The Patriot Game
Arthur MacCaig interviewed

by Angela Martin

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 29-31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Angela Martin conducted the following interview with Arthur MacCaig, director of THE PATRIOT GAME, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1979 and continued it in June in London. Subsequently JUMP CUT asked MacCaig for some clarifications, which he answered in writing. We have included these answers in the interview. None of the questions appear; it's all MacCaig.

MacCaig takes the point of view of the Provisional IRA, which emerged at the beginning of 1970. He focuses on the period 1968-1978. Shots of civil rights marches protesting institutionalized prejudice against Catholics are intermixed with shots of the loyalist (Protestant) police force attacking nationalist (Catholic) districts in Belfast and Derry. Using this and other archival footage from independent sources as well as French and Eirean material, MacCaig examines the escalating violence in Northern Ireland and the military struggle by the Provisionals against the British presence.

MacCaig examines Irish history and shows that the struggle, rather than a religious war as it is often portrayed, is one of Irish nationalism against British economic and political interests. The film includes interviews with hooded Provisionals, a member of the Sinn Fein (the political branch of the IRA), and people in the streets of Catholic ghettos. Footage of "Free Derry" and "Free Belfast," where the social programs of the Provisionals included building parks, day care centers, and meeting places for the elderly, show the popular support they have won.

Angela Martin's discussion of truth and distortion in the media and in political documentaries follows the interview.

 — The Editors

Arthur MacCaig, interviewed by Angela Martin


In 1968 1 was traveling around Europe and stopped in Southern Ireland for a while. At that point I was just curious to know what was happening. Like most people, I was completely ignorant and it took a long time before I could figure out what was happening. Even for people involved in the struggle itself this was a very confusing time. I dismissed from the start that it was a religious conflict — I had enough sense to realize that it was a political conflict. But most sources of information — let's say the left-wing sources in the USA — accepted the view that the Official IRA was an openly Marxist organization. From this point of view, people got the idea that the Provisionals were some kind of purely nationalist group, nearly fascist-like gangsters.

I shared this view when I visited the North for the first time in 1972. I spent some time in Belfast — in nationalist areas like the Ardoyne — and that just blew my mind. All the ideas I'd previously had were shown to be completely false. This was the first time I had really seen the strength and the power of a mass struggle. Ordinary people directly participated in organizing their communities, organizing the defense of their communities and trying to improve the social welfare of people in those districts.

For over fifty years people had been so demoralized, so oppressed. The previous armed struggles of the IRA had never mobilized the mass of the people. In most of these areas unemployment has been between 25% and 50% for several generations. Well, after fifty years of that people finally began to seize control of their lives and of their communities. And I'd never seen anything like that. The people I met in the Provisional Republican Movement seem like dedicated revolutionaries who are more products of the mass struggle than organizers of it.


Today in Ireland there are one million Protestants to 600,000 Catholics in the six counties of Ulster that make up the Northern Ireland state. In the rest of Ireland there is a population of three million, of which only 5% are Protestant. Although religion has always been an important part of life in both communities, it is a serious mistake to think that people in Ireland are somehow fighting over questions of Christian doctrine. As we try to make clear in the film, the basic division between the "Protestants" and "Catholics" in this conflict is political and economic; that is, the division of colonizer and colonized as in South Africa or Palestine, or in Algeria before liberation.

From the seventeenth century to the present day, Britain has had a policy of encouraging sectarian divisions between the two communities by guaranteeing to the Protestants a stranglehold on political institutions and on the economic life in Ulster. Unbelievable as it may seem, but a good indication of the nature of British imperialism in Northern Ireland, nationalists only gained the right to vote in local and regional elections in the early 1970s. And for the entire history of this state, laws of exception have been in power, used mainly to intern nationalist suspects.

The highly industrialized northern economy — shipbuilding, heavy engineering, manmade fibers — has been completely dominated by British capital and now to a lesser extent by American and German companies, all of whom have been very careful to favor their relations with the Protestant community. Not surprisingly, Protestants have remained steadfastly loyal to Britain and this includes the loyalist working class, which has managed to unite with nationalist workers only in rare, isolated instances (for example, in certain actions in the l930s). Their continued alliance with British imperialism can be better understood when one realizes that loyalist workers have always had a monopoly on skilled jobs, enjoying much higher salaries as well as a much higher level of employment than their nationalist counterparts. For example, in 1969 the biggest single employer in Belfast was the Harland and Wolf shipyards, which employed over 10,000 people, of whom only 300 were nationalists. After the riots that August, the nationalists were forced out of their jobs in the shipyards by loyalist workers.

In the early 1920s when the IRA's guerilla campaign was making British rule untenable, the British government was able to save the situation, thanks in large part to support from its loyalist allies in the North, by imposing a compromise treaty with the rebel forces that resulted in the creation of an Irish Free State in twenty-six counties while Britain remained in complete control of six counties in northeast Ulster, in which there was a 2 to 1 loyalist majority. This compromise, apart from provoking a civil war among nationalists in which the revolutionary forces in the IRA were crushed, succeeded in leaving British imperialism with a permanent base for the domination not only of the North but of all Ireland.

And I think that it is here that you can find the answer to the question that so many people ask about this war, which seems to them so senseless and inexplicable — namely, why don't the British just leave? Why do they persist in a conflict which has cost them thousands of millions of pounds (1 pound = $2.25), not to mention the deaths of over 2,000 civilians and hundreds of soldiers and police? The official answer is the "Big Lie" and the bigger the better. It goes something like this: "The British Army is in Northern Ireland to maintain the peace between the two communities and to bring to justice the criminal IRA terrorists (who are somehow always on their last legs, according to the official version)."

This official line depends a lot on the bloodbath theory, which envisages, after a British withdrawal, loyalists and nationalists massacring each other in an orgy of Irish irrationality. But, and I hope this is shown clearly in the film, the bloodbath is now and has been going on for ten years, precisely because of the British presence. The nationalists, the people who would be the most vulnerable in such a civil war, have no problem seeing through the bloodbath myth. They and their principal organization, the Provisional IRA, are fighting a war to force the British out because they realize that British withdrawal is the absolute precondition not only for the reunification of the country but also for any possible reconciliation with the loyalist community. So long as the British remain, the loyalists are dependent, manipulated, unable to relate to nationalists except by launching sporadic sectarian assassinations under the protective umbrella of the British Army. The equation is simple enough: the British repress the Irish nationalists, guarantee the privileges of the loyalist community as a whole, and the loyalists in return give their complete backing to the state, to British imperialism.

If successive British governments have been willing to pay a high price in this war, it is because the stakes are even higher. The Northern Ireland state is the mechanism through which all of Ireland is dominated. It divides the nation as it divides the working class, facilitating the political control and economic exploitation in the North but also in the twenty-six counties where British investment is even more important. To sweep away the border, as the Provisionals aim to do, would jeopardize the stability of Ireland and its subservience to Britain. If some leftists in Britain and the U.S. have been confused by the situation in Ireland, those who rule Britain have a clear enough vision of the stakes of this war. Their fears are genuine when they talk of a "Cuba" or an "Angola" being established off their coast.

In the film, it is in this light that we try to show the events in Ireland since 1968. In August 1969, when the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the loyalist police force, backed by mobs of civilians, attacked nationalist districts, it was simply the traditional way of defending their privileges, which in this instance they felt to be threatened by the civil rights movement. Similar riots or pogroms occurred often in the past. The difference was that in 1969, for the first time, there were TV crews in Ulster to record the events. Also, this time the nationalists were not only outnumbered but virtually unarmed as the IRA was practically a dead organization. In the nationalist districts of Belfast nine were killed, hundreds of houses were burnt to the ground, and thousands of refugees fled to the South. But in Derry, after a three-day battle in which the nationalists fought with stones and firebombs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was driven away and the Bogside, the nationalists' district, became a liberated area.

Spectacular images of rioting and street fighting were broadcast throughout the world — it was a nice change from Vietnam — and Britain was suddenly faced not only with a major political crisis but a serious public relations problem. If Britain has yet to find a solution to the political crisis in Ulster, they have been more successful on the PR side, by passing off to the media the convenient view of some kind of bizarre religious war in which British soldiers were just "decent lads doing a difficult and thankless peace-keeping mission." And if there was any explanation of the conflict, it was to be found in a basic defect in the Irish character.

In THE PATRIOT game we try to smash these myths and to show what is, in reality, happening in Ireland, to show what is certainly the most extensive, determined working-class struggle in Europe. And apart from the Basques and their organization ETA, it is the only struggle in which the entire population, armed and mobilized, has successfully faced up to the most sophisticated and brutal counterinsurgency techniques ever experimented with in an industrial, urban society.


The actual preparation of the film was done with my own money — and mostly borrowed money. That involved a six- to nine-month period of going back and forth between Paris and Northern Ireland, mostly getting to know the people in the nationalist areas and, more specifically, getting to know people in the Republican movement. At first, because I was a complete outsider, it was a bit difficult — for obvious reasons they have to be very security conscious. So, in the beginning, it involved a lot of hanging around, in a sense losing time. But I think in a general sense, you have to go through that preparation for almost any documentary film — especially when you want to work closely with people involved in a struggle. But once I was accepted by people in the Republican movement, doors were opened for me all over the north of Ireland and I got the fullest cooperation from them.

It was very difficult in the beginning to figure out how to organize the film and how to structure it because I didn't have a real pre-established script — except that I wanted to do an historical analysis. So first of all it involved spending a lot of time in Belfast and Derry and some of the country areas, trying to get to know as much as I possibly could about the Republican movement and different aspects of it. And that was mainly to show the kind of changes people had gone through over the ten-year period, beginning 1968-1969. Second, I had a lot of research to do, tracking down different film documents that had been shot over that period.


The advantage with a subject like Northern Ireland is that almost every major television company in the world has shot stuff on it. And there's just miles and miles of footage. I was able to get access to some of it — I had to limit myself simply because I didn't have enough money to travel all over Europe and the U.S. to hunt it down. So to do a film like this means depending a lot on different television companies that have been on the spot for several years, filming major events and filming them from their point of view, and then trying to use their film. Now in economic terms and in terms of time spent, this can be really frustrating because most television stations are enormous bureaucracies. They don't care about what you're doing and they're very expensive.

So it's very expensive just to research the material; it's even more expensive to actually use it, to buy the rights. In fact, it's just plain murder. Generally they had basic rates, and it's always possible to make a special deal, to get a break in one way or another, but in the end you wind up paying an awful lot for each minute of that material that you use. The BBC, I think, charges something like $8 a foot (there are forty feet in a minute of l6mm film). Virtually one-third of THE PATRIOT GAME is made up of this documentary footage. Altogether it cost a little over $10,000. The rest of the film is material we shot or photographs donated by friends.

We were very fortunate in getting a lot of the stuff from Radio Telefis Eirean (RTE), the state television of the Irish Free State, which is one of the least bureaucratic television stations I've encountered. They helped us a lot. They had terrific stuff because they have a crew up there nearly all the time. I haven't been in Europe long enough to know what has been broadcast, but the stations have footage of it all, that's for sure. I remember seeing some stuff that the BBC had shot of Bloody Friday. They managed to have a crew on the scene of some of the bombings almost immediately after they occurred. And what they filmed was the police and soldiers shoveling bodies into plastic bags. I was told that that was transmitted all over Britain.

And then I remember an interview with a loyalist extremist who said it was on seeing that footage that he decided it was necessary for him to become directly involved in the loyalist struggle against republicanism — which consists mainly of going around placing bombs, not giving warnings, and randomly assassinating nationalists. That's the kind of use news footage has been put to. It's obvious that the influence the media and the news have on people is just tremendous. And that's what this kind of film and other progressive or left documentaries or fiction films are fighting against.

We show some examples of media distortion, such as Bloody Friday, the ad for the prison service, and the ones about informing which give secret police numbers, etc. But it's not a film on media distortion, though I think people will be very aware, on seeing the film, that there has been distortion. For me, television is really frightening to the extent that it puts to sleep millions and millions of people and contributes to their alienation.

Our idea was to give as much information as possible — not too much but as such as is possible for people to handle in an hour and a half: like the necessary historical information. What I'd really like to say about the film is I think it's objective in a real sense of the word, and I think it gets to the root of the problem there. And it touches on the truth more than, let's say, the classic television documentary that will interview a loyalist, then interview a nationalist — except they'd say they'd be interviewing a Protestant and then a Catholic. For me, the objective truth is the historical truth of the situation based on the experience of the mass struggle.


Going to Ireland, telling people 1 wanted to make the film, and doing the preparation began in August 1976 and involved about four trips. The actual shooting began in June 1977 and we had our first print by the end of March 1979. For a normal documentary film — a Frederick Wiseman film, for example — to end up being an hour and a half, he's liable to shoot over a hundred hours of film. And he's not even in super-production; he has the production capacity he needs to make his kind of film.

For our film, we were under an awful lot of pressure to be very, very careful in what and when we filmed. We shot four hours over a three-week period: that is, an interview with a couple of people (in the Republican movement, an interview with a woman in the Relatives Action Committee, stuff like that, and the taxi and pub sequences. The taxi sequence is about the People's Taxis, those black taxis that you see everywhere in West Belfast and in other nationalist areas, In October 1969, following the riots in loyalist districts in Belfast, the city government took the public buses off the road. Within days they were running again for the loyalists, but it was several months before the nationalists had their bus service restored.

In the meantime, however, the nationalists had gone over to England to buy used taxis and to put into operation a collectively run transport system that over the years has succeeded in creating several hundred jobs as well as providing an important service to the people. The People's Taxis are really something to see. They run twenty-four hours a day, they are cheap, and they are certainly the most sociable form of public transport that I've ever seen.

The success of the black taxis is a good example of the contradiction that British imperialism is constantly being caught up in during this war. Every time they have upped the repression against the nationalists, they have succeeded only in further radicalizing them, making them more self-reliant, more confident in their own ability to organize themselves, and, of course, more hostile to any established authority. In this case, the city bus corporation just about blew it forever. The nationalists no longer need the buses except occasionally to reinforce a barricade, and the People's Taxis are there to stay despite constant harassment from the British Army.

The pub sequence I like a lot because it gives a good insight into the pervasive nature of the nationalist resistance and the role that music plays in the struggle, as well as showing the spirit and sense of humor of the Irish. We filmed this sequence in a Republican social club in Andersontown, a district in West Belfast. The British Army sends patrols through these clubs virtually every night so we knew they were coming, in fact we knew exactly when they were coming. The result was that we were ready for them and they certainly weren't ready for us. As they entered the pub, the group The Freemen, who were playing that night, launched into a medley of songs mocking the British Army. This is something that happens whenever a British patrol comes into a Republican pub. Such a scene can be comical, but it can also be violent, as it is not uncommon for fights to break out with the soldiers, who have a way of knocking bottles off tables with their unwieldy rifles. In this case, because of the presence of a camera crew, the patrol was all smiles, very polite, and there was no confrontation.

Afterwards, however, the neighborhood around the club was blocked off and all the cars leaving were searched by the British; apparently they were looking for us. And about one month later, the manager of this club, Jack McCartan, was killed by soldiers from the same regiment that you see in the film. One night as he was closing up, they just put a bullet through his head, for no apparent reason, except of course that he was a nationalist, a Provisional supporter, which, today in Northern Ireland, is reason enough for the British Army to kill someone.

Obviously I would have liked to have had more film when we were shooting, but in a sense it was good because we were very disciplined. I prepared the interviews very well so that in some sense it was positive. But the limitation in the film — where I think it's weak — is that we don't get into the daily life of people there the way I would have liked to because that really involves shooting a lot of film. For example, it would have been good to get into a single district — like the new Lodge Road — and show exactly how people organized themselves there.

The New Lodge area is a nationalist enclave in north Belfast, entirely surrounded by loyalist districts. It has a population of approximately 6,000 living in rows of tiny brick houses built in the nineteenth century and in modern high-rise flats. On top of the flats are British Army observation posts. Foot patrols and armored personnel carriers constantly move through the district; frequently there is a helicopter hovering above. Despite all this attention given to the New Lodge, it has been hard hit by "sectarian assassinations" — those random attacks on anything or anybody nationalist. When I was there in August 1976 a young couple and their baby were killed in a firebomb attack on their home. Altogether over fifty people have been killed in similar attacks during the present conflict. Because these attacks have occurred with such ease, many local people are convinced that the SAS, a special army unit that operates in civilian clothes often is responsible for the murders. If and when loyalist extremists are involved, it is obvious that they can only act with the complicity of the British Army.

It is in this context that people organize themselves in the New Lodge and in other nationalist areas. The strength of the nationalists is in that the job is not left just to professional militants. Everyone in the community has a place in the struggle, whether it's the kids who are forever throwing rocks at the foot patrols or the families who refuse to pay their rents and rates. In the New Lodge, every block, every apartment building has its own action committee, in which anyone who wants to can participate. These committees deal with specific local problems such as family disputes, delinquency, organizing day care facilities, playgrounds, etc.

Each committee stays in close contact with the area's Sinn Fein office, reporting suspicious individuals or cars seen in the area and any incidents involving the British Army, as well as organizing demonstrations such as those in support of the political prisoners. And in the event of a major crisis, People's Assemblies, involving the whole district, are called. It is evident that organizations such as the IRA, Sinn Fein, and the Relatives Action Committee (the principal prisoner support group) play an important leadership role, but the force of the nationalist resistance is to be found in its mass nature and in the remarkable spirit of solidarity that exists in the nationalist community.

Because we had such limited financial means, we didn't consider trying to film in loyalist districts or trying to talk to loyalist leaders and ordinary loyalist people. In the film we essentially relied on stock footage of the main popular loyalist politicians like Harry West and Ian Paisley, who remain popular despite all the confusions and crises the loyalist population has gone through in the last ten years. They express best where loyalists are at, and the film tries to explain why such points of view remain popular. Another thing was that we spent a lot of time in nationalist areas, and to go into loyalist areas afterwards would have been very difficult. By that time the British Army knew pretty much what we were up to.

One of our biggest problems was how to deal with the army and how they were going to deal with us. Two things happened. We were very careful in preparing certain interviews, which we tried to do in the first couple of days.

Secondly, we were lucky. If you go out into the streets of a place like Belfast and start filming, you're immediately stopped by the British Army because they're everywhere — on every high building in the city. You can't move a foot without their spotting you. But the other two people with me were French, so whenever we were stopped, they did all the talking, in order to give every impression that we were a French TV crew. However, toward the end of the shooting, we'd spent too much time in nationalist areas — most TV crews come in, make a few phone calls, interview a couple of people, and are out again in a couple of days — so the army arrested the people with me (fortunately I wasn't there at the time) to ask a few questions. At that point we'd got what we wanted so it didn't matter very much. Nevertheless, for outsiders who aren't used to it, being lifted by the army, by people with guns, is frightening.

In Ireland, I was the cameraman, but I also had a very experienced cameraman with me who filmed a lot of the interviews — Theo Robichet, one of the best cameramen in France. I was really lucky to have him on the project because in this kind of situation a technical screw-up can be a catastrophe, so the technical problems we had in Ireland were very quickly resolved. Plus I had a very good sound engineer — Olivier Schwob. We were students together at l'IDHEC and, although his experience was limited, he's a really good technician.

I was very lucky in having an experienced editor, Jacqueline Mepiel, who helped me organize the editing in the beginning. Without that I would probably have been completely lost. From there I got the film down to a basic structure, but when I got completely bogged down, Dominique Greussay arrived on the project and helped me finish it over a three-month period — that is, finish the editing, polish it off, and, especially, do the sound editing.

None of the technicians were paid at the time. If they hadn't advanced their services, the film would never have been made. I mean when you look at the kind of unemployment there is in the film industry and you ask someone to work for nothing, it's murder. And even though it's a political film and there's a political commitment involved with those people, which is the reason they did it, they should be paid just the sane.


It's a black-and-white film, so just the film and lab costs up to the first print came to around $10,000. That's the cost of film, development, printing, editing the negative, and an optical sound track — and I'm not talking about mixing the film or anything, just strictly lab costs. And that too could have been much more expensive. We were able to get film a bit cheaper, all those kinds of things which you shouldn't do but which you have to do when you don't have the kind of budget you really need. After meeting the initial lab cost, we were able to get a certain amount of credit — that was the single most critical debt.

Another thing that was very costly was that we had to mix the film twice for the English and French versions, and in France that's something like $100 an hour. The premixing of the film plus the mixing of the two sound tracks took five days. But we got a break. The people who mixed the film in Paris spoke for us and the cost was cut by 50%. Once the lab work is done and you've got your sound processed optically, the actual cost per print is fairly low, especially if it's a black-and-white film — just over $400 for an-hour-and-a-half film.

We made the film without a lot of money up front. I was always borrowing money, and once ISKRA (the French distribution company) finally supported the project, they were able to inject some money into the film when it was absolutely necessary, to buy sound tape and do the mixing. For a long time, though, we were never even sure the film was going to make it.

Up to now we've made strictly noncommercial sales — we hope to make some TV sales. The Other Cinema is handling the film in England as is the United Troops Out Movement. The Provisional Sinn Fein in Ireland has bought a print. We've also made a noncommercial sale in France.

(Since he gave this interview, MacCaig reports that, in terms of distribution, TV sales, prizes, etc., the film has done quite well, gaining especially wide distribution in Europe. "It should also be noted, he writes, "that we were able to recoup the film's costs, pay the technicians and cover outstanding debts within the first year of distribution." Also the British government has shown a great interest in the film's career, especially its TV sales. "While it is difficult to prove, we nonetheless have good reason to believe that the British government has applied pressure on European TV stations not to broadcast this film.")


The film has now been shown very widely in both Irelands. They're really happy with the film — they think it's the best thing they've seen. But at the same time they can see weaknesses in the film and they have criticisms I agree with. For example, the treatment of the Peace Movement is a bit weak — what we need is a whole film on that movement, it's such a ridiculous media event. You can't find a better example of how the media can distort a situation, and we just give it a very quick treatment in the film.

The film's also weak in getting into the real extent and methods of repression by the British Army in the North. We've got some good footage of that kind of repression in action — but again an entire film is needed. What the British Army is doing in the North is a model; they are the most advanced in terms of counterinsurgency. And what they're doing and what they're learning in Ulster could very well be used, say, on the British mainland. They're certainly in touch with the other armies in, say, NATO and the U.S., and what they're learning there is going to be used elsewhere. It would have been nice to go much more deeply into that. These criticisms came from Republicans and a nationalist audience in the North who know most of this. But it's an important criticism in terms of people outside of Ireland.

As far as the film's opening in London is concerned, I didn't know what to expect from a British audience. But it was very satisfying for me — there was a lot of good press, and such pro-Rebublicanism is apparently quite scandalous.

One of the best criticisms put forward by that audience was that the film didn't tackle the so-called bloodbath theory, which is a basic element in British propaganda to justify the existence of British troops. I was aware of this when I was making the film, but, perhaps because I haven't been living in Britain. I didn't really appreciate its importance as a propaganda weapon. Really the best answer I can give to that is that the bloodbath is right now, that it's been going on for ten years, and the root cause of the bloodbath is British imperialism.

(Go to Angela Martin's
"The Patriot Game: truth and distortion" )