Magazine article The Spectator

Rationale for Terrorism

Magazine article The Spectator

Rationale for Terrorism

Article excerpt

Michael Collins is the thinking man's Die Hard - Dail Hard maybe, given the protagonists' habit of convening every so often in their make-believe Republican parliament. These brief interruptions aside, though, the film has as many explosions and killings and thrilling escapes as any Bruce Willis vehicle. It is not especially anti-English: indeed, the English may rather enjoy it, since, unlike most Republican propagandists, Neil Jordan's film doesn't attempt to justify the violence by boring on about ancient injustices, real or imagined, or by dredging up Yeats's `terrible beauty' and the usual high-falutin' guff. It comes out shooting, goes out shooting, and in between is a blarney-free zone; its answer to the Irish Question is `Hasta la vista, motherfucker'.

On those rare occasions when the film stops firing and starts talking, it turns to specious rubbish. Returning from London in 1921, having secured the Free State Treaty, Collins tells his pals, `The position of the North will be reviewed, but at the moment remains part of the British Empire' - a sentence which never passed Collins's lips: for, under the Treaty, the Irish Free State itself remained part of the Empire; the North remained part of the United Kingdom.

If the film seems peppered with curiously lumpy, formal references to `the British Empire', that's because passing Irish nationalism off as a colonial struggle rather than a secessionist movement is a canny move in America: anti-imperialism is instantly sympathetic, whereas secession movements, under United States law, are illegal. Collins's contribution to Ireland, we're told in the closing caption, was that he'd `overseen its transition to democracy'. But Ireland under the British was a democracy - though, then as now, the island was riven by a genuine, fundamental difference of opinion. The British take a laconic, indulgent view of these rhetorical flourishes - as no doubt they do of the recent law in New York State requiring the Irish Potato Famine to be taught in school as a deliberate act of British aggression and to be included in mandatory courses `devoted to the study of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust'.

But, captions aside and Imperial asides aside, the English can relax. In Jordan's film, they're virtually invisible -- literally so: in their one big scene, an ill-advised concoction of the director's, an armoured car bursts on to a Gaelic football match and mows down the teams and the crowd. Anonymous, faceless tyranny, geddit? But the Irish are oddly invisible, too: Jordan makes little attempt to connect Collins and his small band of volunteers with any broad populist cause. Instead, the first half of his film is a brilliant rationale for terrorism which is presumably why Sinn Fein and the IRA have been so appreciative of it- If you watch it dispassionately, you see a small band of amoral killers destabilising the rule of law and deliberately provoking the state into careless atrocities upon its own people. Seen in this light, even the Black and Tans get a fair ride from Jordan.

But, of course, we don't watch it dispassionately. Liam Neeson is a big movie star and the film pressgangs even the most insignificant reaction shot into the service of his lustre and loveability. He doesn't look like Collins: I always enjoyed the historian George Dangerfield's description of his `full cheeks and bee-stung lips', but that's not Neeson. …

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