of terrorists were tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the bombing of the World Trade Center, whereupon a high-minded person decided to make a movie exonerating them. For this movie he falsifies every single known fact of the case and then calls on us to judge his film as a dramatic work and—as Sheridan says of his movie—as being true, if not to the detail, then to “the spirit” of the events.

Emma Thompson and Daniel Day-Lewis (who says he completely “loses” himself in his characters and has no objective judgment on them) both turn in excellent performances, as does Pete Postlethwaite as the elder Conlon, who dies in prison. Northern Irish people assure me that the Belfast accents (Conlons, Maguires, and Hill) are impeccable—so impeccable I should imagine that at moments of great excitement American audiences will miss a bit of the dialogue. Jim Sheridan’s directing I find heavily melodramatic, even when the events he is dramatizing actually occurred, which is rather rare. The mending of the relationship between the two Conlons, with the transmutation of the son’s contempt for his father into deep respect as the two share the same prison cell, is well enough done—except of course that there was no contempt to begin with and that the two at no time shared the same prison cell and were rarely even in the same prison.

Even if we disengage In the Name of the Father from its heavy didactic thrust, the dramaturgy is crude. The good people (Conlons and other assorted Belfast Irish) are too good. The evil people (British police authorities up and down the scale) are too evil. The fictitious IRA man imprisoned with the Conlons is shown in the end to be also evil—although he is clearly strategic “cover,” a fig leaf.

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In Britain, as I remarked at the outset, there has understandably been a violent storm of criticism over In the Name of the Father. When the film opened in London in early February, Robert Kee, an Irish historical scholar who wrote a whole book on the case called Trial and Error, declared that it “tells so many lies that it makes its central proposition about a miscarriage of justice questionable.” The Sunday Times, for its part, ran two major feature pieces under the headline: “The camera that lies.”

The movie has also been disowned by not one but both solicitors principally responsible for the defense of the Guildford Four. Gareth Peirce, acutely embarrassed by the prominence given her role (she came into the case at almost the last minute), has said that she considers herself an “extremely unimportant participant.” Alastair Logan, on the other hand, who devoted twenty years of his life to the defense of the Guildford Four and without whom they would still be in prison today, was truly horrified by the movie. It shows, he said, court scenes “which not only didn’t happen, but which suggest we conduct our criminal cases on a charade basis.”

Predictably, Britain’s film critics were fuzzier than members of the country’s legal profession or its scholars. The Guardian’s reviewer declared that, however inaccurate In the Name of the Father may be, it should be viewed more as a “parable based on truth than [as] a thorough examination of the truth itself.” The critic for the Times wrote approvingly that the film’s “streamlining” allowed Sheridan to “suck audiences right inside its story of wrongs being righted.” The Daily Telegraph’s reviewer—alone noting all the ink “already spilled over the film’s deviations from the facts”—asked, “At what point does dramatic license shade into unwarranted distortion of the truth?” He concluded that the movie “has no more than a nodding acquaintance with history,” and stressed the anomaly of encountering this much lying in a film which makes such a point of “denouncing the lies of others.”

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On this side of the Atlantic, the story was rather different. In estimating the potential audience for In the Name of the Father, it should be remembered that the cohesion of the Irish-American community is not what it used to be, and one even wonders how many votes were won in the Adams affair by either Senator Kennedy or Senator Moynihan, who also lobbied for lifting the Adams visa ban. The figure usually given for Americans of Irish descent is 40 million, but even the IRA’s worst enemies only accuse it of raising a mere $100,000 a year from American sympathizers.

These people’s Irish ancestors, needless to say, left Ireland with very real grievances and dreadful memories, and only a generation or two ago an Irish name in America still suggested membership in a tightly knit ethnic and religious minority. But it now tells one nearly nothing. Reagan, Regan, Brady, Murphy, Casey, O’Neill, Foley, Kennedy, Moynihan, Leahy, Walsh, Buckley—politically they are all over the map. And most of them know precious little about present-day Ireland, which has become quite a minor country in comparison with the number of people of Irish descent in America.

But In the Name of the Father is not playing to an ethnic constituency, it is playing to a moral constituency—and playing very well. Thus American film critics simply proceeded en masse to review this movie as if they were dealing with an unchallenged historical text. The New York Times called it “brilliant,” “riveting.” Other major critics called it “gripping,” “impassioned,” “powerful,” “mesmerizing,” “emotionally wrenching,” “emotionally shattering.” Among the seven nominations In the Name of the Father received from Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were six for major awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Jim Sheridan), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Thompson), Best Supporting Actor (Pete Postlethwaite), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sheridan and Terry George—the latter, it emerged in late February, a convicted felon with links to the Irish National Liberation Army, another terrorist organization).

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The dean of one of this country’s major schools of journalism once said that journalists were not liberals, they merely wanted to “right society’s wrongs.” Such a statement complacently assumes that journalists are capable of unerringly detecting, first, precisely what is wrong with society, and, second, precisely what to do about it. But when we arrive at the entertainment world—where information levels are far lower than among journalists or academics and notoriously lower than the entertainer’s self-esteem—the urge to “right society’s wrongs” becomes truly unhinged.

While at this writing both pictures have been in release for two months, In the Name of the Father has brought in only half the money at American box offices of another British import, Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. But Shadowlands, an excellent film, is about suffering, death, and man’s reconciliation to the will of God, whereas In the Name of the Father is about injustice—about society’s wrongs which the movie world must put right. That world simply has not absorbed the fact that the Guildford Four might not have been victims of an injustice at all, and that consequently there might not have been a wrong to put right to begin with. No, the American entertainment world, seconded by the American critical establishment, will right wrongs even when there are no wrongs. Surely there is no greater dedication to justice than this.


Footnotes

In the last elections in Northern Ireland, Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein, which is determined to achieve the absorption of the North by the Irish Republic by any means including terrorism, won only 10 percent of the vote, a mere one-third of even Northern Ireland’s Catholics. Meanwhile, in the most recent elections in the almost entirely Catholic Irish Republic, the Sinn Fein won a rousing 2 percent. Hence, in any democratic plebiscite, to which both London and Dublin are now committed under the terms of the new Downing Street declaration, Sinn Fein and the IRA are given no chance whatever of winning. Meanwhile, IRA terrorist attacks continued even while Gerry Adams was in New York.

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