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‘Holy Cross’: The BBC and RTE dramatise sectarianism

Joe Craig

15th November 2003

The dramatisation by the BBC and RTE of the events at Holy Cross Primary School in North Belfast two years ago caused considerable controversy, not widely, but rather narrowly among the people of the areas most involved in the real conflict.  This in itself reflects not only on the real conflict but also on the significance of the production.

When the programme had finished I rang a comrade in Socialist Democracy and asked him what he had thought of it.  He said he hadn’t watched it and had taped the earlier showing on RTE but couldn’t bring himself to look at it yet.  I knew how he felt.  Dramatisation on television of the North is nearly always to be avoided but this was one that needed to be seen if only for the political significance of what had happened.

We both feared the worst: a production that concentrated on the ‘human’ side of the events, a drama that eschewed politics and one that ‘was balanced.’

In the event the programme was not as bad as I had feared although without a second viewing it is difficult to put it into perspective and say with any confidence just how ‘good’ or rather ‘bad’ it actually was.  Certainly parts of the programme were strong enough to prompt me to appreciate the statements of some that it should not have been shown.  This is because the programme, despite some graphic scenes and a certain ability to move one’s emotions, did not come near to imposing on the viewer the whole trauma that must have flowed through the Holy Cross parents and children.  As a drama it was average but nowhere near adequate to its subject


My chief interest was to see just how the co-production would achieve ‘balance,’ that touchstone of coverage of any sort that deals with the North.  It has never appeared to strike anyone in the media for a single moment that ‘balance’ just might be the enemy of truth and that truth is the first duty of this sort of artistic production.  The screenwriter, Terry Cafolla, however has explained that his purpose in the drama was to get into the minds, and understand the motivation of, those who sought to take their children through the gauntlet to school and those who ‘protested.’

The very framing of the question implies a moral equivalence that betrays any claims to an impossible ‘balance.’  Are we really expected to accept that parents taking their children through the front gate and on the receiving end of violent sectarian abuse are morally equivalent to those who inflicting this abuse?  Are we to look forward to a production on domestic violence that equates a battered mother to the abusive father because the former won’t take her children away from the site of abuse?  In themselves the two questions: what was the motivation of the parents and of the loyalist bigots, is not inadmissible, but the way the questions were addressed invalidated any claim that might have legitimated the stated objective.

The strengths of the programme were reliant on this balance not being achieved and its weaknesses were particularly marked where it was attempted.  Thus the motivation of Protestant ‘protestors’ was framed as a response to sectarian attacks on their homes from the nearby Catholics in Ardoyne.  That sectarianism is practised on both sides is clear and not something downplayed by the media.  The reality that the Holy Cross events were but a part of a wider UDA orchestrated campaign of sectarian attacks right across North Belfast was absent.

The story line of one Protestant mother’s increasing integration into the actions of the UDA bigots was weak and the episode where the first child to suffer trauma from the blockade was a young Protestant pupil showed only that whereas the trauma of the Holy Cross children was a necessary result of the ‘protest’ that of the Protestant child was accidental.  The attempt throughout the programme to equate the suffering of the two communities was unconvincing.  This showed in the weakness of the portrayal of the growing estrangement between the young Protestant daughter and mother.

Despite the claim to wish to get behind the motivation of the ‘two sides’ the concentration on a Protestant mother who clearly felt embarrassed at her sectarian behaviour only revealed an unwillingness to get into the head of loyalist bigotry.  Thus the most convincing characterisation of loyalism was in other figures, who were also the main sources of humour in the programme; very much as loyalist thugs are seen as cartoonish figures by some who are well removed from the effects of their activities

These weaknesses in characterisation of the Protestant side were thus the result of a political failure to explain and reveal the mentality of loyalism.  To do so would make impossible any attempt at balance but the failure to do so also left an unbalanced picture. The primary Catholic characters were central to the events but the primary characters on the Protestant side were more or less accidentally caught up in events, unconnected to its commencement and peripheral to its continuation.

The writer therefore flunked the challenge he claimed to be the drama’s purpose.

Only Two?

Politically however the greatest weakness was adherence to the catechism of coverage of whatever kind on the North:  there are only two sides – one is called the Catholics and the other is called the Protestants.

This is so ingrained, not only in the makers but also the viewers of the mass media, that the obvious fact that there are in fact three actors in events is totally missed.  It is not so much the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ as the elephant in the corner of the room.  Thus the role of the British State, most obviously in the shape of the British Army and RUC, was downplayed

Instead attentive viewers had to divine the role of the State from events that for the most part could not be hidden.  Beyond this the writer did allow the Catholic parents to make some remarks that pointed to the state’s role.  Thus when the blockade started one parent remonstrated that it was not the dozen or so loyalists who were preventing them from collecting their children but the RUC.  Later a parent complained that the whole thing could have been stopped earlier if the RUC had done what would have happened in any other country and arrested the attackers.  Later again an angry parent notes that the ‘protest’ had stopped because the British had bought the bigots off and makes a rather pertinent comment about what sort of awful place she had to live in.

Visually the alert viewer would have noted that at the start of the blockade the RUC face the parents in full riot gear determined to stop them collecting their children, their backs are to the few loyalist protestors.  When the parents and children run the gauntlet of verbal abuse, stones, pornography and urine the RUC leave room for the loyalists to get up close while they again face the parents.  There was obviously no intention of arresting anyone for attacking the parents or their children.  The device of using slow motion was meant to dramatise the loyalist abuse but the approach was only another example of the production ducking the rawness of loyalist bigotry.

While we see these scenes from the angle of the children we are not shown them from that of the loyalists inflicting their abuse, nor do we see it from the angle of the RUC with the spit and urine coming from behind them and hitting the children.  Perhaps this might have prompted the question – just what the hell were the cops and British army doing?

That the role of the state was central to the real events and its resolution explains both why the real events became ghettoised and the controversy over its re-enactment suffered the same fate.  After all if the state cannot, in reality chooses not to, protect those attacked then despair and disassociation are the lines of least resistance.

The Guardian

For some reviewers all this went completely over their head.  Thus the TV reviewer of the Guardian newspaper tells us that ‘The Glenbryn Park area of Belfast is a gift to a dramatist: Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other, and decades of stupidity in between.’  The stupid Irish, now where have we heard that before?

‘As the violent farce surrounding Holy Cross primary school unfolded (you’ll remember images from 2001 of parents walking their daughters to school between lines of riot police), the two sides of the street became like mirrors, endlessly reflecting the lies, cant and pride that fuelled the fires.’  They’re both the same but remember the Catholics are the main protagonists – familiar?

Apparently the reviewer had difficulty telling the two sides apart, except for the ‘red ribbons in the Catholic girls’ hair.’  Never mind, what ‘put Holy Cross head and shoulders above most Belfast dramas is that it made no attempt to blame governments, soldiers, police, priests or any authority figures at all.  The baddies were the people – the mothers and fathers who terrorised the children in the name of a cause they could no longer even identify.  There was no merit on either side of the divide, just a scrupulous equality of awfulness.’  Yes, it was the parents own fault, not only did the Irish bog-wogs not know their place but they didn’t know why they didn’t know it.  All the natives were as bad, just one more example of the white man’s burden.

This review represents the twenty first century version of the nineteenth century Punch cartoons that showed the Irish as primitive ape like creatures prone to violence.  That a drama about the events at Holy Cross can evoke such a review is testament not only to the prejudice and ignorance inside imperialism , but on this occasion to the failings of this particular drama.

Here’s a suggestion for Terry Cafolla’s next work, a real challenge, get inside the diseased brain of a British liberal.



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