The firebrand film director Ken Loach turns 70 next month but proved age has done nothing to dim his political passion when he launched a blistering attack on the Government for the war in Iraq yesterday.
Unveiling his new film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, at the Cannes Film Festival, Loach drew parallels between the British in Ireland more than 80 years ago and the situation in the Middle East today.
The movie stars Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham as two brothers during the war of independence in early 1920s Ireland, when volunteer guerrilla forces took on the soldiers known as the Black and Tans sent from Britain to put down rebellion.
Loach moved quickly to stress the story's contemporary relevance. "There are always armies of occupation somewhere in the world being resisted by the people they're occupying. I don't need to tell you where the British now illegally have an army of occupation and the damage and the casualties and the brutality that is emerging from that," he said.
"My view [of Iraq] is that it was an illegal war. It has breached the Geneva convention, it has broken the UN charter, it's based on lies and it's completely indefensible. It's resulted in the most appalling destruction of Iraq. It's an appalling scar, certainly on the British Government's record and clearly on America's."
Yet there had been very little coverage of the destruction in Fallujah or of the children who were losing their parents or parents seeing their children killed on a daily basis, he claimed.
Paul Laverty, who wrote the film, praised the medical journal The Lancet for sending a team to Iraq to assess the number of civilian casualties when no one else had. "They estimated conservatively that over 100,000 civilians were killed in the first 18 months of the war."
Laverty said it was shocking how those with empires got to rewrite their own history. He criticised Gorden Brown, the Chancellor, for defending the British empire and its "history of torture, brutality, slavery and murder" in a speech last year.
The empire was not on the curriculum at school, Laverty said. "But if we were given an objective history, I don't think people would be prepared to believe these lies again about Iraq." Both Loach and Laverty wanted to make a film on the Irish struggle for independence because there was very little context in coverage of Irish politics. "It's never part of the story where the conflict comes from," Loach said.
In the film, it is the brutality of the Black and Tans that prompts Damien, played by Murphy, to join the republican movement. One of the stalwarts of the British left who, as well as Harold Pinter and Brian Eno, protested at Downing Street over Iraq, Loach has a track record of highlighting the struggles of the dispossessed. He insisted the £4.5m film was not anti-British.
"People confuse the Government with the people," he said. "But people have more in common with people of the same social position in other countries than those at the top of their own." Murphy, who also starred in Batman Begins, admitted his own family had been touched by the events depicted.
He said: "Certainly in Cork where the film is set and where I'm from it runs very, very deep, the politics and the divisions and everybody has stories of family members who were caught up to greater or lesser degrees in the struggle."
The film is out on 23 June.