My movie, right or wrong

Neil Jordan's romantic film about a hero of Irish republican history has been labelled by some of the British press as an apology for IRA violence in the Nineties. But what does such hysteria say about us?
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The Independent Online
"I am," says Neil Jordan, "the most peaceful person you can imagine." But he doesn't look peaceful. Chain-smoking, hair awry, bleary-eyed and apparently containing volcanic emotions, he is the very opposite of an easy-going Irishman. More the angst-ridden, tormented pop star; more Bob Geldof than Val Doonican.

It isn't difficult to see why this award-winning director is on edge. Jordan is fast becoming the Oliver Stone of British cinema, touching the untouchable, questioning the unquestionable. And now he is on enemy territory, facing the big guns of the British press who are ready to blow out his latest and possibly his finest picture.

There have already been calls for Michael Collins to be banned. Indeed, so much has been written about it, in such hysterical terms, that you'd think it was a bomb. You'd think it had actually killed people.

Neil Jordan grew up in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf, where Brian Boru won a rare Irish victory in 1014. His film is about Ireland's other military genius: Michael Collins, the father of modern guerrilla warfare, whose revolutionary tactics of selective assassination and mayhem informed Mao and Guevara and destroyed British power in southern Ireland after the First World War. Collins, perhaps more than any other individual, can claim credit for the establishment of today's Irish Republic.

Jordan's study traces his life from the Easter Rising of 1916, when British troops put down a rebellion centred on Dublin's General Post Office. In the following years, support for an Irish republic grew from an obsession of the lunatic fringe to conventional thinking. Meanwhile, Collins's men assassinated key figures in the colonial security apparatus.

He eventually accepted a truce and agreed a treaty with Lloyd George in 1921, which partitioned the country. A civil war ensued, in which Collins fought former colleagues who opposed the deal and wouldn't lay down their arms. He himself was shot dead in 1922 at the age of 31, on a country lane by an unknown gunman, and thus enjoys the inestimable advantage of leaders who die young.

The picture we get from Jordan of the "big fellow", played by Liam Neeson, is of a pragmatic romantic - ready to commit the most callous acts for Irish freedom, but shrewd enough to know when the killing should stop. His life haunted Britain, his untimely death still divides Ireland. The events of this film - the killings carried out by Collins's men, the atrocities committed by British soldiers - will shock many in Britain. But anyone with even a grandparent from Ireland knows these stories. What's new is that they have been put on film.

For screening this humiliation of Empire, Jordan is in trouble. There are also questions about certain liberties he has taken with historical facts. But the most damaging accusation is that his heroic representation of Collins (who had British intelligence agents shot in their baths and their beds) has canonised republican terrorists and thus given history's stamp of approval to today's men of violence.

Is it true, I ask Jordan, well on his way to filling the ashtray, that he has produced an apologia for republicanism?

"What do you mean by republicanism?" he fires back.

Well, I say, people in Britain tend to use the term as shorthand for a nationalism that's prepared to use violence.

"I thought," says Jordan, "republicanism referred to a country without a monarch. That's what the word means, doesn't it?"

I try another tack: let me be straight - they think the film supports violence.

"No one has said that who has actually seen the film."

He's probably right. Much of the debate has taken place among outraged commentators who have yet to see it.

So what is the legacy of this man who waged war and made peace in such a determined manner? To his detractors, Collins deployed the gun in Irish politics so successfully that generations of Irishmen have been unable to resist the urge. Does Jordan agree?

"I regard Collins as a truly heroic figure. He achieved what was always the impossible dream of Fenianism. He brought the British Empire to the point where it had to come to terms and discuss the reality of Irish independence. On the other hand, he negotiated a treaty which was a huge advance on what had been offered previously. And, having done that, he tried to turn around his entire movement, what people now call the IRA, to build a nation and a democracy. Even in fighting a civil war, he established an unarmed police force and a free state army that was responsible to the legislature. You have the transformation of what is basically a militarist to an American democrat. To me, that is heroic and remarkable.

"This movie was made about then. It was not made about now and its only relevance to today is accidental. But if you want to draw a comparison between Collins and Gerry Adams, then I would say that when the ceasefire broke down this year, Collins's response would have been to split the republican movement. He had decided to go with the political process."

Jordan dismisses the notion that this film provides succour for violence in Northern Ireland: "There are no connections between then and now. One of the reasons I made this film was to rescue that period from the shadow thrown over it by the war of attrition that has gone on in the north of Ireland for the last 20 years. There was a genuine idealism in those years. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Fein won 80 per cent of the vote. They fought the war against the Empire with huge support. Whereas the situation of the Provisional IRA in the island of Ireland is that they actually have the antipathy of probably 96 per cent of the people."

So why do some people want the film banned? "They are outraged that I, as an Irish person, am making this film with American money, giving me the type of freedom to tell this story in a way that doesn't need the stamp of approval of the Conservative establishment in this country."

But aren't they rightly concerned that by romanticising the heroes of republicanism, he might strengthen today's men of violence?

"So you are saying that any examination of the birth of the Irish Republic, the birth of the country I live in, would lend credence to the republican men of violence? That's a ludicrous position.

"People tend to denigrate you if you dwell in any depth on issues of Irish politics in the Irish past. They're scared of broaching these subjects, so they try to connect you to the IRA in some way. It's a kind of smear. It's quite dangerous because it drives movies like Michael Collins, which are innocent with regard to contemporary politics, into a position in which they would never otherwise find themselves. It's so counterproductive."

The irony is that Jordan and his film are, in many ways, fiercely opposed to the use of violence in Irish politics. "I've never supported the IRA. I've loathed them for years," he says, lighting another cigarette. "I don't imagine or even want a united Ireland. Why? Because there are a million and a half Protestants up there who don't want it."

Critics have also largely missed the central focus of the film: the demonising of Eamon de Valera, a man once sanctified in Ireland, who took up arms against the treaty. He dominated the country for 50 years after Collins's death, and represented a rigid, uncompromising nationalism, social conservatism and Anglophobia.

De Valera, the prim, humourless ideologue, is anathema to Jordan. How better to signal that than to cast Alan Rickman in the role? Jordan has chosen an Englishman, of all people, who specialises in villains -remember his sinister terrorist leader in Die Hard - to play the high priest of Irish nationalism against Liam Neeson's Michael Collins. The audience knows whose side it should be on.

Neil Jordan, it must be said, is obsessed with Eamon de Valera, who stands for all that was worst about the introverted society of his youth. He cannot forgive him for starting the civil war by opposing the treaty that Collins signed.

"De Valera made a series of disastrous decisions," says Jordan. "He's a figure a bit like Salazar, the Portuguese dictator. Not entirely a democratic figure. He belonged to the Thirties, he was a curious mixture of cardinal and politician. Through De Valera, large areas of Irish public life were handed to the Catholic church. It was kind of disgraceful.

"De Valera dominated the landscape I grew up in. He was as much a part of it as the rocks. I've written a few books in which he figures as some austere, godlike, not entirely benign presence. If history gives you a villain, you can't ask for a more fascinating individual. I suppose I grab it with both hands."

In Collins, Jordan has found an alternative father-figure for the nation, one that allows Ireland to maintain its love affair with its now distant revolution and liberation from the Empire, but one who also sought to halt the cycle of violence.

"Collins was not an Anglophobe. He understood the British mentality. He had great affection for people like Birkenhead [with whom he negotiated]. Churchill had tremendous admiration for him. He was a pragmatist, not at all wedded to republican absolutism. There are reports he offered Edward Carson [the Unionist leader of the time] the presidency of a two-state Ireland. He was also a bon viveur. Sadly, the ideologue, De Valera, won the day."

But what if Collins had survived the assassin's bullet? "You can ask that question endlessly and it's all speculation. But I do believe Ireland would not have been neutral in the Second World War. Neutrality drove a further wedge between the North and the South. It definitely separated the Unionist perspective further from the 26 counties because they had been through the war and we hadn't. Because Ireland did not go through that experience and didn't do the rebuilding that Britain and Europe experienced in the Fifties, the country I grew up in was the same as the Thirties. It didn't really change till 1968."

At which point, Neil Jordan was 17, and, like many in his generation, hated De Valera's narrow vision of a quaint, rural Ireland. "I wanted to be in England when I was growing up. There was rock'n'roll. People had sex, freedom. You watched any movies you wanted, read any book. To me, England was everything a city could mean to a country boy."

In short, Michael Collins, far from being a call to republican arms, is, perhaps, the slightly selfish cry of a child of the Sixties. Jordan wants to honour history and then get on with the future, be it music, film, books, drugs or sex. His is the proud, confident voice of modern southern Ireland telling Britain that the empire is over, and the IRA that the war is over.

Jordan's film, though a brave exploration of a difficult subject, is thus self-serving for his generation. It moulds history to its own ends and understandably makes Collins, not De Valera, its hero. His voice deserves to be heard, not drowned out by hysteria.

`Michael Collins' is reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones in the Tabloid, page 7