Ronan Bennett: Rebel rouser

Wrongly convicted of murdering an RUC policeman, he served time in the H-Blocks. Last week his novel made the Booker long-list and on Thursday his drama on the hijackers' view of 9/11 will be screened. It has, he admits, 'great potential to offend', but then he's not after a quiet life

The Irish author Ronan Bennett is by nature an optimist, his optimism fuelled by a perspicacious talent that, nonetheless, occasionally fails him. Four years ago, when I met him in a Hackney coffee shop, he declared with certainty "that bigoted sectarianism is on the wane" in his native Belfast. Last week his optimism appeared - like most predictions about Northern Ireland - premature. In north Belfast where Bennett grew up, 10 Protestant families fled their homes as a result, they said, of intimidation by their Roman Catholic neighbours. Nothing much had changed.

The writer, whose stature recently has expanded significantly with a new novel about 17th-century Ireland and an imminent television thriller on Islamic terrorism, is not to blame for that misplaced optimism, of course. One easily might instead point a finger at Ulster's rois fainéants - Ian Paisley, David Trimble and Gerry Adams - for failing to raise political life to a higher plane (as did, for example, the invigorating influences that inspired the 19th-century Italian Risorgimento).

It goes without saying that Bennett, a committed Irish republican (though never belonging to the IRA or Sinn Fein), wouldn't include Adams among the "do-nothing kings". He strongly admires the Sinn Fein leader for his nerve, enterprise, self-confidence, political self-respect and attempted courtship of Ulster Protestants. In Trimble's unionist party, on the other hand, Bennett discerns almost nothing but egregious blunderings, while Paisley's unionist party is seen (and heard) "as a wretched ass that roars".

That aside, one of the most impressive qualities about Bennett has been his ability, as a former prisoner in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, to carve out a distinguished literary and television career for himself from the heart of the British capital, attracting encomia from the likes of The Spectator, The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Telegraph. Bennett's 1968 novel The Catastrophist - its Congo-based action an allegory for Northern Ireland - was greeted by The Spectator as "a masterpiece" to be "measured against the best of his contemporaries". Many of the above, however, attacked him for a television programme, The Rebel Heart, which told the story of Irish independence.

A further arresting quality is the breadth of his focus; without letting Irish events out of his sight, Bennett manages to observe human ambition, frailty and rancour through a global prism. He is as well informed about the caprices of American foreign and economic policies and the lengthening shadow of international terrorism as he is about the bad-blooded objurgations of Irish tribalism. His study of the perpetrators of the 9/11 massacre (he was immeasurably helped by the extensive research of Alice Perman who collaborated on the script) had led to the remarkably well informed, low-key, but utterly riveting drama-documentary The Hamburg Cell, to be screened on Thursday on Channel 4. Already it has been hailed as "scalp-prickingly horrifying" - a narrative in which students and asylum-seekers arrived in Germany from the Middle East to begin a sequence of infamous events that will be mourned or honoured (depending on your prejudices) for decades to come.

Bennett was born in 1956 and educated by Belfast's redoubtable Christian Brothers (as was Gerry Adams). In 1974 he was tried with three others for the murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary inspector who was investigating a bank robbery in Belfast. He was sentenced to life, but released a year later when an appeal court quashed the conviction. Bennett then came to England where he spent 20 months on remand in Brixton prison on a spurious charge of conspiring to commit crimes unknown against persons unknown in places unknown. The charges were eventually thrown out.

Such tribulations might have embedded a chip on anyone's shoulder. But Bennett, who lives with The Guardian's deputy editor, Georgina Henry, in east London (they have a four-year-old son), exudes a kind of insouciance in interview. His emotions seem well under control, which is not to say he isn't passionate about certain things: inter alia, the war in Iraq and phony Anglo-American solutions to world problems. "In Ireland it used to be said that only chemists have the right to talk of solutions," he wrote as the US and Britain were about to invade Iraq. "Alternatives are what the real world works in, and war, if it to be used at all, must be the very last of these."

That virtuous sentiment is widely shared. Yet Bennett occasionally can end up expressing sentiments that seem distinctly unvirtuous. The slightly built Belfastman, who affects black leather jackets and a contemplative far-distance gaze of Il Penseroso, once declared he wouldn't hand over the Omagh bombers to the RUC, a "completely discredited force", in his view. Later, when two Omagh parents publicly deplored this remark, he issued an apology, saying: "I believe those responsible should be brought to account." To some critics who saw this as half-hearted, one might counter that his original faux pas was less an expression of support for the killers than one of contempt for the force charged with bringing them to book, since reformed and renamed. To others it seemed a symptom of a resentment, the roots of which lay in an insecure childhood and obscure loyalty to resistance of authority.

It is quite obvious from a meeting with him that he is not enamoured of the pious Irish nationalism that equates love of country with numerous genuflection to Catholic altars. Equally clear is his concern at unionist traditions which cry, "Oh Lord, deliver us from the infernal terrors of Catholic nationalism and exempt our spirit from sepulchral larvae." He is a modern man upon whom his upbringing hangs fairly lightly.

There are interesting parallels between Bennett's approaches to Irish republicanism and modern Islamic fervour (just as his Congo book echoed aspects of the Irish conflict). Four years ago he told me he thought British newspapers, by and large, were wedded to the "mad bomber" view and couldn't - or wouldn't - apprise themselves of historical intricacies involved. In the current issue of Radio Times he writes that "shorthand descriptions of the [9/11] hijackers as fanatics, cowards and evildoers were inadequate ... Something set them on the road to 9/11".

Despite the charm and laid-back persona, Bennett is clearly a man of imperative ideas and impulses, but has learnt, possibly through a reputation some have used to malign him, not to be reckless with them. When he was first asked, towards the end of 2001, to write a drama about 9/11, he saw that it "had great potential to offend" and turned it down. Months later he was asked again, looked at the abundance of research that had been done and changed his mind. "I wanted to know who these men were and why they did what they did."

It is easy to misinterpret as paranoia his caution among strangers. He has, after all, been diabolised by some of the very papers that have lauded his literary genius. In contrast to his own appetite for varied territory - be it 17th-century Halifax (a PhD from King's College London), a four-hour controversial television epic, The Rebel Heart (about Ireland's Easter Uprising), or TV comedy, such as Lucky Break - he dismisses many critics as being closed to new influences.

At a time when British society has either given itself over to a new Black Death of degeneration and hysteria (football, celebrities, bingeing, communal rudeness, road rage, eroto-mania, xenophobia, bellicosity and so on), Ronan Bennett, offspring of the Irish Troubles, can seem to some to be a civilised, thoughtful antidote.

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