March 25, 2015

“’71”… who’s side are you on anyway?

By Dan Webster

It’s probably a safe bet most of us have either no memory or very vague ones of the late 20th century violence between Irish separatists and Great Britain. While most of the violence was concentrated in Belfast in the northern part of Ireland that’s part of the United Kingdom, there was also violence in London. Terrorism was well known to Brits long before Americans experienced the Oklahoma City federal building bombing or the 9/11 attacks.

It’s clear in this movie that nothing was clear about which side you were on. The Catholic Irish Republican Army has at least two factions. And the Protestants have the British Army, the Northern Ireland Constabulary and the MRF—military reaction force.

This movie is about a newly-minted British soldier deployed to Belfast who gets separated from his unit during the so-called “Troubles” in 1971. In one scene the on-the-run soldier is befriended by a Protestant boy who asks, “Are you Protestant or Catholic.” “I don’t know,” replies the soldier. Critics have praised the all but unknown director, Yann Demange, and heralded Jack O’Connell in the lead as Pvt. Hook. O’Connell also gave a stunning performance in ‘Unbroken’ recently released to American audiences.

For the many former Roman Catholics in the USA who made the journey into the Episcopal Church, the idea of Protestant or Catholic being a matter of life or death is hard to imagine. But as with many sectarian or even ethnic clashes it is usually power and money that are underlying causes. Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland became labels for “haves” and “have nots.” The 400 year history between the two groups may have roots in theology or ecclesiology but the 20th century battles were more about politics and power.

“’71” shows the chaos and futility of a deadly struggle that lasted from 1969 to 1997. One comes away seeing there were more than just two sides in this conflict and we’re not very sympathetic to any of them.

On my desk sits a framed photo of a brick wall. Painted on it is “Dream/Fast.” It was a gift from a news reporter friend who shot it in Belfast. After watching “’71” I appreciate its message even more now.

Seeing this movie in Lent and knowing of the journey toward Good Friday, one can imagine the absolute despair of Jesus in his passion knowing of the horrific things his followers would do in his name. 

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