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From: The Socialist issue 831, 29 October 2014: Millions robbed by greedy bosses

Search site for keywords: Northern Ireland - Film - Belfast - IRA - Catholic - Army

Film review: On the streets of Belfast in 1971

The British army was sent to Northern Ireland, not to defend beleaguered Catholics but to defend private property and British imperialism

The British army was sent to Northern Ireland, not to defend beleaguered Catholics but to defend private property and British imperialism   (Click to enlarge)

Bill Mullins

This film, on general release, shows what it was like for a newly sent over British soldier during a few days in Belfast in 1971. He finds himself in a nightmare situation, lost in the city's back alleys after his unit was forced to withdraw from their first venture on to Belfast's streets.

The British army was sent to Northern Ireland, not to defend beleaguered Catholics but to defend private property and the interests of British imperialism. '71 does not explain why things happened as they did in Northern Ireland at the time, but it is an extraordinary film.

Private Cook, the central character, is a Derbyshire lad who has no idea what he is going to do when his infantry unit is sent to Northern Ireland.

1971 was a time of great changes in the north, which is partly captured on the film. It includes the start of the split between the official IRA ('the stickies') and a new generation of the IRA who quickly became the Provisional IRA, especially after Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972.

In an early scene the company commander tells Cook and his fellow soldiers they were being sent to Belfast "because of the developing situation". The officer told them that Belfast was 'in the UK' and therefore not an overseas posting. As one soldier says "I thought we were going to Germany".

In Belfast the squaddies, with their equally raw lieutenant, are introduced to the streets on their second day to "back up the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)" who were conducting house-to-house searches in the Catholic areas.

The RUC's sectarian nature quickly becomes clear to Cook as they ruthlessly search houses and beat up men and women, all the time screaming "Fenian bastards".

The local population launch bricks at the soldiers, who begin to grasp the hatred towards them from the Catholic population they are sent to oppress and the sectarian nightmare they are involved in.

Undercover soldiers

Their barracks has a special unit of undercover soldiers dressed as civilians. Cook sees them give a homemade bomb to the local UDA (protestant militia) and encourage them to blow up a catholic social club. Instead the bomb goes off prematurely and kills everyone in a protestant bar.

The plot then swings between the younger IRA members searching for Cook, who was left behind by his unit, and the older official IRA man trying to call them off.

At one stage he is picked up, injured after the bomb went off, by a Catholic father and daughter from the Divis flats area. The young woman is dubious that this is "collaborating with the enemy" but her father says he had been in the British army for 20 years himself as a medic.

Saying to the soldier that the army is nothing more than "posh c...., telling thick c..... To kill poor c......" it is him who contacts the local official IRA leader.

In the end the SAS, with the collusion of the local Official IRA commander, trap the dissident group and shoot nearly all of them (including trying to kill Cook because he saw them handing the bomb to the UDA). The SAS officer tells the leader Quinn that he expects him to work with the army "from now on".

Don't expect to see a worked out explanation of "the troubles" but '71 is well worth seeing.

An Irish socialist's comments

The alienation, bitterness, fear and claustrophobia of 1971 in Ireland are captured convincingly in this film which is well worth seeing.

But the film portrays the ordinary squaddie as somehow neutral, in contrast to the partisan RUC and the manipulative, murderous special army unit, the Military Reaction Force.

In reality the British Army's regular regiments were to the fore in the fierce repression dealt out to the Catholic working class. The result was a rising tempo of violence as the year progressed.

Catholic workers and youth were rebelling against a regime that had held them down for 50 years.


The tragedy is that they were taken down the cul-de-sac of individual terrorism which had no prospect of success and only divided the working class.

It didn't have to be this way. In the months covered by the film, Northern Ireland's working-class were taking part in the largest industrial movement since the 1926 general strike.

In a postal workers strike in January 1971 only eight of 2,000 postmen turned up for work. Between 30,000 and 40,000 workers in the North took part in two one day strikes in protest at the Industrial Relations Bill.

The strikes demonstrated the power of the working-class but the leadership was weak and lacked any semblance of class understanding. This remains the case today.

We must strive to build organisations of the working class with the resolute, far-sighted and socialist leadership to change history.

Ciaran Mulholland

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