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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 February 2022

Film review: Belfast

Worth watching portrayal of previously airbrushed workers' unity

Belfast

Belfast   (Click to enlarge)

Niall Mulholland, East London Socialist Party

Kenneth Branagh's semi-biographical film opens with images of modern-day Belfast, and then moves back in time (in black and white) to 15 August 1969, and the soundtrack of Van Morrison.

Most of the film is from nine-year-old Buddy's (Jude Hill) point of view. He has all the distractions of a boy - a crush on a schoolgirl friend, ambitions to be a footballer, trying incompetently to steal chocolate from a corner shop - while all around him the city descends into sectarian conflict.

Buddy's father (Jimmy Dornan) works as a joiner in England, is heavily in debt, and returns home every few weeks, leaving his mother (Caitríona Balfe) to bring up Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie).

The close-knit Protestant family includes Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), who is sick with a disease caused by working as a miner near Leicester. Their working-class house has an outside toilet, like many at the time. The family finds escape at the movies, where we see, for a short spell, colour on the screen.

Light and dark

The opening scene has all the light and dark that pervades Belfast. Buddy plays with his bin-lid shield and a wooden sword on his busy and friendly working-class Victorian street.

The sunny day is shattered by a rioting mob that has come to burn out the street's minority of Catholics. The residents resist the intruders.

A barricade is erected at the end of the street and manned by 'vigilantes'. British troops, ordered into Northern Ireland the day before by the Harold Wilson Labour government, smash through the barricade, but it is set up again.

Critics have found Belfast sentimental, a 'chocolate box' version of events. The film does have its weaknesses, and not just that it can be mawkish.

There are passing references to the civil rights struggle, but no real context - no explanation about the 50 years of Unionist state misrule and repression of Catholics. Nor is there any examination of why many Protestant working-class people had fears and concerns for their future, which were whipped up by bigoted politicians.

But whatever its weaknesses, the scenes of courageous efforts by working-class Protestant and Catholic neighbours to stop sectarian attacks ripping their communities apart - an aspect of 'Troubles' history that has been largely airbrushed out of most accounts - if for no other reason, does Belfast credit and means it deserves to be widely seen.

Local 'defence committees' and 'peace patrols' sprang up in many parts of Belfast and beyond in 1969, as Catholics and Protestants living in 'mixed areas' instinctively drew together to oppose sectarian pogroms. Trade union shop stewards in the industrial workplaces played a key role in organising workers against attempts by bigots to divide workers.

Tragedy

Tragically, the leadership of the labour and trade union movement did not draw all these actions together in a powerful force to push back the bigots, and to unite workers around a fight for jobs and decent homes for all, and against the sectarian 'Orange' and 'Green' bosses. An all-out civil war was avoided in 1969 and the early 1970s, but thousands were forced out of their homes, hundreds killed and sectarian divisions greatly enhanced.

By the film's end, the local thug who tries to wean Buddy's brother Will into his emerging loyalist gang is on the ascendance. He threatens Buddy's father, who refuses to take a sectarian 'side'. The family is faced with a heart-rending decision to stay in Belfast or leave for England, putting behind sectarian strife and debts but also close relatives.

For all its limitations, Belfast strikes a chord. As the lights went up at the cinema showing I attended in east London, there were tearful people from Ireland, north and south, of all ages.

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In The Socialist 2 February 2022:


News

Tories attack UC recipients with 'get any job' threat

NHS mandatory vaccination to be ditched

NI rise piled onto shoulders of the lowest paid

Gas and electric bills set to soar by 50% this year

Covering basic costs is hard, and it's getting worse


International news

Ukraine: Workers' unity needed

Northern Ireland: Bloody Sunday 50 years on

School students strike in Austria

Coup d'état in Burkina Faso

France: Education workers and students walkout


TUSC

Tories Out!

Dave Nellist standing for Birmingham Erdington

Why a socialist candidate for Birmingham Erdington is vital

Hackney Unison to encourage anti-cuts candidates

Essex cuts racket must end

Portsmouth: Council workers leaving and tenants' double whammy

TUSC by-elections round-up


Workers fighting back

The winter strike wave escalates as workers fight back and win

NHS workers begin strike for 15% and against outsourcing

Victory at NewVIc college! 'The picket line gives us power'

Coventry bins: all-out against strike-breaking Labour council

Scunny scaffs strike restarts with a bang, barricades and a win!

PCS 2022 elections

Workplace news in brief


Campaigns news

Tories sinking, workers rising - help fund the socialist fightback

May Day Greetings: Back the paper that backs the working class

Why I joined: I'm tired of austerity and status quo

Socialist Students getting organised for 2 March walkout


Review

Belfast: Worth watching portrayal of previously airbrushed workers' unity


 

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