Film & DVD Review: Some Mother’s Son

Reviewed by David Kerr

This film is a very powerful and emotional portrayal of the hunger-strike crisis of 1981 as seen through the eyes of two mothers whose sons take part in the death fast. The film makes no attempt at balance. According to its world-view the IRA are freedom fighters, and their struggle was fully justified. While the IRA are universally heroic and noble the British are manoevring for position amongst themselves and are invariably cunning, evil, debased and conniving. The Loyalist and Protestant community might as well not exist. The only intimation that they are there is during the Fermanagh and South Tyrone bye-election campaign when someone in a speeding car throws a jar of piss in the face of Helen Mirren’s character! At the election count a row of police and soldiers separate singing and shouting supporters of Bobby Sands and Harry West, who is described as the “Unionist and Conservative Party of Great Britain” candidate. In fact West was the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, but this film gives the misleading view that West was the candidate of some GB-based party rather than the oldest indigenous political party in Ulster.

Much is made of the attempt at ‘criminalisation’ of IRA volunteers, for which the Thatcher government is blamed. In a brilliantly propagandist opening scene we see the newly elected Margaret Thatcher recite the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, and the apparent contradiction of British soldiers blowing up border roads and bridges to prevent ordinary folk from moving their cattle from one field to another.

The plain fact is that this policy began in 1976 under Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. At that time the British government was under massive international pressure – orchestrated by the Leinster House regime and senior US politicians – to end internment of Republican and Loyalist terrorists. This was when the Long Kesh internment camp held prisoners from the Official and Provisional IRA in separate compounds. The UVF, Red Hand Commando and UFF prisoners also had their own compounds. As well as the internees, persons who had been convicted of politically motivated crimes were given ‘special category status’. This system worked reasonably well and helped to keep the lid on much of the political violence.

The main cry of of the intenational opponents of internment was that it was a grave violation of ‘human rights’ and that a person should only be in prison if he or she had been convicted of a specific offence. ‘If these people have done anything wrong they should be brought to trial for that, not rounded up like cattle’, was the general cry from the bleeding heart liberals and the Provo groupies in Britain, Eire and North America.

Internment had actually been introduced by the old Stormont government in 1971, and the British government was acutely embarrassed by it. Labour phased out the internment gradually, replaced Long Kesh internment camp with HMP Maze and sought to appease the international criticism by fighting the IRA insurrection as if it was some kind of giant crime wave. Any person convicted of offences committed after March 31st 1976 was sent to the H-blocks in the new Maze prison. IRA and loyalist volunteers refused to wear prison uniform as it marked them out as ‘common criminals’. That was the real background to the situation which Margaret Thatcher inherited in 1979, at the beginning of the film.

I thought that the film captured much of the atmosphere of the 1981 hunger strike crisis well. Helen Mirren excels as the liberal middle-class school teacher Kathleen Quigley who is shocked when her IRA son Gerard is captured in arms. Gerard and his comrade, Frankie Higgins, refuse to wear a convict’s uniform and go on the “blanket” protest. As things escalate they take part in the “dirty” protest and join Bobby Sands on his death fast.

As the protest grows, Kathleen draws closer to Annie Higgins, a bitter republican who is the mother of Frankie, the notorious Provo gunman. Annie provides a bit of comic relief when she refuses to sit under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth when she and Kathleen go into a pub for a brandy.

It is all compelling stuff. The scenes in the prison when Bobby Sands and some of his comrades die is truly moving, as is the treatment of the funeral procession after his death. Unfortunately, the murder of a neighbour of mine by rioting Republicans on the morning of Sands’ death as he went about his work as a milk roundsman – and other similar cases – were never mentioned, apart from a scene where a prison officer is shot in front of his family.

It is a well made film, and well worth seeing. With a film biography of Michael Collins due on general release before the end of this year, there is no doubt that “fenianism” is becoming chic.

I have a vision for a screenplay. The story of the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike with Glen Barr as the hero who defies two governments, and a life of Fred Crawford the founder of the Young Ulster secret society and the man who ran the guns into Larne for the UVF in 1914.
Perhaps one day…..?

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