I, Dolours

‘I Dolours’ is a film about the life of Dolours Price, and her activities as a member of the IRA during the 1970s.  It is part dramatisation and part interview conducted by the journalist Ed Moloney, who is also the Producer and has written an important book on the history of the IRA.

Actor Lorna Larkin is excellent as Dolours and she needed to be, because the most arresting parts of the film are excerpts of the interview with Dolours.  She is determinedly articulate, direct and forthright.  One review has described her as a “terrifying and bitter woman”, but one person’s bitterness is another’s righteous anger.  She is unrepentant about her activities in the IRA and brutally honest.

And it is this honesty that so jars with the present, where a principal republican leader claims never to have been a member of the IRA and another claimed never to have killed anyone. While mainstream commentary ridicules such claims, it fails to register the service they do to its own anti-republican narrative.

Her unflinching justification of the IRA and its campaign will be shocking only to those too young not to have come across the ‘arrogant’ and ‘elitist’ republicans who regarded themselves as ‘defenders of the truth’, as described in Dolours’ own words.

It contrasts with the mealy-mouthed political sophistry of today’s Sinn Fein, many of whose members justify their current opportunism with their experience of previous sacrifice. As one comrade of mine put it, their descent into corruption is justified by the phrase ‘we’re worth it.’

Dolours’ interview is also interspersed with archival footage of the civil rights movement, which Dolours and her sister Marian joined, and the attacks on the movement by loyalists and police.  The demand for the most limited reforms was met by naked state and loyalist violence, with footage in the film of the ambush at Burntollet and the RUC attack on the 5thOctober civil rights march in Derry.

This has generally been passed over quickly in reviews but in the more recent media coverage, marking the 50thanniversary of these events, their importance to the creation of ‘the Troubles’ has been at least partially recognised.  It was obviously crucial to Dolours’ political development and from a socialist point of view led to a political and personal tragedy.  From such a viewpoint the alternative to the reform strategy of civil rights was not that of militarist republicanism, which Dolours notes she had at one time herself rejected.

From these attacks however, Dolours learned that “change would not be brought about by marching” and the objective of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers was the wrong one.  She came from a family steeped in republicanism, with her father taking part in the bombing of England during the Second World War, which Dolours seemed to regard as almost surreal in conception, while her aunt lived her life in the family home, having had her eyes and hands blown off while attempting to recover an IRA arms dump.

She was ultimately to be the third generation of the family to end up in jail, which might appear to lead to the belief that she was born to be in the IRA.  But if this were so then she would be less intelligent and less human than the woman that appears on the screen.  She embraced the idealism of the civil rights movement and then rebelled against its perceived ineffectiveness in fighting oppression.  She devoted herself to the IRA and consciously submitted to it discipline.  She didn’t seek to avoid danger, and refused to present herself as a hero.

She does not embellish events or her participation in them, and attributes her passion and zeal to youthful ardour.  She makes statements she knows will not gain her any sympathy, such as her defense of the killing of informers, while she displays sympathy of her own years later for only one disappeared, someone who went to his death believing that this death was deserved, just as Dolours did.

The film shows a number of clips of IRA car bombs in Belfast City Centre, and some of their grisly effects, and records her seeming endorsement of the view that one bomb in England was worth many times that number in Ireland.  It dramatises her volunteering to participate in the bombing of London, having had the risks explained, and even as other IRA volunteers walked away.

While noting the immature behaviour of some of the male IRA volunteers in England, who failed to follow orders and got drunk, she also acknowledges that this made no difference, because the whole operation had already been compromised by informers.

She and her sister were caught, imprisoned in England, and went on hunger strike to demand that they serve their sentences in Ireland.  For most of the hunger strike, which lasted over 200 days, she and her sister were force fed, an experience that eventually resulted in Marian’s, and then her, early release.

The film invites some sympathy for her during this period and her resulting continuing ill health, which led to her eventual premature death.  It can hardly do anything else, just as the picture of bomb explosions and their aftermath can hardly do anything other than evoke the opposite. But it also should prompt questions, because it does an injustice to Dolours to assume that the decisions she made were inevitable.

How, for example, was it hoped that these bombs would achieve republican objectives if bombs in Belfast mattered so little?  And why did they continue for so many years?

That Dolours was not asked these questions is understandable.  The interview was a last testament, to be shown only after her death, and her ill health at that time made her vulnerable.  The journalist Ed Moloney has explained the backstory to the interview on his blog.  She therefore said what she wanted to say.

This must also, unfortunately, explain rather unsatisfactory aspects of the film.  As has been noted elsewhere, it feels incomplete, not only on the political side but particularly in relation to Dolours future life after release. The ending feels rushed, and her opposition to the betrayal by the movement of the cause she dedicated herself to is not fully explained.  She does however say that what Sinn Fein had achieved was not worth missing a good breakfast.

Most media attention has focused on her admitted role in the killing of the disappeared: those who were considered to be informers and who were driven across the border, often it seems by Dolours, where they would be shot and their bodies buried.  Some of these bodies have not been recovered. This, she admits in the interview, was a war crime, but only it seems because families did not know their loved ones’ fate and could not be given a body for proper burial.

Of all those disappeared, the most notorious case was that of Jean McConville, a widow and a mother of ten children, who were separated from each other and put into care following their mother’s death.  Dolours is not kind after the event and makes no attempt to soften what she and her IRA comrades did.  The lack of any attempt at sugar coating gives her statements greater credence, although Jean McConville’s family protested at the film’s opening in Belfast and dispute some of her assertions.

Her other claim is only superficially more controversial and was aired long before the film, which was that Gerry Adams was not only in the IRA but also ordered the killing.  That the former has been denied by him is taken seriously by no one, which leaves denials of the latter also suffering from a problem of credibility.

The worst review of the film I have read ends with these remarks:

“Perhaps that is the saddest part of I, Dolours, is that she died feeling let down, deceived and unfulfilled, having not achieved her ultimate goal in life. Though, she does serve to be a forgotten relic of a time which indeed many would never wish to see the likes of again. Ultimately, Dolours is an unreliable narrator and we must remember that this is one woman’s perspective, and that everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The film itself is testimony to her not being forgotten, and the poignancy of her story is an invitation not to forget but to learn from.  This includes the political lessons that are especially important, since she lived and died a political woman.  She makes clear that she did not seek to excuse or exonerate her activities, on the contrary she saw no reason to do so, and the film stands as a challenge to her erstwhile comrades who have made political careers doing so.

That she is an unreliable narrator seems hard to sustain given her definite and precise approach to the telling of her story; her complete avoidance of seeking after sympathy, and plain admission to her unpalatable actions. There is no reason to believe that “everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

On the contrary, it is the truthfulness of her words that cuts through the carefully constructed silences and avoidance that characterises today’s approach by Sinn Fein to the actions of the IRA.  Continued embrace of IRA history, along with denial of everything it entailed, or attempts to make us “all” responsible for actions which specific actors were only too willing to claim for themselves at the time; all this is incompatible with the truth that Dolours continues to speak.

On the question of Dolours feeling let down by not having achieved her ultimate goal, I get the feeling that, apart from the physical and psychological damage she suffered from her experience in prison, republican defeat was not decisive in contributing to her death.  Coming from a republican family she grew up and had lived with its consequences. She understood defeat and faced it when it happened.  Not for her black taxis driving up and down the Falls Road hooting its celebration. It was the betrayal of the movement that she devoted her life to which must have demoralised more than mere defeat.

She must have been aware that she drove to their deaths members of the movement whose betrayal, in the great scheme of things, was so much less than the movements’ later complete capitulation.  And just as she did this, so later did the republican movement do it to her.

The film is authentic in its showing of a republican view of ‘the Troubles’, free from today’s spin and bogus self-justification.  In this way it is an honest and faithful portrait of its subject.

Two films: ‘Pride’ and ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’

JS45320465When Margaret Thatcher died my daughter asked me if I could recommend any books that would explain who she was and why she raised such strong views on her death.  I struggled to think of one that would convey the political issues and the raw emotion that she generated.  Even the youngest who are semi-interested in politics know that in some way that Thatcher helped shape politics today, not only in Britain but much more widely, and that at the very least she symbolises changes we are still living through.

In the last week I have watched two films that provide some way of appreciating Thatcher while also immersing one in the feelings generated at the time.  The first – ‘Pride’ – tells the story of a lesbian and gay group in London, which raised more money for miners in a South Wales valley than any other group, during the miners’ titanic strike in 1984-85 against Thatcher.  It’s rarely sentimental, the performances are wonderful and if you don’t walk out of it feeling proud that this is the side you are on then there’s no hope for you.

If you’re older then you’ll remember the struggle with pride and not a little bit of sadness.  If you were in any way involved in solidarity in this side of the Irish sea then you’ll now appreciate the importance of the struggle and perhaps realise you didn’t quite understand its importance then.  You’ll also appreciate the need for unity and solidarity of the oppressed and that only when we fight together do we make real the unity that underlies our oppression and our liberation.

Of course what you take out of any artistic creation partly depends on your own experience and you will only learn from a political film what your political understanding will allow.  Some things will stand out more than others – for me the performances of the actors, including Ben Schnetzer who plays Mark Ashton, the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian solidarity group and originally from the North of Ireland – brave and tender;  or Paddy Considine as the miners spokesperson Dai Donovan, who welcomes against opposition within his own ranks the support of the gay and lesbian group with understanding and appreciation for the bravery of the miners’ new supporters and the value of their own struggle.

Uplifting and inspiring as it is the significance of the miners’ struggle was illustrated for me by the miner’s banner that proclaimed their adherence to international workers unity and the struggle for socialism.  Of all the reference points that they had, as Welsh, as miners, workers and brothers they stated on their banner that what would always define them was international unity and socialism.  Through the strike they demonstrated in their solidarity with gay and lesbian activists from London a unity that went beyond nationality and sexual orientation to recognition of their shared and common interest in fighting oppression.

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And a miner’s banner also featured in another film – ‘Tony Benn Will and Testament’ – a documentary covering his life and political activity, including the miners’ strike and his inclusion on a new Miners’ banner.

It showed Benn narrate his personal and political life and his acceptance of his death that must have followed shortly after the film.  It shows his journey through politics and his affirmation that he moved to the left through joining government and not, as everyone else does, to the right.

He explained his determination to become an MP and change the world because of an encounter with one of the Americans involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, eventually becoming the minister responsible for the civil nuclear programme in Britain.  In this role he explained how he was completely kept in the dark about the fact that the plutonium waste used in this civil power generation was sent to supply the US nuclear weapons programme.   More widely he explains that he came to realise that while in Government he didn’t have any real control and that the Labour Party became simple managers of the system when it achieved office.

The film covers many of the class struggles in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century, from the campaign against nuclear weapons, to  the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in, the ‘winter of discontent’ provoked by attacks on workers by the labour Government, the miners’ strike and the anti-Iraq war movement in our current century.

His bid for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 1981 against Denis Healy, which he very narrowly lost by barely 1%, does not get the attention it deserves but it does turn the spotlight on Neil Kinnock – the so-called left who abstained in the vote.  He later became leader and was leader during the miners’ strike, which he more or less also betrayed, later being rewarded with a place in the House of Lords.  A fighting leadership of the British labour movement could have made the difference between defeat and victory.  Watching the film I found myself getting angrier with him than with Thatcher, but isn’t that always the way with traitors?

He brings to attention the possibility, since the 1970s, of using North Sea oil to modernise Britain but identifies the failure to do so in the pro-big business policies of Thatcher.  Some on the left today see the possibility of modernising Scotland based on what’s left of North Sea oil. However they base this not on any lesson drawn from recent decades but on nationalist division.  The political leader they in effect followed, Alex Salmond, proclaimed that his SNP “didn’t mind the economic side so much” of Margaret Thatcher, while claiming that “the SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself.”  So that puts the rest of us in our place.

I remember listening to Tony Benn speak and someone asked him about the idea that socialism could be brought about through parliament and whether the capitalist class and its system would allow such a transition without mounting a violent coup to prevent it.  Ah, he said, the Chile question, referring to exactly such an attempt to introduce reform in Chile at the beginning of the 1970s, which led to the least politically interfering military in South America mounting a coup, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and murdering thousands and thousands of workers and socialists.

Unfortunately having identified the question he didn’t give an answer to it and this might seem to be the major point to highlight in a Marxist review of a film of his political testament.  And so it is.  But by his own experience and through his own words he demonstrates these lessons and the film is valuable for showing them.

Tony-Benn

After recounting how he wanted to become an MP the film a few minutes later shows him speaking in the House of Commons – to row upon row of empty green benches.   Having had the experience of Governmental office noted above he later announced, in a line provided by his wife, that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics.  We then see him on the campaign trail at meetings and demonstrations until his death this year.

So whatever his reformist words his practice in this way became the opposite of the fetishism and ‘cretinism’ of parliamentary activity for which Marxists would criticise reformist politics.

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Unfortunately today , it is the so-called Marxist left who argue that the big question is the ‘crisis of working class representation’ and pursue one electoralist intervention after another, like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fed on the most piss-poor politics that they otherwise condemn in other times or in other places.

So it is not just the young that could learn from these two films.  Very straightforward as they are in political terms, there are basic lessons to be learnt from them – the need for unity of the oppressed, workers internationalism, the futility of seeking fundamental change through capitalist parliaments or the capitalist state, and the need for class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike and the experience of social-democratic politics cast a long shadow over the working class and socialist movement today.  We can learn vital lessons from them and their failure.  That we do not do so is partly because we cannot see the shadow, since it is overcast by an even darker one – that of Thatcherism and the rampage of what is now called neoliberalism.  To come out of the shadows we need to come out of both.  These two films can help us.