Clandestine communications have long played an important role in politically unstable societies, where power is contested to the point of insurgency and where the prevailing media culture is steeped in censorship and misinformation. In the pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and fear in the period of the samizdat press in the USSR, forbidden texts were reproduced by hand and often concealed by the craft of the bookbinder inside ideologically approved books, to be shared with friends under the noses of Soviet censors. When the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini was forced to move to Paris from his first exile in Iraq, good French telephone and postal services gave him the opportunity to swamp his home country with recordings that preached revolutionary ideas inside mosques and private homes in Iran, despite the vigilance of the shah’s secret police.
During the conflict in Northern Ireland, a small number of documentary films were made which debunked many of the media stereotypes of the Troubles and challenged the dominant state narrative of the conflict by focusing on its causes and its victims. Pirated copies of films banned by the British government were circulated between families and it was common for soldiers on their nightly raids in nationalist areas to put a family under house arrest while searching through their VHS tape collection, playing through each one in hope of finding what they regarded as seditious propaganda concealed inside Hollywood blockbusters. Probably the most famous of these documentaries was Death on the Rock, which focused attention on the British army’s “shoot to kill” policy, broadcast on Thames Television in 1988 in spite of sustained attempts by the Margaret Thatcher’s government to suppress it.
Unquiet Graves, directed by Sean Murray, is a major new addition to the canon of documentary films presenting a radically different view of the Troubles from what has become the dominant paradigm. It doesn’t quite fit into the mould of clandestine or seditious media, to be confiscated and repressed by the forces of the state. But that is because the environment of its production and reception is so different from its predecessors. Its temporal context is today’s post-conflict society, one still struggling with the challenges of reconciliation some twenty years on from the cessation of armed hostilities. Its focus on government collusion with paramilitary death squads would certainly have put it on the British banned list in the 1970s and ’80s. It would probably have been banned south of the border too, under Section 31 censorship of RTÉ. Future media historians may well see RTÉ’s recent decision (after a false start in 2019) to broadcast Unquiet Graves in September 2020 as a milestone in that organisation’s evolution. Even so, the film manages to stir up angry reaction in some parts of Ireland, a bitterness that many had thought was dissipated by the formation of the Sinn Féin-DUP coalition in Stormont.
Over the years, nationalists have accepted that members of the security forces participated in the deadly work of loyalist paramilitary groups from 1970 onwards, by providing them with weapons, military and police intelligence, targeted information for specific attacks and sometimes by direct participation in killings. These included the British army’s Force Research Unit, a secret section of the intelligence corps. Access to relevant state-held information about collusion has always been tightly controlled, but yet the need to know the precise nature of the collusion and get judicial closure for the victims’ families has been a key feature of post-conflict tensions that persist since the Good Friday Agreement. Seen from the point of view of the families, an institutional instinct in key parts of the state apparatus ‑ the military, police, civil service, cabinet, Downing Street ‑ is towards denial: avoidance, censorship and obfuscation have created a suffocating blanket of silence. This is now embedded as part of the unstable post-conflict legacy of the Troubles, despite the setting up of a number of enquiries over the years (the Barron Report, the Cassell Report, the Independent Commission into the Bombing of Kay’s Tavern Dundalk, the McEntee Investigation and the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team).
The most recent institutional attempt to address collusion is the review set up in 2020, led by former Bedfordshire police chief Jon Boutcher, to investigate the activities of a Loyalist paramilitary gang that operated in Armagh and Tyrone in the 1970s, linked to over 120 sectarian murders on both sides of the Irish border. Boutcher’s task is to explore its links with the police and security services and decide whether there are wider issues of collusion to be explored. Getting the Boutcher investigation off the ground was not easy. In 2019, the Court of Appeal in Belfast, after a lengthy legal process, despite a vigorous legal challenge by the PSNI, insisted that the review be established. The court accepted the argument that an independent investigation was needed to address the “compelling case” of the victims’ relatives that an overarching report on collusion be produced by allowing independent investigators full access to the database of the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET’s own report was thought to be about 80 per cent complete when it was wound up by the PSNI back in 2014 (Mallon, 2019: p 58).
All of this context is relevant to grasping the significance of the making of Unquiet Graves by an independent film company, and then the decision by RTÉ to broadcast it. The specific focus of the Boutcher investigation is the Glenanne gang, a 1970s Loyalist paramilitary unit based on a farm in Co Armagh. It had about forty known members, including British soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment, police officers from the RUC and members of the Mid-Ulster Brigade of the UVF. It carried out dozens of targeted assassinations on Catholics from mid-1972 to the end of 1978. It also carried out the 1974 bombings of Dublin and Monaghan, which killed thirty-four people, and the massacre of the Miami Showband.
The central focus of Unquiet Graves is the Glenanne gang and its legacy, viewed through the lingering, anguished, tragedy-laced need of the victims’ families for closure. This legacy frames the entire documentary. Central to their campaign for recognition is an end to official obfuscation around the question of collusion. The documentary was officially released at the Galway International Film Fleadh in July 2018 and aroused no particularly negative media attention. Before it was broadcast by RTÉ in September 2020, it had already been screened dozens of times, to community groups and at film festivals and university departments across Ireland, Britain, Canada, USA and Australia – to an audience of over 11,000.
Unquiet Graves draws heavily on research conducted by the journalist Anne Cadwallader published in her 2013 book Lethal Allies. She drew together ballistic reports, archival documents, eyewitness statements, HET documents and other forensic evidence, all of which was available to the police in the 1970s but never acted upon. She puts together a shocking inventory of criminal acts carried out by gang members, who were immune from punishment even when sufficient corroborating evidence was available to support a case for prosecution. Cadwallader makes a compelling case for the uncomfortable truth that members of the British army, military intelligence and the RUC not only aided and abetted the terrorist campaign of the paramilitaries in mid-Ulster and in the Republic in the 1970s but were often actually involved in the gang’s assassinations.
The targets of the Glenanne gang were successful farmers, businessmen and other upwardly mobile members of the Catholic community. Almost none were combatants in the conflict or members of the IRA. This aspect of the paramilitary terror campaign has reminded some reviewers of Denise Kleinrichert’s (2001) book on the James Craig government in the newly constituted Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which rounded up 900 nationalists, mostly pro-Treaty people but with professional and economic status in their communities. They were held without legal recourse between 1922 and 1925 on the prison ship Argenta and other jails.
Unquiet Graves draws heavily on the research of the Pat Finucane Centre (named after the nationalist solicitor assassinated by the UVF in 1989) and the Dublin-based NGO Justice for the Forgotten, both focused on campaigning on behalf of families bereaved as a result of the conflict, both stressing the need for the British government to provide full transparency about its role in the Troubles. One of the most haunting images is that of the RUC whistleblower John Weir, whose testimony comes in the second half of the film. He is shot almost entirely in a carefully lit close-up from a side angle, his gaunt face frozen in silence in each edit before he picks his words with extreme care. His arresting on-screen presence was one of the main triggers of the angry reaction in parts of the unionist press in Belfast and revisionist commentators in Dublin when the documentary was broadcast by RTÉ.
Weir’s affidavit in 1999 led the government of Bertie Ahern, deviating from the muted response of successive Irish governments, to set up the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, chaired by Mr Justice Henry Barron (after the death of its first chairman). Barron produced four reports between 2003 and 2006, which went some way to disrupting the culture of silence that had built up since the bombings in 1974. Weir is named in the Barron reports as a member of the Glenanne gang, while being at the same time a sergeant of the RUC Special Patrol Group and a UVF member. Weir was convicted of the murder of a Catholic pharmacist in 1977 and served a fifteen-year prison sentence. At the end of his sentence, he turned whistle-blower, providing in his affidavit the names of RUC officers with insider knowledge of the Glenanne gang’s terrorist activities and gave details of state collusion with paramilitaries.
These revelations have been available in print for twenty years and have made little impression on political or public opinion in that time. What is new and (to some) shocking today, however, is their wide distribution by the RTÉ broadcast but also the sheer visual power of the documentary film compared with the weaker impact of print. For instance, there is a powerfully disturbing, chilling effect to both seeing and hearing John Weir give his account of gruesome sectarian murders and the collusion behind them, delivered with slow circumspection in an Armagh drawl from his exile home in South Africa.
Weir’s most staggering revelation is the plan, formulated by British military intelligence, to massacre an entire Catholic primary school in the village of Belleek, children and teachers, in order to trigger terror and panic among the nationalist community. The idea was to provoke the IRA into a massive tit-for-tat reprisal and escalate the conflict into a full-blown civil war. The IRA had already demonstrated what it could do, in its killing of ten Protestant linen workers on their way home from work in Kingsmill, South Armagh, in January 1976. According to Weir, the military intelligence plan was rejected by the UVF as too extreme and likely to provoke international condemnation of the entire loyalist campaign. Weir claims the plan “went to the very very top. It crossed the water where the politicians knew what was going on and gave the go-ahead. The attitude would have been you’re doing a great job but don’t get caught.” The film cuts to a shot of Harold Wilson smoking his pipe in Downing Street, but the inference of collusion at the very top has to stop here for want of more evidence.
Unquiet Graves is explicitly made from the point of view of the victims of the Glenanne gang, or rather their relatives, still waiting for justice and full disclosure of state collusion in each of their individual family tragedies. The whole form of this feature-length film is therefore shaped by its commitment to advocacy and the role played by state institutions in the origin and perpetuation of the conflict. The film deviates very clearly from the conventions of the typical current affairs television documentary, which tends to emphasise the “bad apple” theory around collusion, accommodating the official state framing of the narrative on the Troubles. The “bad appl”’ theory was contested head-on by an international panel of observers in 2006, headed by Professor Douglas Cassel, former legal adviser to the UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. He testifies in the documentary: “they certainly were not a few bad apples. There were a significant number of British intelligence agents within the RUC and the UDR who were involved directly in these killings or were in collusion with them.”
Unquiet Graves is a rigorously sourced documentary, presenting its evidence with care while calling for more evidence. At the same time, it belongs firmly in the cinematic tradition and it is all the more powerful for that. It uses many of the strategies of fiction film to dig deep for obscure truths. It grips the viewer right from the opening sequence: historical footage of a GAA football final in Dublin prefaces a dramatic re-enactment of the killing of two young football fans stopped on the way home from Dublin at a paramilitary checkpoint and shot at the side of the road. The stylish cinematography and intuitive editing build intense involvement over seventy-five minutes, with dramatic re-enactments, harrowing and electrifying witness interviews, engaging use of ballistic and archival resources, all subtly linked by Stephen Rea’s understated voiceover. This is sparingly used and perfectly timed. The abstractly designed animated sequence at the end of the film is a bold creative move. It offers a space for reflection on all the violence, a moment of respite, a visual correlative to Rea’s poignant off-screen recital of Seamus Heaney’s poignant poem “Strand at Lough Beg”, a tribute to his cousin shot dead at a checkpoint.
The director of Unquiet Graves is Sean Murray, an award-winning filmmaker from Belfast who has made a number of other testimony-based documentaries dealing with legacy issues. His Fractured City won a Royal Television Society Award at the British Film Institute. His recent Ballymurphy was screened at several international film festivals. He is also a member of Queen’s University Centre for Documentary Research. The producer, Callum Macrae, has a twenty-year record as documentary filmmaker. His three major investigations of crimes committed in the Iraq War explore the misuse of billions of Iraqi funds by the coalition forces during the war and allegations of unlawful killings by British soldiers there. His production team was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their series of documentaries for Channel 4 probing how the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in a genocidal massacre of the Tamils.
The common ground between Murray and Macrae is the moral urge to use the documentary genre not just in an innovative way cinematically but as a powerful tool of advocacy for human rights in a society still deeply divided ideologically around a contested social memory of the Troubles. What is interesting in the case of Unquiet Graves is how the mode of address of an independent documentary film is radically changed by its insertion into a television schedule by a national broadcaster. The film had already been attacked on social media within sections of unionism, following the lead of Sammy Wilson MP of the DUP, who lambasted both the BBC and NI Screen for using licence fee revenue to fund films like 66 Days, a documentary on the life of Bobby Sands.
Unionist criticism of films made from a nationalist point of view is usually framed as an attack on republican propaganda aimed at rewriting the history of the Troubles. This comes from a very specific understanding of the conflict, one in which loyalism bears no responsibility for the violence. Political scientist Cheryl Lawther (2011) called this “a myth of blamelessness” in which a reluctance to countenance any role for loyalism in the conflict is a fundamental barrier to engagement with the truth recovery debate. Using interviews with loyalist ex-prisoners, Bill Rolston (2006) explored the origins of the strong loyalist belief that the call for truth recovery serves a republican insurgent agenda: “Seeking truth is nothing less than a Republican method of carrying on their war by other means.”
This position is no longer confined to fringe loyalist platforms but has become part of a wider institutional discourse that persists twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. After the release of Unquiet Graves, ad hominem attacks were aimed at its director, because he comes from a Republican family, and these were bolted on to allegations that nationalist filmmakers too often avoid exploring IRA atrocities. Sean Murray responded in an article for the online Unionist Voice: “When one makes the allegation that emerging stories that contest the hegemonic view of the conflict are re-writing the past, one must only conclude that this position stems from a point of privilege, that there is only one interpretation of our recent history. As an observer, I feel this runs to the core of recent Unionist anger around the current legacy debate (Unionist Voice 14/9/2018) ” Going further, he argued that between 1981 and 2005, 674 films have been made that upheld the unionist narrative and only twenty-two that challenged it.
The broadcast of Unquiet Graves is a significant milestone in the evolution of the role of RTÉ in reporting and interpreting the Troubles. For years, many nationalist voices were silenced by Section 31 censorship, which was formally ended in 1994 as a confidence-building initiative in the emerging peace process of that period. But censorship has an aftermath. It goes beyond silencing specific voices, as required in the letter of the law, to embrace the many agenda-setting editorial practices within media organisations that frame issues and events in particular ways.
Many complex layers of self-censorship had evolved in RTÉ by the time Section 31 was ended, deeply embedded in the organisation at several levels. This was aided by the formation of unofficial staff watchdog groups associated with the Workers Party (the “Stickies”), a group descended from a split in the Republican movement in the early 1970s into Provisional and Official movements. Led by current affairs producer Eoghan Harris, the Stickies had become increasingly sympathetic to unionist and revisionist interpretations of the conflict in Northern Ireland and deeply alienated from nationalist perspectives. The Stickies’ position resonated somewhat with the antagonistic interrogation of the nationalist version of history to be found in some parts of the print press and in sections of academia. Those who disagreed with the Stickies were labelled “hush puppies”, a Harris moniker for “IRA sympathisers”. This induced an editorial atmosphere that was hostile to much of the nationalist narrative on events north of the Border, and arguably, influenced the editorial atmosphere of other media organisations. Further evidence of this appears in the recent memoirs of former president Mary McAleese who worked in RTÉ Current Affairs in her youth (McAleese, 2020).
Direct criticism of RTÉ programmes from an Irish government is rare these days, but this did not stop one of the country’s most prominent politicians, Charlie Flanagan, minister of justice until June 2020, from swiping at RTÉ for broadcasting Unquiet Graves. He found the film lacking fairness or balance or objectivity. But he asked no specific questions about its content or use of evidence or what it said about collusion. Flanagan wanted to know if RTÉ had “followed the money” and carried out “due diligence” on the funding of the film. The unspoken accusation here is in the hidden signifier “hush puppy/Republican propaganda”. RTÉ pointed out that it is not its normal practice to have any interest in the funding of a film where it has no role in the production. Still an active opponent of nationalist understandings of the Troubles, Eoghan Harris chimed in, lambasting Unquiet Graves as republican propaganda. This echoed the sentiments of the Unionist News Letter in Belfast, where headlines proclaimed with tabloid force: “Weir was a Murdering, Bigoted Cop who fuels Fake News of Collusion”, and “RTE has given a Platform to the Claims of a Lying, Murdering Thug who besmirches the Security Forces”.
It is important to note that this kind of reaction to a TV broadcast no longer has the force it would have had twenty-five years ago, such as the response to the Channel 4 documentary The Committee that erupted in the 1990s. This too was about alleged collusion, with a social class twist, but it was broadcast into a much harsher environment. Its ultimate impact on public opinion was blunted, if not choked off completely, by a series of legal actions. The Committee was made by independent filmmaker Sean McPhilemy, and he subsequently expanded his investigative journalism into a book (McPhilemy, 1998). He focused on the inner working of a committee of middle class Unionists ‑ businessmen, senior policemen, clergy and politicians ‑ who had coalesced in the late 1980s around a kind of Ulster nationalism and forged links with the UVF and UDA to plan the murder of Republicans. One of the targets named was the solicitor Pat Finucane. The political context of the time was a growing fear within unionism of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and the consequent need to establish a unified Ulster army to bolster a push towards Ulster independence.
The RUC took Channel 4 to court to reveal the sources used in the film. McPhilemy and Channel 4 were then sued for libel, first by a solicitor identified in the programme as a member of the Committee, then later in the US courts by two brothers who owned a car-dealership in Portadown. Both cases were settled out of court. More legal action followed. The former First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, David Trimble, said to have provided political cover for the Committee’s members, won two lawsuits against Amazon for distributing the book. Amazon then withdrew the book, as did several other online booksellers, including the giant American wholesaler Ingram Book Group. Cases were also taken against Barnes and Noble book retailers.
McPhilemy himself pressed several libel claims. He collected damages and apologies from the Sunday Express and The Sunday Times, which had accused him of creating “a collage of unsubstantiated rumours and fabrications” (New York Times, August 9th, 1999). The credibility of the original programme was thus undermined by the flurry of legal action and Channel 4 backed away from any further investigation of the topic. McPhilemy’s book has probably spent more time under the scrutiny of judges and juries than regular readers, and it has now acquired something of the aura of a clandestine publication.
Finally, why is collusion so difficult to talk about in public, outside of the small arena – film festivals, community and victims’ rights groups, university film studies departments ‑ where Unquiet Graves lived a short, peaceful life until its RTÉ broadcast? Can dominant and subordinate media narratives about historical conflict co-exist in the present post-conflict era, and be evaluated on their merits in an open public sphere? Recent films have shown that the documentary genre is able to tackle difficult issues from very diverse perspectives, such as Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned (2017) and Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot ( 2017). In a society that sets itself on a course towards reconciliation and peace-building, should the past be forgotten, to enable reconciliation, or must it be confronted, to enable it? These are awkward questions and they have been debated in other post-conflict societies too, such as South Africa. Documentary film has shown itself in Ireland and elsewhere to be one of the most significant forms of advocacy for victims and survivors of conflict. There is clearly an important role for filmmakers in the debate about reconciliation when they use documentaries like Unquiet Graves to critically engage audiences with difficult issues and challenge dominant narratives about the past.
Kleinrichert, Denise. Republican Internment and the Prison Ship Argenta, 1922. Irish Academic Press, 2001.
Lawther, Cheryl. ‘Unionism, Truth Recovery and the Fearful Past.’ Irish Political Studies, 26-3 (2011) p. 363
Mallon, Seamus. A Shared Home Place. Lilliput Press, 2019.
McAleese, Mary. Here’s My Story: A Memoir. Penguin Books, 2020.
McPhilemy, Sean. The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland. Roberts Rinehart, 1998.
Rolston, Bill. ‘Dealing with the Past: Pro-State Paramilitaries.’ Truth and Transition in Northern Ireland.’ Human Rights Quarterly, 28-3 (2006). p. 652.
Farrel Corcoran is professor emeritus at the School of Communication, Dublin City University. He is a former chairman of RTÉ.