THE JOURNEY – Northern Ireland’s journey to peace

When films use artistic license to portray reality, dystopias can become utopias, impossible dreams can be made into tangible reality, and deep seated animosity can be transformed into long lasting friendships.

Thanks to its miraculous healing power, cinema can celebrate peace after years of bloody warfare. Film can put atrocities and bloodshed into the shadows momentarily to shine a light on an episode of uncontaminated humanity. And so bitter enemies, in an even bitter war, can become sincere peacemakers. Even if they’re still not true friends.

Something like this happened to Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness played respectively by Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney. They are protagonists of THE JOURNEY by Nick Hamm, presented out of competition at the Venice Film Festival.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness represent opposing sides of the Northern Irish conflict: Protestants verus Catholics, British Unionists verus Republicans fighting for a united Ireland, Her Majesty’s army versus the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They’re two irreconcilable enemies both convicted of the righteousness of their beliefs. On the one hand, there’s the bigoted and uncompromising Paisley. He founded the Presbyterian Church of Ulster and mixes apocalyptic visions with anti-Catholic invective, giving voice to the growing tide of Protestant extremism. Speaking as an MEP in 1988, he defined Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist and accused the Vatican of plotting to dominate the whole of Europe. McGuiness, on the other, was a prominent exponent of the IRA in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He was arrested in 1973 for trafficking arms and then become a prominent exponent of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA).

Both Paisley and McGuiness share the stubborn belief of being on the right side of history. The history of the Irish question goes back to 17th Century and the English Civil War, which witnessed the bloody repression of the first rising of Irish Catholics by Oliver Cromwell’s forces between 1649-53. Years of armed struggle ensued between the British Army and the IRA, who were determined to drive the British out by force. London finally recognized the independence of Ireland in 1921. At the same time, however, this imposed the partition of Ireland into two distinct blocks. The Republic of Ireland was established in the south and the Province of Ulster in the north. Northern Ireland was still under British rule and dominated mainly by Protestants.

With the birth of an independent Irish republic, the IRA took on the cause of uniting Ireland by recovering the “unredeemed territories” by force. The level of violence grew as the Catholic minority in Ulster became politically disenfranchised and discriminated against. The escalation of Irish terrorism reached its peak in the 1970’s. The IRA exported its brand of terrorist attacks into mainland UK and Europe, resulting in Sinn Fein being outlawed by the British government.

In the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher became the number one enemy of the IRA. In 1981, Bobby Sands and nine other political prisoners were left to starve to death in the Maze prison while on hunger strike in protest at not being given the status of political prisoners. For the Iron Lady they were simply “criminals”.

Surprisingly, however, it’s actually Maggie who made the first move to end the “Troubles”, the darkest and bloodiest days of Irish history. In 1984 the IRA attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet by planting a bomb in the Brighton hotel where Tory party conference was being held. Thatcher miraculously escaped unscathed. A year later she signed a treaty with Republic of Ireland giving Dublin a role in the government of Ulster, albeit only a consultative one. This is seen as a point of no return, even a betrayal, by Ian Paisley’s Unionists.

“Sacrificial lambs to appease the appetites of Dublin’s wolves.”

There are different names for the treaty that finally brings peace to Northern Ireland. For the Republicans, it’s called the Good Friday Agreement. For the Protestant Unionists, the Belfast Agreement. For historians, the Stormont Agreement after Stormont Castle where one of the most important international treaties in recent history was signed on April 11th 1998.

Each party made some important concessions. London recognized the autonomy of the Northern Irish population. Dublin renounced its claim to the indivisibility of Ireland. Sinn Fein accepted (for the time being) the integration of Ulster within the United Kingdom. In return, Ulster’s Catholics entered into a power sharing arrangement with the Protestant majority.

The most extremist fringe of the IRA, however, refused to recognize the agreement. The terrorist splinter group carried out a campaign of bombings that stalled the peace process for a number of years. This was because the disarmament of the IRA was one of the most important conditions for the birth of an autonomous and representative parliament including both opposing factions.

Tony Blair was the first leader to succeed in bringing Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness to table for the first time, face-to-face.

“Do you feel the weight of history on your shoulders Prime Minister?” (George Mitchell, the American special envoy for the peace process)

“It’s as if I have the Promised Land before me but I’m looking at it through the other side of the telescope.” (Tony Blair)

“This time there’s a chance.” (George Mitchell)

Have you said that to every Prime Minister?” (Tony Blair)

Yes, but this time I believe it.” (George Mitchell)

The Peace talks take place on the same day as Ian Paisley’s 15th marriage anniversary. As a result, Paisley has to leave St. Andrew’s, Scotland, where the talks are taking place, and return to Belfast that evening. Martin McGuinness accompanies him on the journey as per “protocol”.

“What ???” Paisley roars “You don’t think that we’re going to be attacked with surface-to-air missiles?”

It’s standard practice for politicians of opposing Irish factions to accompany each other when traveling abroad during the years of the Troubles in order to discourage terrorist attacks by either side.

However, in this case it seems that McGuiness wasn’t concerned with protocol as such but was actually worried that the elder Reverend Paisley would be persuaded to abandon the talks on his return to his “homeland” if he was left unattended. The two leave St. Andrew’s together on a stormy afternoon in October 2006 directed towards Belfast.

It’s still unknown what the two leaders said to each other during this trip.

This is where the film starts, which is a fictional account of a true story that ends up losing its “realism” due to an overdose of rhetoric and sarcasm. Paisley and McGuiness are almost caricatures of the real historical figures, especially in the case of Paisley, which prevents the undoubted talent of Timothy Spall from shining through.

The imaginary dialogue between the two main characters takes place during a car journey, in an abandoned church, at a gas station and in the woods; all under the watchful eye of a seemingly (and unrealistically) naive young driver.

In reality, the driver is an undercover agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service with clear instructions to prolong the journey as much as possible by resorting to rather predictable tactics such as faking an accident with a deer, a flat tire, running out of fuel etc.

Paisley is in a strong position compared to McGuinness, nervy and embarrassed yet determined to get his adversary to put his cards on the table.

“We’re doing something that the whole world will applaud us for, but will be a betrayal of our own people.” (Martin McGuinness)

Both are well aware that if talks fail the British and Irish governments will switch to “plan B” and take matters into their own hands to sort out the Irish question.

With this threat hanging over their heads, these two former sworn enemies enter into a political partnership that’s as miraculous as it effective, which brings about the birth of an autonomous government of Northern Ireland in 2007 led by Ian Paisley as First Minister and McGuiness as deputy First Minister.

THE JOURNEY is tale of the journey of the Irish people towards peace told through the story of the relationship of its main protagonists, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. It’s a celebration of a compromise against all plausible odds, and a strong message of hope that’s all the more valuable and in a world in which mainstream politics is being pushed to the extreme ends of the spectrum, and extremists are becoming always more radicalized.

“I believe that a united Ireland is inevitable. But it can only happen democratically. No conflict in the world can be solved without courageous leadership […]. It was not easy for me and Paisley to do what we did. This was leadership.” (McGuiness)

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