Tracing the History of Unionist Representation in Cinema
Dr Richard Gallagher
Throughout the history of cinematic representations of Northern Ireland, unionists have been presented in a limited and consistently negative manner by filmmakers. They have also been presented much more critically and less frequently than their Irish nationalist counterparts. In my book, Screening Ulster: Cinema and the Unionists (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), I trace the history of depictions of the unionist community from the emergence of depictions of both nationalist and unionist communities in social-realist dramas in 1980s British and Irish cinema to today, through periods such as those focused on violent paramilitaries in the 1990s and irreverent comedy after the peace process.
The Troubles has, perhaps understandably, dominated depictions of the North of Ireland. The conflict has certainly provided ample material for drama; this is evidenced in the wide range of fiction films that have been and are being produced. Films about the period of conflict have ranged from de-politicised films, where specific agents in the conflict are left unnamed to realistic docudramas representing historical people and events.
A close reading of these films helps illustrate this cinematic deficit and explain the types of portrayals chosen by filmmakers. I also explore many of the possible explanations for the absence and what it is about the medium of fiction film – rather than literature, theatre or television – that produces such depictions.
A proper assessment of the unionist community’s representation in film was made difficult due to the fact that at the core of the unionist identity is an imbricated British identity – this is an identity that, unlike Northern Irish unionism, has been well catered for in cinema.
The British identity is also characterised by its difficulty to define; it merges four nations into one, is constantly being negotiated and has historically needed to be flexible to incorporate empire. When overlapping versions of the Northern Irish unionist identity such as loyalist (a term usually used to define working-class unionists), Protestant (as both an ethno-communal designation and indicator of religious belief) and Irish (both Northern Irish and Irish in a general sense) are factored in, the complexity becomes even greater and significant tensions arise.
I argue that the complexity that has come to characterise unionism is found to be largely absent in cinema and, as such, there has been a negation in the representation of this wide-ranging and diverse section of Irish society. It also finds that representations generally offer a narrow definition of the unionist identity that rarely escapes a polarised relationship with Irish nationalism.
The study demonstrates that the orthodoxy in such films about the North of Ireland and the conflict is of a soft nationalist kind. A focus being primarily on republican paramilitaries is also not necessarily a good thing for Irish nationalism or republicanism as it implies that the paramilitary violence carried out was entirely of the green variety. Unionism and the British state can be seen to get a pass as a result. The loyalist violence that is depicted is also seldom presented as being politically motivated and this can be seen to contrast significantly with depictions of republican violence which is almost always presented within a context of injustice or oppression.
Many unionists have claimed that this deficit in the film world is reflective of how the unionist community is generally treated by the media or, given the influence of Screen Ireland in so many films set in Northern Ireland, how unionism will be treated by the media in any future amalgamation with the south. What this cinematic deficit says about politics, society, the medium of film, the film industry and, indeed, identity in a possible United Ireland has thrown up some fascinating findings.
Richard Gallagher is a former postgraduate student at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He was awarded his doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast in 2022. He is now working as a Political Advisor in Dublin.
In addition to his recent monograph, he published an article on The Troubles Crime Thriller and the Future of Films about Northern Ireland in Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (Issue 22, 2022).
A forthcoming article titled “Unionist Screws: Analysing a Primary Approach to Depicting Northern Irish Unionists in British and Irish Cinema” will be published in the Journal of British Cinema and Television.