Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Welcome to the Occupation (UK Edition)



"The Government accept the clear conclusions of Lord Stevens and Judge Cory that there was collusion. I want to reiterate the Government's apology in the House today. The Government are deeply sorry for what happened. Despite the clear conclusions of previous investigations and reports, there is still only limited information in the public domain. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I have committed to establishing a further process to ensure that the truth is revealed."
Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP (2013), on the role of state involvement in the murder of Pat Finucane.

“After the publication of the Parker Report in March 1972, much publicity was given to the government statement that the use of hooding, the noise machine and the SD process would be 'discontinued', less, much less, publicity was given to Mr. Heath's statement at the same time that although the hooding might not be used, he must 'make it plain that interrogation in depth will continue.'”
John McGuffin, The Guineapigs (1981).

It is possible to watch a thread emerging in British film and television in the last decades of the 20th century articulating a nameless anxiety about Britain’s role in Northern Ireland. The reaction is an interesting one because it is separate to conventional worries that Northern Irish terrorism could bleed over into England (The Long Good Friday), or ‘heart of darkness’ anxieties about Britain’s imperial presence in a region of alien strangeness (Harry’s Game). What this reaction was, expressed most fully in the conspiracy thrillers produced by the BBC and Channel 4, by two of Britain’s best writers for television, Troy Kennedy Martin, and Alan Bleasedale, is that Northern Ireland is a testing ground where practices of experimental torture and coercion can be applied before they are subjected on the real colonial subjects of the Empire: England and the English. Edge of Darkness and G.B.H. both deal in a similar reality where in the 1980s and 1990s a militarised state has emerged within Britain, governed by elites in the security service and politics. Northern Ireland represents a zone where this collusion can be see much more clearly than in Britain, and where the practices of the English establishment results in paranoia, bloodshed, and hatred.

Edge of Darkness is the story of a police detective who has a history in the sectarian conflicts of Northern Ireland, and shadowy dealings on behalf of the security services.  Craven’s job in Northen Ireland was to manage a network of touts, who relayed information to Craven who himself sent it on to MI6; Craven had a privileged position within the English machine, he has control over part of the flow of information and knows that in practice Northern Ireland is closer the India of the 19th century: keep the factions playing off against each other and they’ll never know who they’re really fighting. Craven is withdrawn however from Northern Ireland, aware that the network of informers he left behind are all extremely likely to be uncovered and murdered. Craven is forced to confront his own role in the empire when one of his informers makes an unexpected reappearance and murders his daughter before his eyes. The rest of Edge of Darkness is a realisation for Craven that England, and the rest of the world, is Northern Ireland in macrocosm: alone he is only one point of contact for something bigger, more organised, and more ruthless, than anything he could have imagined. If the establishment (or elites, or empire, or security services, or Americans, or energy companies; the evil that Craven opposes is so pervasive and protean it cannot be named or truly understood) wishes to play with the lives of the natives, then there is perhaps nothing, as Craven discovers, that can be done to stop them. The forces Craven encounters in the UK are similar to the role he served in Northern Ireland; he is a missionary amongst heathens, bringing the gospel and the law to heathens in the manner of Henry Morton Stanley; when his begins to unravel the conspiracy of the collusion between politics and energy, he encounters missionaries of a greater gospel than his own, Neoliberalism. Great Britain has become the last outpost of the British Empire, its people the empire’s last subjects, and its politics the only game in town for the intelligence services.

Northern Ireland returns to haunt the end-of-history setting of G.B.H., with a security service plot to overthrow the elected socialist council leader of a northern city. G.B.H. is a tale from the end of history because it depicts the world post-apocalypse, post-1980s, after the great work of Neoliberalism was nearly complete: both main characters, Murray the socialist councillor, Nelson the old-labour teacher, are yesterday’s men next to the apolitical security service operators (you could say managers) who have been dispatched to cause chaos. The security service characters are incarnated Neoliberalism, cored-out of all real beliefs (Nelson’s and Murray’s political convictions are wavering, or clouded by personal ambitions or neuroses, but never allowed to be completely distinguished), faster, better organized, and better able to shape themselves to the needs of the job at hand (Neoliberalism demands flexibility and fluidity of its subjects) , changing roles and accents with ease (Murray and Nelson maintain their accents through the programme as a mark of their integrity; even Nelson’s middle class friend changes his accent, softened when attempting to romance one his students, choppy working class when with Nelson). The Northern Ireland analogy works well in G.B.H. because Murray for instance is depicted as being of Irish descent, with the addition that the Northern city is implied to be Liverpool. The intelligence agents, when they reveal their real nature, make many comparisons between working in England and working in Ireland: they are greatly displeasured to be once again working amongst, as the character Grendel describes them, “heathens.” There is no concern for England as a place, but as a colonized zone where the consequences of causing anarchy are summed up by Grendel’s triumphant grin as he, like Craven, abandons his native dupes (socialist henchmen attacking the city’s ethnic minorities) to be murdered by a mob of the city’s citizens. Britain is just somewhere that if you are prepared to submit yourself to the colonists, you can drive away from.

Northen Ireland today has assumed a very strange position in British culture. Everybody knows ‘something’ went on there, but despite this something being periodically fleshed out (the Stalker Inquiry, the Saville Report, the Pat Finucane review) the public are still unwilling to probe deeper. The tone taken towards the recent ‘flag riots’ is very much one of “why, I thought all of this had been sorted out years ago,” with an added “the fucking peasants”, depending on one’s political sensibilities. This common-sense approach can be seen applied in the BBC tv movie Mo: the peace process is simply a process of getting two silly boys to sit down in front of level-headed but cookie Julie Walters and “grow a pair.” No death squads, no sensory deprivation, no collusion with terrorists, not in this account of Northern Ireland’s recent history (this will also be the definitive account of Iraq and Afghanistan around 10 years hence). ‘Occupy’ became a buzzword for the pseudo-socialists and activists a few years ago who organized themselves to seize territory from their perceived opponents, high finance and corrupt politicians. With Northern Ireland as an example they could perhaps better glimpse how power really works in Britain, how little regard the colonists have towards the colonized, and the brutality that is an everyday fact of the occupation.


8 comments:

David W. Kasper said...

Excellent stuff - will we being seeing more like this soon?

Paul Hebron said...

Yeah I reckon so, not sure what but there's more good stuff in G.B.H., maybe in comparison to State of Play since they're a bit similar, political corruption, government conspiracies, but they say different stuff about the issues and the times. Weird how I couldn't find a lot written about either GBH or Edge of Darkness online, they're both so weird and good.

David W. Kasper said...

Have you seen The Ploughman's Lunch? Very interesting, caustic film that seems unjustly forgotten now. And one of the best things Ian McEwan ever did (especially in light of how he's turned out since).

Paul Hebron said...

No I haven't; the guerilla aspect of smuggling cameras into the Tory party conference sounds very interesting, not the sort of thing I imagine any British films to be doing. Red Riding is one of the few things that feels like it's carried through the feelings from the 80s/90s conspiracy thrillers in any way. Utopia on Channel 4 was visually appealing and that's about all that was going for it.

David W. Kasper said...

http://facesonposters.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/class-revision.html

William said...

GBH has been forgotten I think because it was part thriller part bawdy satire, but definitely not social realism. Ken Loach or Mike Leigh really couldn’t have made it. And you can’t come away from feeling righteous or sentimental – I’ve always liked how Michael Palin makes his last stand in the Labour Club, but to the audience it’s clear that he still doesn’t really known what’s been going on.

carl said...

I will venture that The Ploughmans Lunch is one of the best British films ever made, the final freeze-frame is chilling..i found it in a video shop on Oxford Street for 20p a decade or so ago..ahh, happier, simpler Blairite times

Paul Hebron said...

Red Riding's very much this kind of thing, so it's a bit of a blip really. Haunting stuff. There was a conspiracy sort of thing about recently with Gabriel Byrne in it, no idea what that was like except it was set on my native Teesside. Worth pointing out for the death-of-the-British-tv-writer theory that Tony Grisoni who adapted Peace's books was a film writer...