I switched on the radio on Monday morning and listened to a discussion on Nolan, which seemed all a little surreal. Or perhaps not, given the nature of Northern Ireland.
The topic was a new documentary film, Bobby Sands: 66 days. The discussion was hosted by Stephen Nolan, who informed us that he hadn’t seen the film. The main critic of the documentary being interviewed was DUP man, Nelson McCausland, who, er, hadn’t seen it either.
Danny Morrison was on; now, he had seen it but sure he’s a Shinner. And from what I could gather, most of the phone-in callers, if not all, hadn’t seen the film.
Little wonder then, I thought, that the film itself became merely a hook for a wide-ranging, predictable debate about the way our differing cultures are treated. Nelson fired down a serve attacking the BBC’s use of public money for a film about an IRA hunger striker; Danny returned serve with the assertion that the Beeb spent fortunes on covering the Twelfth, and put a little topspin on his volley with the charge that the DUP backed major funding of Orange bands when Arts budgets were being cut.
And so it went on. (The GAA came into it somewhere, too.)
I feel I have two advantages over many of those who took part in this discussion.
Firstly, I have seen the film.
And secondly, as a young reporter I covered (at very close quarters) the events of 1981 in Fermanagh-south Tyrone when Bobby Sands was elected as Westminster MP here, and later in the year his election agent, Owen Carron won the subsequent by-election when Bobby Sands died.
I very well recall those turbulent times. We had just come out of the dark and bloody decade of the 1970s, and far from seeing any prospect of light at the end of the tunnel, it seemed that the violence was taking us ever closer to the edge of the precipice of civil war. Suspicion and community strife extended to schoolchildren throwing stones at “the other side” as they waited for buses home.
Aside from all that, looking back now I feel that the year 1981 was a seminal one in our history. It marked significant change. Remember that before then, Sinn Fein didn’t fight any elections. I remember figures such as Owen Carron being interviewed and challenged to say whether they were even members of Sinn Fein. Usually the question was never directly answered.
And Carron has spoken since about the difficulties of persuading local venues, owned by Nationalists, to back the Sands campaign in the early stages.  It was all as if Nationalists and Republicans should just keep their heads down in Unionist-dominated Fermanagh.
That all changed when over 30,000 people voted for Sands and the world watched in amazement as events unfolded.
The mirror image was the shock within the Unionist community. Defeated Unionist leader, Harry West was quoted as saying “Now we know the type of people we live among”, but on the street the more embittered put it rather more crudely: “There’s 30,000 Provos in Fermanagh.”
The success of electoralism by Republicans in 1981 persuaded them to move further into the arena; within four years such was the surging confidence of the Nationalist community that Sinn Fein became the largest single party on Fermanagh District Council in their first election fight for it. And, arguably, 1981 sowed the seeds which saw the rise and rise of Sinn Fein which led Irish Republicanism into the peace process.
Think of the story of a young man such as Sands giving his life for his cause, the context of change in Irish history and the subsequent impact it had; the idea that this would not be the subject of study 35 years later is ridiculous. There would be something very seriously odd if historians, commentators, academics and film makers did not produce work looking at this story and the context of it.
And why would a public service broadcaster, particularly with its BBC Storyville remit, not contribute to such a work?
As regards the new film, as ever it meets with mixed reviews. Kay Hayes in The Sunday Times writes that it is “stylishly made, with poetic flourishes” and her piece is an intelligent and articulate look at the film in the context of other work focusing on the hunger strikers.
On the website Slugger O’Toole, Alan Meban finds it “a peculiar melange of styles and devices” but is generally positive about the documentary; but more so he suggests “Unionist politicians complaining about the film should save their breath until they’ve seen the completed work and then decide whether they even want to draw attention to the work.”
Personally, I found it a very powerful film, superbly made in cinematic terms. It was balanced, if only Unionists would pay attention to the nuances of the narrative. There is plenty of context, and Fintan O’Toole, hardly an advocate of the Provisional IRA, provides an insightful thread of commentary.  It gets deep into the psyche of the hunger striker, and even in 1981 I wondered why a young man roughly my own age would devote his life, and then sacrifice it, for his cause.
Unionists, on the other hand, do not attempt to understand any of this. Sammy Wilson, 35 years later, describes him as a criminal. McCausland and other critics feel the film shouldn’t have been funded, and we come back to the charge that Republicans are continuing to re-write history.
I get their concern in that regard, I really do. But putting their fingers in their ears, shutting their eyes and shouting la la la, will hardly challenge any narratives they don’t like.
I often feel that the siege mentality of 1981 when Unionist fears of being under attack for their very existence meant they viewed the Sands election as a further step along that road, and they put on the tin hats and retreated into the trenches. Understandable at the time, perhaps.
But this is 2016. We can surely start to open our minds to history, whether it be 1916’s Rising or the Somme. Bobby Sands is an important part of that history, and this film should be recognised for its qualities in examining it
I suspect many in the McCausland/Wilson wing won’t. Former Culture Minister, McCausland admitted on Nolan that he hadn’t been to the cinema in over 40 years and was pretty offhand about whether he would even bother to watch it in the company of his own home.
Plenty of others will get the opportunity to watch it; the film will be screened in Belfast at the end of July and then in almost 30 cinemas across Ireland.