In the Shadow of the Butchers: Loyalist Paramilitaries on Film

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EXT. OCCUPIED IRELAND – DAY. Aerial shot flying over the rugged Irish countryside. Livestock, tractors, buildings below zip through our view as if in a model railway set. The drumming of the bodhran and mournful uilleann pipes. Cut to A VILLAGE CROSSROADS. Angle on our hero, Fergus O’Reilly (Mark Wahlberg), an IRA volunteer. Jaw set, handsome with his combat jacket and blonde sweepback ¾-length mullet. His eyes narrow as a British Army Land Rover heaves round a corner in the middle distance. Hands tighten around the command wire detonator in his hands. One press of the button will complete the firing circuit, bring revenge upon the invaders who 20 years ago killed his parents, razed their cottage to the ground, and set fire to their sheep. But at the last moment the Land Rover slows unexpectedly, and Fergus accidentally blows up a car full of nuns transporting a piece of the True Cross to Drogheda.

So goes the typical Troubles film. Unsurprisingly for a 30 year long struggle taking place in a western society with universal literacy, a highly-developed media, and a strong creative tradition, the Troubles in Northern Ireland produced an almost countless number of artistic interpretations and reflections on the conflict. No less than any other societal upheaval, the convulsive violence, political strife, and daily human tragedy provided a seemingly unending supply of source material or inspiration. Popular fiction and literature are represented in abundance with the CAIN website listing scores of works on the conflict, ranging through disposable spy/SAS thrillers to more serious works such as Bernard McClaverty’s affecting Cal, adapted for film in 1983. The mere mention of Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades series of young adult romantic novels is enough to induce flashbacks in those who were teenagers during the seventies and eighties.

Military and espionage thrillers, the staples of garage forecourts and airport lounges, naturally abound for those who require hyper-competence or technologically invincible protagonists. At the same time the IRA, with its secrecy, romanticism, and well-cultivated self-mythology, has proven an endlessly fascinating creature for novelists and film-makers alike. The bibliography was sufficiently extensive to provide Brighton bomber Patrick Magee with material and inspiration for a PhD thesis, published via a republican press as Gangsters or Guerillas?. The role of informers and agents in particular has been revisited so many times that the IRA tout is practically allowed a sub-genre of his own, from the treacherous Gypo Nolan of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer to 1998’s Shadow Dancer by ITN journalist Tom Bradby. Both were subsequently adapted into films, the former a 1935 John Ford classic (itself a remake of an earlier film), the latter in 2012 which at least minimally broke with convention by featuring a female protagonist, played by Andrea Riseborough.

The two films focused on here, 1997’s Resurrection Man and Nothing Personal, from 1995, are likewise both adaptations – in the field of Troubles cinema adaptations predominate over original screenplays. They are unusual in two ways however: both were rewritten for the screen by their original authors, Eoin McNamee and Daniel Mornin respectively, and both take loyalist paramilitaries as their subject matter. In common with the written word, and likely for similar reasons, the IRA has consistently been a far more alluring choice of subject matter for film-makers. For one thing, the IRA is internationally known: most Hollywood screenwriters and directors (and British for that matter) are not familiar the UVF or UDA, which is not helped by the comparatively limited documentary sources for research. America also has a ready-made market in the form of large population which is either Irish-descended or self-identifies as such, and the appeal of the Emerald Isle is sufficient that even the rest of the country can usually be counted on to consume anything which is painted green and has a plastic leprechaun stuck on it.

One end of the “IRA movie” spectrum is represented by the likes of The Devil’s Own, a stupid and ignorant 1997 thriller which, despite the presence of Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, is distinguished primarily by an inadvertently hilarious opening shoot-out that resembles the climactic scene of The Wild Bunch, in which Pitt’s gang of photogenic Ferguses, Seans, and Seamuses (in Hollywood minds IRA men are always named Fergus, Sean, or Seamus) kill more members of the British Army than the actual IRA managed in the last three years before the 1994 ceasefire. The other is typified by Hunger, Steve McQueen’s portentous and self-important 2008 debut dealing with Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strike. Hunger received a near rapturous critical reception, as rigidly formalist cinema filled with empty but well-shot and professionally composed scenes often does. Being open to interpretation they provide hollow vessels into which the reviewer can pour subjective analysis. As a former conceptual artist and Turner Prize winner, McQueen understands the value of a cryptic image which appears as if it should mean something even if it doesn’t necessarily, and in the hands of a broadsheet columnist with a knowledge of film theory and an enormous forehead a five minute dialogue-free static shot of a man pushing urine down a corridor with a squeegee can be interpreted to mean just about anything.

These two examples merely demonstrate the breadth and wealth of IRA-focused cinema, which is also represented by better films (e.g. The Crying Game, Cal). Loyalists are afforded only silent walk-on roles in both: as woolly-faced assassins who set Brad Pitt up for a lifetime of vengeance in The Devil’s Own, and a stony-faced golem with UDA tattoos in Hunger, whose only purpose is to inflict further indignity upon Sands. Who is this man? A prison employee? A conforming loyalist prisoner? The part is so minor and incidental that he is not afforded even the most basic characterisation.

While loyalism and the Protestant working class have featured on the small screen a number of times, most notably in Graham Reid’s much-loved “Billy Plays”, the paramilitary groups which spring from them have been the subject of just three feature films. The Grasscutter, an oddball z-grade thriller from New Zealand of all places, tells the story of a resettled ex-supergrass. As an outlier, in all senses, which merely uses loyalist paramilitarism as a scenery cut-out we can disregard it. This leaves Resurrection Man and Nothing Personal.

Liam (John Lynch) in the aftermath of the pub bombing which opens Nothing Personal.

Liam (John Lynch) in the aftermath of the pub bombing that opens Nothing Personal.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

With this quote from WB Yeats’ Second Coming and the insistent pounding of the bodhran, the busy pub scene which Nothing Personal opens with could hardly be more laden with studied, and somewhat familiar, foreboding. This is “Belfast, 1975” and we are in “a Protestant bar”, as the title cards helpfully inform us. Amongst the drinkers are a group of off-duty RUC officers and, watching from across the room, an IRA man. He drinks quickly, anxiously, and departs leaving behind a satchel bomb which promptly explodes. In what seems to be intended as a poignant twist, the policemen leave the bar before the blast (of course, in the real “Belfast, 1975” the IRA did not need the presence of policemen as a pretext for bombing pubs).

The subsequent events take place over 48 hours, shot almost entirely at night. In the aftermath of the bombing Liam Kelly, a Catholic, picks through the wreckage and helps soldiers pull bodies from beneath the rubble. Liam is played by John Lynch, an excellent and underrated actor who previously starred in the title role of Cal as a conflicted IRA man (is there any other kind in film?) who embarks on a doomed affair with his victim’s widow. Here Lynch portrays Kelly as a pensive widower burdened with unspoken sorrows yet desperate to shield his two small children, Kathleen and Young Liam, from the full horror of the conflict. As an unambiguously decent character in a film populated with gunmen and glowering with incipient menace his future is not so much foreshadowed as advertised with a 40ft animated neon sign.

Meanwhile across the city two loyalist gunmen, Kenny (James Frain) and his subordinate Ginger (Ian Hart), lurk outside a nationalist drinking club awaiting the exit of a known IRA man. Frustrated by his non-appearance, Ginger instead selects and callously guns down a random patron whom he then mutilates post-mortem with a straight razor, appearing to delight in these acts.

Ginger (Ian Hart) approaches his victim.

It transpires that a paramilitary ceasefire is in place and this unsanctioned killing prompts a tense meeting between the two sides; loyalists under command of Leonard Wilson (Michael Gambon) and republicans headed by Cecil (Gerard McSorley). Face is superficially maintained and seemingly only the minor unrelated matter of kneecapping a flasher agreed to, but Wilson quietly orders the execution of the out-of-control Ginger – to be carried out by Kenny. There is a riot later that night and Liam goes out to man the barricades, while on the loyalist side Kenny and Ginger likewise play their part. Petrol bombs are produced, a nationalist rioter is burned alive by Ginger, and in the aftermath Liam is pursued into loyalist territory where he is badly beaten. Stumbling through unfamiliar and dangerous ground, he is taken in by Ann (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who, through cinematic contrivance, happens to be Kenny’s estranged wife.

Her father’s absence draws Kathleen and friend Michael into a twilight search beyond the peaceline, while teenaged Tommy (Rúaidhrí Conroy), only a few years older yet already inhabiting an adult world, is pulled into the orbit of Kenny and Ginger’s team and accompanies them on another unsanctioned operation. The spraying of the republican club reveals further cracks in the fraying relationship between Kenny and the increasingly unpredictable Ginger, but with grim inevitability the fleeing gang stray across an injured Liam making his way home, abduct him, and take him back to a loyalist shebeen. There they subject him to a “rompering”: tied to a chair, beaten, pistol-whipped, questioned about IRA activities. The film fully commits to melodrama when it is revealed that Kenny and Liam are childhood friends who grew up in the same pre-Troubles neighbourhood. Finding pity within himself for his broken captive, Kenny overrules Ginger’s demand for execution and frees Liam. But at that moment Kathleen and Michael come upon the gang and a bloodied Liam; Michael, enraged, accidentally shoots Kathleen dead with a stolen gun, and as Kenny’s team take flight they run into an army patrol called in by Leonard to finally end their chaotic spree. Kenny finally dispatches Ginger and in doing so seals his own fate as the army riddle the car with automatic gunfire. A brief coda shows Liam and the widowed Ann at the coinciding funerals of Kathleen and Kenny – two more casualties of the conflict, separated by politics in life but brought together in death.

Resurrection Man ups the foreboding stakes by opening to the sound of a tolling bell and cautions of murder, gangsters, and blood. Only the barest of exposition – “January 1975” in a “divided city” – is offered…Troubles-era Belfast exists here only as a nameless dystopia. A young boy points a revolver at the viewer before the camera spins round and homes in on protagonist Victor Kelly (Stuart Townshend). Kelly’s overbearing mammy (Brenda Fricker) intones cod-profundities over slow-mo images of the pallid, corpse-like Victor drawing a pistol, flashbacks to childhood and gangster movies at the Empire. Where Nothing Personal is earnest and didactic, Resurrection Man is exploitative and nasty. The film proceeds immediately to scenes of torture – paramilitary boss Darkie Larche (John Hannah) invites Kelly and his gang to “try their luck” with a bloodied Catholic captive. Kelly cuts the man’s throat and like Ginger in Nothing Personal revels in the act, but unlike the preceding film there is a clearly-implied fetishistic, sexualised element to Victor’s violence.

Paramilitary bosses Darkie Larche (John Hannah, left) and Sammy McClure (Sean McGinley, right)

Paramilitary bosses Darkie Larche (John Hannah, left) and Sammy McClure (Sean McGinley, right) in Resurrection Man

The film moves in a loose, episodic, even plotless manner. Kelly’s violent potential attracts the attention of two figures. The first takes the seedy form of street preacher-cum-terrorist leader Sammy McClure (Sean McGinley), impressed by the younger man’s capacity for torture and, for some reason, his leather jacket. The other is wife-beating boozehound newshound Ryan (James Nesbitt), who obsessively pursues Victor and his gang as his personal life disintegrates around him. Ryan would be the most unpleasant character in just about any other film, but here he is the closest thing the viewer has to an audience surrogate.

Spurred on by McClure, Victor carries out more torture killings, and recruits simpleton Hacksaw who botches a punishment shooting. Arrested by veteran cop Herbie Ferguson (Derek Thompson) for the murder, Victor smothers his accomplice in jail and once released resumes killing with even greater intensity. As Ryan finds himself drawn dangerously close to his quarry, a paranoid and drug-addled Victor goes into hiding. He invites Ryan to meet him at the abandoned building where he is holed up. There Ryan finds a badly mutilated Darkie barely clinging to life; it is heavily implied that the reporter, manipulated by Victor, shoots him in a mercy killing. Eventually even McClure realises that his charge has become too unstable. He tips off Ryan that Victor is to be “done” and offers him the chance to intervene – should he wish. Victor is duly gunned down the next day as he visits his mother – the assassins are never named, but presumably IRA – his killing witnessed by Ryan and McClure, who coldly puts the final bullet in his protégé. Later, as reporters and cameramen gather around the scene, Ryan symbolically walks away.

Informed readers will no doubt have already perceived that neither Nothing Personal nor Resurrection Man spring from wholly fictitious origins. Both draw considerably from the notorious real-life case of Lenny Murphy and the so-called “Shankill Butchers”, or more accurately from the account given in Martin Dillon’s highly popular 1989 book of the same name, which remains the major analysis of it. Neither film features an organisation called the UVF, a few hints aside, or characters named Lenny Murphy, Basher Bates, or Billy Moore, but no mistake should be made. The preface “based on a true story” is not necessary to inform us that both are strongly, directly, inspired by popular accounts of the “Butchers”. Resurrection Man in particular practically lifts wholesale certain events from Dillon’s account and therefore it is worth summarising the known facts of the case.

Between 1972 and his death at the hands of the Provisional IRA ten years later, Hugh Leonard Thompson “Lenny” Murphy (he himself used the spelling “Lennie”) spent no more than 18 months in freedom, yet his actions during this brief time led to a notoriety which remains unsurpassed even to this day. It is not possible to date exactly when he was sworn into the UVF although it was prior to 1972, and contrary to what Martin Dillon has written he joined the adult organisation directly, not the Young Citizen Volunteers.

Taken into custody for the September 1972 murder of Ted Pavis, he escaped conviction by poisoning a co-accused who had agreed to turn Queen’s Evidence. Nonetheless he was promptly arrested on the courthouse steps and interned under the Special Powers Act. Along with the other internees he was billeted in Compound 11, then commanded by John McKeague, where for a period he held the rank of Company Sergeant-Major. Later, after a move to C12, he became a discipline problem for the jail leadership headed by Gusty Spence.

1975 and the phased withdrawal of internment or detention orders saw Murphy released back onto the streets at a time of peak UVF militancy and savage violence. In this atmosphere he took command of No4 Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, known as the Lawnbrook or Lawnbrook/Brown Bear team. Among the actions he led in this period were an armed robbery at a Millfield bottling plant which he advanced to multiple murder seemingly on a whim, and a botched attack on Catholic construction workers which left two Protestants dead. By mid-’76 he was back in jail, this time for firearms possession, where once again he quarrelled with the paramilitary leadership and disdained authority.

With generous remission Murphy served six years and was released in July 1982. Once again he was free, and once again he made his return during a period of organisational turbulence for the UVF, this time as a result of the supergrasses who had turned on it. The testimony of Joe Bennett in particular had led to the arrest and long-term remand of a number of senior figures, creating voids at battalion and brigade level and few experienced activists to fill them. It was in these circumstances that the newly-released Murphy briefly became commander of the UVF’s 1st Battalion covering west Belfast, one of the group’s most important operational posts, a role which brought with it the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. By the time of his death a few months later he no longer held the position but in fitting with protocol was buried as Lt Col.

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This, for what it is worth, is a highly abbreviated biography of Lenny Murphy’s paramilitary career, and as much of what is circulated about him is hearsay or speculation it errs on the side of caution. One must also be circumspect for legal reasons. But the acts which have made his name and that of the “Shankill Butchers” shorthand for sectarian brutality were a string of killings carried out over an two-year period where victims were abducted, then tortured and mutilated with knives, meat cleavers, and hatchets. It is hard not to be affected by the tragic and often pathetic details of these killings. Their victims were typically the weak and vulnerable, slain in ways which most of us find depraved and incomprehensible. Not all of those killed were alive when they were mutilated, but this hardly lessens the agony of those families forced to endure the double blow of identifying the body and the denial of an open casket wake and funeral. Murphy initiated and was the mastermind behind these killings although the majority were carried out after his arrest and imprisonment, on his orders, by the remaining gang he assembled for this purpose, which was made up principally of certain members of his platoon. The campaign came to an end in May 1977 after one of their victims survived an attack and, with considerable courage, identified his attackers. Within the UVF itself attitudes towards Murphy are mixed. There are those who see little difference ultimately between his methods and more conventional shootings or bombings. Some are indifferent, uninterested, or fatigued by the subject. Then there are those who frankly describe him and his men as “animals”. The organisation has never disowned Murphy but nor has it memorialised him in the manner of other senior members killed during the conflict.

The matter of Lenny Murphy and Dillon’s account of his gang will be returned to. The first pertinent question get out of the way is, how accurate are Nothing Personal and Resurrection Man as depictions of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and specifically of loyalist paramilitaries? In Nothing Personal the organisation to which Kenny, Ginger, et al belong is never named but the preponderance of black leather jackets and the presence of a partially-obscured UVF poster on office wall suggests the illegal loyalist grouping. Neither was filmed in Belfast but Nothing Personal, which used locations in Dublin, passes for it well. In Resurrection Man Warrington and Manchester manage to successfully conjure up a sense of dismal and decayed place thanks to some good cinematography and use of location (both films originate from the time before digital colour grading and look all the better for it). Nothing Personal is quite good at details; the loyalist club is sufficiently authentic. The attention to detail is imperfect, however. Frain’s leather trousers owe more to Andreas Baader than Gusty Spence, and his bizarre centre-parted jheri-curl hairdo is strangely reminiscent of Eriq La Salle in Coming To America.

The first killing in Nothing Personal accurately reflects the not-uncommon tendency for some loyalist paramilitaries to settle for a random touch when their republican target could not be found. As a device, the subsequent meeting between loyalist and republican representatives in Nothing Personal gives the characters a chance to enunciate motivations, explain the wider political context (always difficult to deal with in Troubles films), but it is unavoidably artificial. The actual brigade staff in control of the UVF in 1975 had killed one former member, Jim Hanna, at least partly for meeting the IRA, and attempted to kill another for the same reason.

Loyalist leader Leonard Wilson (Michael Gambon, left) meets Cecil (Gerard McSorley, right) and his republican delegation

Loyalist leader Leonard Wilson (Michael Gambon, left) meets Cecil (Gerard McSorley, right) and his republican delegation

Nothing Personal shows loyalists cruising for targets without the precaution of masks or gloves. This is not altogether inaccurate for the period: a former member of the UDA remarked to this writer that in the 70s retaliatory shootings were often hastily planned if not impulsive, although hijacked and disposable transport was more the norm. The phenomenon of “travelling gunmen” was well known, as was the tactic of spraying nationalist bars with gunfire. The scene where Liam is abducted off the street, taken back to a loyalist club to be beaten and interrogated about IRA activities – “rompered” in the parlance of the times – is sadly also true to life. Steve Bruce:

Victims, often drunks picked up as they tottered home or people stopped at ‘no-go’ barricades, were taken to some secluded place, where they were tortured as an accompaniment to what passed for interrogation. The assumption (not in every case unreasonable) was that any Catholic knew something about the IRA, and sufficient brutality would release that knowledge.

The romper room was pioneered by the UDA in the early 70s, reputedly the invention of the killer of Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews, Davy Payne.

Nothing Personal possesses a strong cast and some good performances, with Northern Irish natives augmented by southern and English or Scottish actors. This is disappointing – the Ulster accent is notoriously difficult to imitate and not all are up to the task – but unavoidable given the small pool of indigenous performers: BJ Hogg pops up in both films, in compliance with the unwritten law which states that any film about the Troubles must feature at least one member of the Give My Head Peace cast, preferably BJ Hogg. John Lynch is particularly good in the role of Liam. With his long Irish face and air of perpetually suppressed anguish he looks like an apostle or saint from some 17th Century painting, although the film thankfully (and wisely) avoids the temptation to slip in cheap and pretentious symbolism in the form of a crucifixion pose or associated Christ imagery, which Resurrection Man tellingly does not. Lynch’s performance during the rompering scene especially is outstanding.

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Nothing Personal
is superficially credible then, but it is not semi-documentary or verite. Few who found themselves inside the romper rooms ever escaped; the reality of 1975 would probably find Liam’s body stuffed into a suitcase somewhere around the 90-minute mark. Its loyalist paramilitaries are basically generic and historical or political nuances are unexplored in favour of universally appealing and rather stagey dramas. Kenny the platoon commander at least possesses a plausible inner world. In dedicating himself to terrorism he has sacrificed his wife and family. He “gets his head down” in a dingy bedsit where he complains of having no friends; his primary human contacts are fellow paramilitants, and various women who transit through his bed without emotional attachment. Thus he knows that carrying out Leonard’s order to execute Ginger risks irrevocably damaging what little relationships and life he clings to, even though he realises that Ginger is a sadist: “You friggin’ love it, don’t you!?” he yells at him after mercy-killing the rioter he torched.

If there is a flaw with any of the characters it is that Liam is fundamentally too decent. He takes part in a street battle at an interface, but apparently more out of concern that the fighting will reach his home and children if he does not, than sense of belligerence or tribal hatred. He chastely rejects the advances of Kenny’s estranged wife. A further problem with Nothing Personal is that once the film’s melodramatic nature has been established its characters become in a way component parts moving in an orderly fashion towards all too obvious tragedy. When one scene literally introduces Chekhov’s Gun and immediately places it in the hand of a child we hardly need guess what happens next.

The film is worthy enough and at least possesses enough nuance for the uninformed viewer to deduce from what is on screen that not all loyalists or Protestants are cruel, psychotic, or militant. It is not, however, a complimentary portrait of loyalist paramilitaries, and owes a fair debt – although not nearly as much as Resurrection Man – to Martin Dillon’s account of the UVF in the 1975-77 period in “The Shankill Butchers”.

Recognising that no film drama is obliged to educate the viewer or serve as a documentary, Resurrection Man is in no sense even an accurate depiction of loyalist paramilitaries, or actually a film about loyalist paramilitaries at all. Indeed the issues specific to the Ulster conflict and which give it its own unique character are given scant regard by the filmmakers. The considerations of paramilitary structure and internal politics, ideology – potentially the very ingredients of a good drama – never make an appearance. The exact date, names of organisations, even that of the city have been stripped out. The story of Victor Kelly could essentially have been set anywhere. Yet while skipping the specifics to create a sort of macabre dreamscape in which to explore the psychology of the main character – Victor lapses into an almost trance-like state when cruising for victims – Resurrection Man wishes to have its cake and eat it. Some stylistic and editorial modifications aside it transposes the real-life story of the Shankill Butchers, or rather Martin Dillon’s story, into a fictional setting. Any shortcomings within the antecedent text are also absorbed into the fictional work.

Before stating anything else it is important that Dillon be credited for his persistence, depth of research, and unflinching analysis in the face of the frequently horrific details of the case. This being said, that very analysis is problematic in that it contains a not-insignificant amount of supposition, unsupported anecdote, and plain guesswork, which the author does not always make explicit. Dillon is a skilled prose writer and crafts a compelling narrative, but at times the book (and the later Trigger Men) reads more like true crime and serial killer non-fiction, more in keeping with the work of Brian Masters, than an analysis of political violence. There are many questionable psychoanalytical asides, for example:

What is staggering about the story of Lenny Murphy is that, in a section of a relatively small city by world standards, he managed to recruit so many people with tendencies similar to his own. It would be akin to the American serial killer, Ted Bundy, having been the leader of a gang of murderers in his likeness…

Dillon seems to recognise the inherent improbability of this hypothesis – that every man who took part in the killings had a violent personality disorder – but is unshakeable in this conviction, and even dismisses professional clinical evaluations of the convicted. He does not appear to understand the distinction between, and at times conflates, mental illness (which is treatable) and personality disorder (which is not).

One of the most enduring theories concocted by Dillon, repeated in Resurrection Man, is that Murphy developed a pathological hatred of Catholics as a result of being taunted about his “Taig” surname. This is a classic piece of amateur psychology and one for which there is no real supporting evidence. Murphy is a faintly uncommon name amongst Protestants but it is not unusual by any means. A glance at a list of UVF prisoners in Long Kesh from the 1970s reveals plenty “Taig” names, such as Galway, McCracken, Quinn, Kirkpatrick, McCartney, O’Neill, even an O’Malley…presumably all incarcerated for fits of nominative homicidal rage. He also claims that Murphy used the name Len or Lenny over Hugh as the former sounded less Catholic!

Dillon’s account also depicts Lenny Murphy’s father, William Sr, as an ineffectual, weak-willed character, one who retreated into non-sociability in the face of loyalist gossip painting him as a crypto-Catholic. Like much of the book, Resurrection Man enthusiastically takes up this line and its portrayal of Victor’s father is of a mouse-like man disdained by his wife and son. There is no truth to either depiction: in fact, Billy Murphy Sr was also a member of the UVF, although it is unlikely he was “active”, as his sons Lenny and John were. As such loyalists would have been well aware of his background and sympathies. This key element of Dillon’s psychological profile is little more than conjecture.

Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’s assertion in the foreword that “the Shankill Butchers remain unique […] the Provisional IRA never unleashed on society anyone quite like Lenny Murphy” has been much repeated. If by this he meant that IRA men did not use knives or torture, or purposely mutilate their victims, then it is also contestable. The early days of the conflict and advent of tit-for-tat sectarian killings saw a series of murders by the IRA or republican gangs involving torture and/or the use of knives, which for obvious reasons the republican movement has never admitted responsibility and probably never will. Though it does not excuse the response, which was equally savage and on a greater scale, the abduction and torture of Tommy Kells in October 1971 is cited by some loyalists as being an important driver for the so-called “Protestant backlash” and possible inspiration for similar attacks on Catholics. At least a dozen and possibly more victims were killed in such manner by the IRA or associated groups around this time. Nearly a decade passed before the next wave of fatal stabbings took place in 1980 and ’81 during the tense months of the hunger strikes. A republican knife gang (or gangs) operating in west Belfast were responsible for at least four frenzied killings, including those of George Hall and Robert Campbell, and three attempted murders which for many years the RUC declined to class as Troubles-related. Arguably the worst of these incidents was the dreadful murder of 87yr old William Younger and his daughter Letitia at their home in Ligoniel. Protestants living in a largely Catholic area, the pensioner was battered and shot in his bed while his daughter was beaten, stabbed and pinned to the floor with a pitchfork, then shot multiple times. Furthermore the treatment of Eamonn Collins, Paul Quinn, Robert McCartney, and Corporals Woods & Howe clearly demonstrates that the IRA is capable of employing the same grisly methods when it deems it necessary.

These incidents excepted, it is in broad terms true that the Provisional IRA avoided such attacks. The torturers of the IRA were usually kept under strict control and only unleashed on those deemed informers, whose ill-treatment was unlikely to arouse outrage or indignation amongst the organisation’s support base in the south and USA.

Ryan (James Nesbitt, left) and veteran reporter Coppinger (the late Jimmy Ellis, right)

Ryan (James Nesbitt, left) and veteran reporter Coppinger (the late Jimmy Ellis, right)

Resurrection Man itself has major structural faults as a film. Ryan is the ostensibly the protagonist, but the majority of screen time is given over to Victor. The story should naturally unfold via his viewpoint – in film, journalists are detective substitutes – but does not. This would not be a problem in a novel, but it makes for a messy and unfocused film. Of the two main characters Ryan is barely sympathetic and Victor is positively repellent. The remainder of the dramatis personae is little better: a stereotype of a Protestant mammy who does everything except wield a frying pan; a bleached, vacant tart; a murderous dunce; and a pair of hat-wearing paramilitary eejits. Who, out of this array of undesirables, is the audience supposed to identify with, much less care for? Hacksaw, a man so stupid that when handed a pistol he stares at it and turns it over in his hands like a chimp with a teacup? As with Nothing Personal these are generic-brand, Tesco Value paramilitaries but a partially-obscured UVF mural on a wall gives another hint as to the script’s inspiration. Of the few characters not lifted from Dillon, McClure appears to be based on Tara leader William McGrath, or may simply be a depraved caricature of one of the better known preacher-politicians who flirted with paramilitarism. And as a Lenny Murphy stand-in, Stuart Townsend is too pretty to portray a man who was reputedly nicknamed “Planet of the Apes” for his resemblance to Roddy McDowell in the film of the same name.

It throws in one of the oldest and most threadbare clichés in the book by associating latent or repressed homosexuality with death and deviancy. Victor simulates oral sex with a gun while gazing at McClure and Darkie Larche across a crowded pub lounge. McClure is himself implied to be gay – he shows Victor photographs of “English boys in bed together”. One particularly inane scene annihilates any credibility Resurrection Man may have as a representation of 1970s loyalists. In the back room of a pub Victor and McClure – in SS cap complete with Totenkopf – variously snort cocaine, drink whisky, quote scripture, decry Fenians and praise Nazism, paw each other, and only narrowly avoid a kiss…all while “Jerusalem” plays in the background. The bogus allusions and images arrive so fast they pile up on top of one another. The sexual subtext running through the film is clear; Kelly becomes inert and refractory after killing, and his relationship with his mother is somewhat unwholesome, if not blatantly Oedipal. Its use of popular music and tricky camerawork is Scorsese-lite with none of the deftness or wit of Scorsese. The infamous “Tiger Feet” scene where a Catholic is beaten and kicked senseless to Mudd’s eponymous hit – causing walk-outs at one critics screening – neither works as pastiche or demented black comedy.

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While the tropes of the gangster genre are employed frequently and overtly by both Nothing Personal and Resurrection Man, Stephen Baker, who has written extensively on the topic of loyalism in film and TV, perceptively identifies the debt the latter film owes to horror, and more specifically vampire films. In fact it is striking just how closely it conforms to the conventions of the horror genre. Straight from the (screenwriting) manual, these include:

  • “A super- or supra-natural monster that is ‘evil’ to the core. This can be […] a serial killer”
  • “The horror story must place the main characters very ‘soul’ on the line. This can only happen if the audience comes to see how everyone (and hopefully even the audience) is implicated in the sin.”
  • “The hero is saved because they come to understand the sin and feel guilty and implicated. This allows them to change their behaviour in time.”

Victor is Resurrection Man‘s Nosferatu. Ryan risks his soul, or at least moral corruption, through his fascination with the case. His arc is fulfilled when he reconciles with his wife, abandons or concludes the investigation, and gains self-insight in the realisation that although flawed he is fundamentally different from the likes of Victor. The villain never develops. He appears fully formed, kills people, and exits without learning anything or edifying the viewer.

The theme of media complicity in reporting violence, and the ethics of objectivity and non-intervention, were explored in a much blunter and ultimately more satisfying fashion in the 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog. In that acerbic and bleakly comic work a documentary crew progressed from detachedly recording the casual murders of sociopath Ben to actively assisting him in knocking off random victims. That year also saw one of the best treatments of the matter in Clint Eastwood’s harshly revisionist western Unforgiven. The role of the media – represented by WW Beauchamp, an author of trashy dime novels – in mythologising and glamourising frontier violence is deconstructed when Beauchamp more or less stumbles across the ugly, prosaic reality: men drink whisky to face killing; who survives is more down to luck and a hard heart rather than skill; courage and honour are seldom seen.

Resurrection Man is at first sight recognisably a film about events which affected real people, and its tight adherence to Dillon’s text has the effect of feeding back into the folklore of the real-life case (an extensive folklore too. Consider this from Mary Nelis in An Phoblacht, writing about one of the victims: “[a]lthough he did not have a single grey hair on his head prior to his abduction, his corpse, when found, had hair as white as snow”). Most individuals are intelligent enough to tell fact from fiction, but in the collective mind these details sometimes become blurred. Resurrection Man may decontextualise the Troubles, but it is not above adorning itself with fragments from the real “Butchers” case – the headline “These Lunatic Murders” is from the period, as are others glimpsed briefly. Such decoration is one thing, but to appropriate the last words from the very mouth of a real person who died in agony, as the film does in its second murder scene, is indefensible. As Charlie Neeson, brother of one of the victims, said shortly before the film’s UK release:

There’s people still alive today who has escaped from these people, luckily enough, and there’s other people whose relatives didn’t escape and [the film] brings back the horrors that [were] perpetrated on them.

Nothing Personal received mixed critical reviews in the UK but generally good notices in the US. Variety dubbed it “totally riveting”, and called the performances “flawless”. The New York Times likewise praised the film while noting the contrived ending. Of the two it is undeniably the more satisfying film for anyone looking for an exploration, flawed as it is, of the Northern Ireland conflict and loyalist terror groups. But more than that, it also perhaps comes closest to identifying and portraying the most salient factors in the real-life cut-throat killings, although cognisance of them remains just out of its grasp.

In some ways the most interesting character in the film is not Kenny, the team’s leader, nor Ginger his psychopath deputy, but Leonard Wilson. He recognises that the team is out of control and attempts to deal with Ginger, but frustrated by Kenny’s conflicted loyalties ultimately has to surreptitiously call in the army to wipe them out altogether. He is a militant prepared to use violence but does not relish killing, and is weary of it. Although scantly explored, his goals pose interesting questions: how does one maintain discipline and control in an organisation which is dedicated to violence, and where everyone has a gun? How does the paramilitary commander enforce boundaries regarding acceptable forms of killing?

“A grubby killing like this evening just gives our people a bad name they don’t deserve, you understand me? That’s why we can’t afford to have raving maniacs like that nauseating shite on our team. I don’t want to hear his name mentioned again. I don’t want to see his face again […] He’s to be put to sleep, Kenny. You can take that as an order.”

Martin Dillon and the creators of Resurrection Man hold the killings which inspired both films to be the work of a group of psychopaths working in alliance. We must be careful not to repeat Dillon’s error of making a lay-diagnosis, but Murphy’s behaviour – towards fellow loyalists as well as random Catholics – does in many ways match with the definitions of both antisocial and dissocial personality disorder. Yet even the actions of conscripted citizen armies drawn from, and presumably representative of, the greater populace can sometimes reveal deeply disturbing truths about the behaviour of armed groups in conflict. In the Pacific theatre of the Second World War the mutilation of Japanese corpses and in particular the habit of taking body parts as trophies was so widespread amongst American troops that official efforts to suppress the practice were only minimally successful. 25 years later the sons of those who had driven the Imperial Japanese back across the Pacific islands were bogged down in another, less popular war in the Far East. US involvement in Vietnam, execrated at home and prosecuted by an often malcontent draftee army, led almost inevitably to a breakdown in discipline amongst certain units. A veteran recorded by Mark Baker in Nam:

We started pumping rounds into him until the guy just busts open. He didn’t have a face any more. Baby-san, she was crying. So a guy just puts a rifle to her head and pulled the trigger just to put her out of the picture. Then we start pumping her with rounds. After we got finished shooting her, we start kicking them and stomping on them. That’s what the hatred, the frustration was. After we raped her, took her cherry from her, after we shot her in the head, you understand what I’m saying, we literally start stomping on her body.
[…]
Then we start cutting the ears off. We cut her nose off. The captain says, ‘Who’s going to get the ears? Who’s going to get the nose? So-and-so’s going to get the ears.’

These men were not paramilitary participants in an inter-communal conflict, but state forces fighting conventional wars (or mostly conventional in the case of Vietnam). If these groups are prone to abuses it is no surprise that illegal paramilitaries whose command structures, internal discipline, and self-image are less stable and well-developed, and which are engaged in bitter tribal conflict, may also commit violence which goes beyond the bounds of what they and their supporters – let alone “normal” society – can accept.

It is probably no accident that Murphy was most active during two spells which coincided with periods of great internal turmoil for the UVF leadership. The decision in 1975 to devolve the vetting of recruits to platoon commanders allowed Murphy to select those most amenable to his aims, rather than those of the wider organisation. Constant personnel changes at command level, which did not abate until at least mid- to late-1977, meant that men regarded as weak-willed, motivated by self-interest, or otherwise unsuited to lead came to power. Unwilling to conform to the strict discipline of the Long Kesh compounds, Murphy accepted a transfer to dismal Magilligan where power structures were less sturdy. His release in 1982 occurred when the stable and well-established UVF leadership was in custody as a result of the supergrass trials. What emerges is a picture of a cunning and charismatic individual who took advantage of periods of instability and feuding to operate as he pleased (the large number of Protestants and loyalist paramilitaries killed are worth noting). As Gusty Spence said of the the mid-70s UVF leadership, “I don’t think they had the bottle or guts to stop them“. Nothing Personal depicts the dilemma faced by those responsible for maintaining discipline at command and unit level within a paramilitary group, but unfortunately it does not expand upon this line despite the potential for conflict and tension between characters and groups (the very stuff of drama) it potentially holds. Even so it is perhaps closer to the mark than the cod-psychology found in Resurrection Man. Yes, Murphy surely loved his ma, but probably did not hate his father, didn’t snort coke, resolutely was not a poof, and almost certainly never sucked a gun like a man’s penis, or any of the other silliness that that film injects into an already expansive mythos.

Both films being depictions of loyalists, and specifically although not always explicitly those of the Shankill, what do they say about the people who live in this long finger of working-class loyalism which bisects otherwise nationalist west Belfast – the Falls on one side, Ardoyne and New Lodge on the other – running from the edge of the city centre to Ballygomartin. The Shankill folk of Resurrection Man are an unattractive lot. Victor’s home is a knowing caricature of the “Protestant Palace”: the knick-knacks and three ducks on the wall, the model of the Titanic atop the television, the portrait of the Queen, and a dookit out back…all the accoutrements of working class life which those who write mannered novels and screenplays about notorious killings presumably find tragic and fascinating. Nothing Personal at least hints that these people have a life and culture outside of paramiltarism.

How does this compare then to the real rather than imagined people of the Shankill area? The privations of the 30-year conflict, together with feelings of marginalisation and a conviction (not entirely unwarranted) that they are continually misrepresented by the media, has resulted in a sometimes guarded demeanour towards outsiders, which in reality masks a resilient and generous character. They are poorly served by Resurrection Man in particular. It is true that writers have no obligation to act as PR for a particular constituency or group of people, or to sanitise their work for the sake of community relations. Conversely, and more importantly, when they must also be aware that they are operating in a sub-genre so underpopulated, depicting a group which is almost never given screen time, there is an onus on the conscientious author to insure that said depiction does not reinforce (or provide the basis for) negative stereotypes. Polarisation and long-standing resentments caused by the conflict are very real, as is made clear in this letter to the Irish News from November 1976 following the stoning of peace marchers by republican youths:

Sir –
To all the peace people of Andersonstown who have written to your paper saying how ashamed they were of the Shankill Road people being stoned – the worst injury being a broken wrist – I would like to say they were very lucky considering all the innocent Catholics who have been brought up the Shankill to be murdered with their throats cut and other parts of their bodies obscenely butchered before being shot. Don’t feel ashamed about a few stones and a few broken umbrellas as they are neither here nor there in comparison. Yours etc. PRACTICING CATHOLIC

Both Nothing Personal and Resurrection Man largely have origins outside of Northern Ireland. The former was a co-production between British Screen, the Irish Film Board, and Channel Four Films, the latter made by the English company Revolution Films (coincidentally, producer Andrew Eaton’s father, a member of the Territorial Army, was killed by the IRA in 1976). Nothing Personal director Thaddeus O’Sullivan is from Dublin; the late Daniel Mornin was a Belfast native. Resurrection Man writer Eoin McNamee is from South Down. It does not necessarily follow that the images are inauthentic, but it does mean that they are largely non-native. Just as in non-fiction, the people best placed to give voice to the loyalist story of the conflict are loyalists themselves, but these voices have hitherto seldom been heard. There are well-recognised cultural explanations for this – an education system which historically prepared children for manual work and little else, a Calvinist interpretation of art and literature as being frivolous – which may or may not go some way to explaining the paucity of loyalist writers (the case of Rathcoole playwright Gary Mitchell, who was forced from his home in 2005, is hardly incentive either). At the same time there are encouraging signs that changes are taking place – the formation of Etcetera Theatre Company and its production of Tartan for example – but loyalism has much ground to make up in a field dominated for decades by nationalist and republican accounts. The potential rewards are manifest. For ex-combatants it provides the opportunity to relate their stories as they experienced them and offer a corrective to the poorly-researched fodder which portrays them as the unthinking minions of British intelligence, glorified plot devices, unreconstructed thugs and bigots, and bloodthirsty psychopaths. For the wider loyalist community it is the possible means to a mature and thoughtful expression of their lives that may ultimately break through the confines of conflict literature. The way to disperse shadows is through illumination.

With thanks to Gareth Mulvenna and Greater Shankill ACT

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6 comments

  1. We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Heads

    Very interesting reading. Some excellent points made in the conclusion about the lack of loyalist stories in the arts.

    For me, Resurrection Man is a hugely problematic film. As you have said, it wants to have its cake and eat it too. The ‘Tiger Feet’ sequence is the perfect example: pretending to be horrified by what it’s showing you while revelling in the little details. Some of the imagery (such as Kelly with the gun in the mouth) make sense in the book as it is made clear Kelly is infatuated with gangster movies which, although depicted, is never fully explored in the film, leaving a rather empty meaning movie.

    Nothing Personal, although worthy, is utterly boring. Everything about it from the music, the dialogue, the action just reek of “made for TV.” Interestingly, the legendary film critic Alexander Walker (born in Portadown) hated this film because he felt it gave republican paramilitaries a by ball in terms of criticism.

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