Apparently Bobby Sands was an individualist performance artist; one who disarmed the Provos via self-mutilation and who used his body as an art piece, a blank canvass on which people could project whatever they wanted. Somehow or other, this caused the peace process, because Irish people’s inherent blood lust was quenched by sacrificing a young man to mythology.
This is, unpacked, what 66 Days has to say to us about the H-Block hunger strikes.
It is a very ideologically sophisticated film. It has been praised as ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ and it probably is, if balance is based off the consensus emerging from those who don’t care, or who don’t want to think about things like context, torture, extrajudicial murder, colonialism, poverty, discrimination, or the women of the period who organised the entire movement around the H-Blocks.
The film’s ideological centre, the decontextualising black hole that sucks everything into it, is Fintan O’Toole. He opens and closes the film and his message is how this film is to be perceived; it is his message that is what this film means, and all the other parts of the film are structured, edited and directed around his analysis. He comes across as fluent, charming, reasonable, moderate, which of course he is. But if you remember O’Toole’s slew of articles around that period, his life’s defining work, which you’re not supposed to, the whole mirage breaks into what it is: a mere partisan viewpoint, and a manipulation based on what is excluded.
The messaging he proposes, the non-context that frames the non-existent debate had by this film, is several words spoken by Terrence MacSwiny, Cork mayor, who went on hunger strike in 1920. He said that the legitimacy of struggle comes not from the suffering you inflict, but the suffering you suffer (and, even then, MacSwiney is lightly, and repeatedly, dissed by O’Toole). The only other options the film gives us for historical context is 1916, and some Irish bards who went on hunger strike back in the day, as though bards from a millennium ago had even a tangential impact on the republican struggle in the 1980’s.
What is not given as context is the material conditions of the Northern Irish. This renders these people as extremists from a distant, alien society, rather than people who were reacting to their circumstances.
There is, undoubtedly, some sympathy for Sands here, but it is a trap to draw you in. It is so individualised that identification with him becomes meaningless, and nearly entirely unrelated to the republican struggle. Because what you are supposed to relate to is Sands’ body, the idea of his body. The body, and its meaning in suffering.
So what is this suffering ideology that the film promotes set up against? What is it supposed to work on, and against? Well, the answer to that is very easy: Provo violence. You can’t miss it. They keep saying it. Everyone keeps saying it. If you believed this film you’d think nothing else ever happened in Northern Ireland, and that no one else, in this decontextualised and unhistoricised land, has any blood on their hands. It frames everything.
The Provo’s body count is mentioned three times. The violence of the British state, the UVF, the British military, goes unmentioned. The torture inflicted by the British state is also unmentioned. The wider movement around the H-block is unmentioned. The civilian shootings are, by and large, unmentioned. The targeted assassination of key republican organisers around the time, who organised peacefully and against violence, is unmentioned. Civil liberties get 30 seconds. And by the end of this onslaught of misinformation and selective framing, the film packs in a little sucker-punch: Bobby Sands paved the way for the peace process.
I, for one, did not see that coming.
History in this documentary is a tool used to enshrine the present and control the future and Bobby Sands has to become an empty signifier of peace and sacrifice, because, God forbid, he represented the Northern Irish working class who wanted to be Irish, a dogs-body of the IRA, a spokesperson for a communal dedication to a shared struggle, a tactically-astute mid-level leader, and God forbid he was the most visible expression of all those young men’s bodies, those unspoken-of bodies, not mentioned in the film, who were tortured by a messy, rogue state machine for merely living on the wrong street and having the wrong surname.
If someone did want to make a documentary on the body, a genuine documentary on the body, not one that uses the body as a depoliticising and individualising tool, one could look to those Northern Irish bodies that the British military honed and modernised their torture techniques on. That communal, intergenerational body that stretches to the victims of Abu Ghraib who were tortured using techniques the British military trialed in Northern Ireland, techniques they so generously shared with their American counterparts.
We’re still waiting on that documentary on the body, and we’re still waiting on a documentary of Bobby Sands, but, unfortunately, as has been made clear by this documentary, this will not happen until the archives of our history have to be made free.
There is something very repugnant about it costing hundreds of thousands of euros to access the history we ourselves created, footage of us suffering and being shot and teargassed, and then having it sold back to us at prices we cannot afford. This price tag means that this period, and any prior one, will always be mediated by a greater body whose idea of balance is to make a pacifying instrument of our living history.
At least, in regards to public access to archives, that is something the BBC has gotten right over the last 50 years.