Breakout, the story of the 1983 great escape has certainly produced the great backlash. The day after it was broadcast I spoke to a number of people of broadly unionist persuasion. They were not without considerable anger. In their view it was a very one sided presentation of an event which had such devastating human consequences for prison officers and their families as well as members of the wider public who had their homes taken over and their cars hijacked. Elsewhere, the voices – the type that would find it beneath themselves to speak with me - were more strident, demanding that those involved in the escape be denied any platform to hawk their version of events.

On watching the programme little of what might annoy unionists occurred to me. I was simply engrossed in it. It was indeed a very biased construction – in favour of the escapees. That was why I liked it. Outside of a totalitarian mindset there is no one-size-fits-all method for broadcasting. At times it is useful to hear a perspective rattled out uncluttered by trip wires and challenging contextualisation. It allows the narrative to flow puncture free. If Michael Stone were invited to give his account of the Milltown Massacre, skewed as it might well be, it should be acknowledged that without his recorded recollection we are denied a fuller understanding of events on the day. Where such presentations do occur the inquests and cross examinations can come later. The important thing is that when they do come they be allowed to go unhindered.

It is hardly as if the situation the makers of Breakout faced was one which urgently demanded that all possible angles be considered as might be expected with a current affairs documentary or news feature where all manner of deep searching questions need to be asked and a range of competing perspectives weaved in. This was cold case stuff about an escape a quarter of a century ago rather than hot off the press revelations about the latest agent to be outed.

Despite the censorious attitudes that plague northern intellectual life, society there is sufficiently porous to avoid being the prisoner of only one narrative. The escapees did get a free run but the coverage given to the outcry from their critics shows that no narrative goes uncontested. The more blatantly one sided an account is the more vociferous the response is likely to be. Like snakes and ladders matters tend to even out over the board.

For long, those involved in republican activity were denied the ability to make any case at all. It cannot be said that public understanding benefited from that. Arguably, a most serious indictment of modern broadcasting practices in Britain’s little Republic of ‘Absurdistan’ is that despite having the technology to make it possible not one piece of footage exists of Bobby Sands, one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish history. Posterity for ever and a day has been deprived of truly momentous archival material because of the type of sentiment expressed in response to Breakout. And here they are again trying to impose the same noxious regime of silence on the voices of Storey et al.

Some of those who were critical of the documentary pointed out that the prisoners showed no remorse nor did the programme makers tell their audience what the interviewees were serving time for. They felt it would have put the escape in a different light. But this is precisely their objection – the light in which the escapees are presented. That being the issue, rather than extinguish the light flick a different switch and throw a new light on it all.

This was the IRA’s story. It can be believed, it can be challenged. It most certainly should not be censored.


  1. I would agree that there's a need to be able to tell stories from personal points of view, and a need across communities to listen to those stories, listen to the inconsistencies, the hurts, the new insights into motivation and thinking.

    We've got to start talking and listening somewhere. And personal viewpoint and bias is a strength, not a weakness.

    History books are based upon the distillation of many people's recollections and the artefacts of the time - few of which won't be somehow biased in their nature.

  2. Not much more to be added to this. You addressed the issues very well on your own blog

  3. Another great read Anthony. I dispair at times when I read the comments of Unionists and Republicans, that there ever really will be a time in Northern Ireland when people will be able to move on and live equally in a united land. It's sad to think of the children who are given just one side of the picture and to this day in the 21st century, carry on the prejudices of their parents.

    I hope things can change soon.

  4. Lucille, we never know. It was once said that no pessimist in the North was ever proved wrong. The truth debate will be the next great issue to divide them. The truth is it was all your fault and if you blame me you are not being truthful! Our truth is more honest than your truth!

  5. Anthony,

    Your comment that no footage of Bobby Sands exists is quiet shocking when one thinks about it. Looking back it was clear the UK state understood that they were involved in a titanic struggle struggle with Sands and his nine comrades. Thus a conscious decision must have been made to attempt to spike their legacy.

    In your opinion could/would the British have video Sands surreptitiously within the prison?

  6. Mick, it is possible that the British did video Bobby. That type of surveillance would have been relatively easy. It is even possible that one of them made some record as a 'trophy but if so it is a long time making it out.