Wind that shakes the establishment

Anne Mc Shane reviews Ken Loach's The wind that shakes the barley

This is a truly moving and hard-hitting film. It is both a story of oppression and defiance. A graphic and at times unwatchable depiction of the horror that was meted out to the Irish by the British state in 1920-22, it is also a portrayal of the rising of that people.

Loach makes that history come alive for us today. As he said when accepting the winning prize at Cannes, "If we tell the truth about the past, we will have to tell the truth about the present."

The setting is a Cork village in the south of Ireland, but the contemporary relevance is overwhelming. The chauvinistic and barbaric attacks on the villagers by the Black and Tans (British mercenaries) echo the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the ritual and bloodthirsty humiliation exacted by US and British forces. Just like Ireland in 1920, the natives are treated as irrational, stupid and frenzied - the imperialists as a benign force that stays to 'restore order' and 'prevent a bloodbath'. The truth, as Loach says, is of course very different. Imperialist occupation then, as now, creates a nightmare, a running sore.

In an interview in the newspaper Daily Ireland he was asked if he thought he would get Blair to renounce British colonial history. He answered a very definite no - "They are incapable of doing so ... because they are pursuing an imperialist agenda in Iraq and elsewhere. To acknowledge they were wrong in the past would be to acknowledge they are wrong now" (June 1). His objective in this film is not to reason with the imperialist rulers, but to mercilessly expose them.

Little wonder then that the film has caused so much fury in the ranks of the rightwing media here in Britain. The Daily Mail fumes that Loach shows "our lads torturing captives and burning pretty cottages to the ground". Even worse, "the British are presented as an evil occupying force, intent on overthrowing a democratically elected government" (June 23). Obviously the Mail does not like to allow historical fact to get in the way of a good rant - because, of course, this was exactly the role the British played in Ireland.

In the 1918 general election more than 80% of the Irish population had voted for Sinn Féin and independence. The British state moved to suppress the democratic will of the people - it could not countenance loss of empire so close to home. Instead it sent in mercenaries to beef up existing forces. The Black and Tans were the worst kind of thugs and were meant to terrorise the Irish into submission. Loach has not exaggerated this. The Tans achieved notoriety precisely because of their villainous behaviour. They were part of the British policy known at the time as 'frightfulness' - ie, mass terror.

Unsurprisingly again, there are strong objections from The Daily Telegraph and the Mail. They complain that the Tans are shown as "monsters", while the Irish are 'falsely' portrayed as the victims. The Mail also chauvinistically complains about the "impenetrable accents of some of the cast" - it upsets the poor reviewer to have to listen to a Cork brogue. Meanwhile The Times compares Loach to Leni Riefenstahl, a Nazi propagandist, and The Sun denounces him for creating a plot "designed to drag the reputation of our nation through the mud".

And even The Guardian and BBC have a bit of a moan about Loach's polemical excesses and yearn for the more simple films of the past. But he remains defiant. And this is not just an attack on the role of imperialism. It is also about the role of the republican leadership at the time.

Despite its best efforts to quell the resistance, the British government was forced to the negotiating table in 1921. Unionist forces were armed, but so were the republicans. However, the leadership under Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins buckled under British pressure and a deal was struck which left Ireland divided. As Connolly predicted, this would create a carnival of reaction, north and south. Twenty-six counties were granted limited self-government within the British empire. Elected representatives would still have to swear an oath of allegiance to the king. More importantly, British forces stood ever-ready to invade from the north in the event of any war. The south was a British neocolony.

The film shows those who had fought together against the British now divided. The two main characters are brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle. Those who support the treaty now repress those with whom they had fought shoulder to shoulder. Revolutionary nationalism gives way to constitutionalism. The struggle from below is to be suppressed in exchange for a deal with British imperialism.

Loach now focuses on the political debates of the time. It is analogous to the way he depicted the arguments among the revolutionary peasantry in Land and freedom, his film on the Spanish civil war. Those who want to accept the treaty say  it is a step in the right direction, while  the others argue that they have freedom within their grasp and that if they give up now they will never achieve it. Loach links the arguments of the anti-treatyites with those of Connolly. They wanted a social revolution, not a compromise. The main character, Damien, played by Cillian Murphy, vows that he will never sell out. It was no good just replacing the union jack with the Irish tricolour. The arguments and polemic are fierce as passions run high.

The harrowing experience of the civil war and its aftermath has stamped Irish politics ever since. Republicanism on both sides became immersed in constitutionalism and an acceptance of national division and subordination. Today's Sinn Féin presents itself as a principled republican organisation with a direct link back to those who fought against the treaty. But its recent political practice throws up some big questions about these claims. Preparing for the forthcoming general election in the south, Sinn Féin has made it clear that it is committed to administrating a capitalist Ireland. It has forgotten all its claims of socialism.

There is an extremely limp review by Aengus à“ Snodaigh, Sinn Féin TD, in a recent edition of An Phoblacht, the SF weekly. à“ Snodaigh treats the film as a mere historical piece - "a faithful portrayal of people in rural Cork during those momentous years". Despite acknowledging that it has the potential to explain something about the Ireland of today, he declines to take on the arguments himself. Ken Loach said recently that he was interested in what Sinn Féin would have to say about the film. The answer seems to be not very much.

It is very good that such a film has won at Cannes and reflects the current resurgence of radical critique in the arts, particularly in cinema. But the distribution is hopelessly restricted - and, it seems, deliberately so. Only 30 prints have been made, which means that it is not on general release.

Pathe obviously thinks it is too much for British audiences - and certainly it will be a rude awakening for some. It is a history that most will not be aware of. The media smokescreen and historical rewriting have made sure of that. The truth about the role of the British state in Ireland has been deliberately obscured. Which makes it even more important that this film is seen.

For Loach it was a film he felt compelled to make. He wanted to tell the truth about the British state. He wanted to achieve some justice for those who fought and continue to struggle against imperialist occupation. In creating this beautifully human and deeply political film, he has done just that.