Interview: Ronan Bennett - Black Flag

1998 interview with author Ronan Bennett, which touches on his time in prison in Northern Ireland and on remand in London (as one of the "Persons Unknown" suspects).

From Black Flag #213.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 13, 2020

Ronan Bennett is one of the few contemporary authors whose voice speaks of authentic working class experience and whose writing takes sides in the struggles of ordinary people to determine the direction of their own lives against the forces of capitalism and the state. He's also- crucially- an entertaining and exiting storyteller, able to inject a hard realism into genres not otherwise noted for their reflection of the anger, pain and joy of working class life, without sacrificing plot or momentum. His plot for the hit film 'Face' combines an exploration of what happens when solidarity breaks down in working class communities and all that's left is the chase for wealth (or survival), with a gripping thriller about an armed robbery gone wrong and bent cops leaching off the backs of the communities they claim to protect.

Ronan Bennett grew up in Belfast, son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In 1974 he was arrested and charged with the shooting of a cop. He was convicted by a Diplock court and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent a year in Long Kesh before the charges were thrown out on appeal. Relocating to the UK he was targeted by Special Branch and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions in the 'Persons Unknown' case. The case collapsed, but only after he'd spent a year and a half on remand. As someone who comes from a community which has been targeted as a training ground for repression by the state, and who has experienced that repression at first hand, Ronan Bennett is a partisan writer. He is also one who has not been afraid to write as a Republican socialist, whether in his fiction, in 'A Second Prison', 'Love Lies Bleeding', and his forth coming film 'A Further Gesture' or in his numerous articles challenging the prejudices and lies of the British media over the frame ups of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, the lies and distortions of the agenda and motivation of militant Republicanism, and the cynicism and cowardice of the British political establishment over the peace process. He's also worked to promote the work of the Dubblejoint theatre company and Belfast writers like Brian Campbell, co- founder and editor of An Glor Gafa, (The Captive Voice), the Republican POW magazine. In 1992 in the Guardian he stated, when asked how he'd vote in the General election, "Labour's record and program are woeful… it has made principal in politics contingent on the latest opinion polls… for a socialist to vote for the party would be an act of supreme cynicism. I will not be voting."

BLACK FLAG: As someone coming from a Belfast background, who's been through jail, but has managed to get an outlet and a voice in the media, could you tell us how you arrived at that position?

RONAN BENNETT: What happened for me was after my years in the Cages and in Brixton, I went to University and did a PhD in Crime and Law Enforcement in the 17th Century and thought I'd want to teach, but kept returning in my imagination to the past, to incidents from prison, and, I think, like a lot of people, you start to jot things down, then you reach a point where you have to decide "do I go for it or not?" I think most people don't go for it, particularly people from a background where the last thing you would expect to be is a writer. I did the draft of "A Second Prison"- sent it to an agent, it was picked up fairly quickly.

Did the politics of "The Second Prison" cause you any problems?

No. I have to say there's politics in every single piece of work I've done. Most publishers and producers aren't concerned with politics, they're just concerned with "Does this work as a book or a film?" If the ideas aren't just there to win politically correct brownie points they'll back you. What I'm so proud of with "Face" is that the producers and the director Antonia Bird kept sight of the political and moral point but led the audience into it. I've never written from the point of view of someone who's secure or comfortable or middle class. When you're writing you can't pretend, you have to feel committed to what you do. I can't do the chameleon thing, "I'll now take the view of a middle class university lecturer". Because of my experiences I'm only really interested in the kind of characters I write about- usually idealists who've kind of lost their way. There is a conflict- the kind of politics we have demand commitment, they're about absolutes, about certainties being followed through, but the best literature, drama is about doubt, uncertainty.

That is a clear theme in a lot of your work- a central character who's lost somehow, is looking for a moral or political grounding again.

It's really difficult. When you meet someone with similar politics to yourself it makes for a great conversation but not great drama. What audiences want is debate, tension. Say if you set a film amongst "believers"- there's nowhere to go, no debate to have. So you have a dramatic device- someone who has those doubts, and then someone to play the character off against. I think its important to question your own politics, all the time, but there are certain ideals I have that will never change. In struggles, particularly armed struggles, terrible things can be done, but they don't ultimately lead you to abandon the things you believe in. But if 95% of your audience thinks politics is boring you have to introduce dramatic devices to get your point across without compromising. One of the things with "Face" as well is using humour as a means of winning people over as well. One of the people I really admire is Jeremy Hardy, who gets to make some really cutting points and gets away with it because he's funny.

There is an aspect of the earlier work like "Second Prison" and "Love Lies Bleeding" that's based around parallels with the IRSP/INLA feud. Its drawn from me being in jail with Ta Power, Jimmy Brown and Gerry Steenson, they were comrades then and then they started killing each other. It hit me in a really big way, especially when TA Power was killed ( Ta Power was the inspiration behind the IRSP faction that wanted to fight to preserve the socialist republican tradition of the IRSP against the degeneration into gangsterism of the IPLO) Ta was one of the most gentle but politically determined people I've ever met. Everybody liked him and to be killed by your former comrades was so tragic. I remember Gerry Adams getting up at a meeting in West Belfast and saying "We have to remember that Republicans have done bad things". He was right in many ways and it shouldn't undermine our cause. It is important not to romanticise violence or armed struggle. We need to maintain a critical perspective on our own history.

To what extent do your experiences in Long Kesh inform your work now?

The friendships and the solidarity are still strong. The idea that you're weakest and most vulnerable when you're an individual, but put a thousand of us in together , with a sense of political coherence and solidarity; that was a tremendous inspiration. That ethic of solidarity is in all the work - even in "Face" where the wider essence of it has broken down, Ray still looks after Stevie, Alice is involved with the Kurdish group. When I went to Latin America to research "Overthrown by Strangers", I didn't have a theme. I found that theme in Canto Grande, a prison outside Lima, with the political prisoners there. It's like the Kesh but the stakes are higher. There'd been prison massacres, a navy bombardment of a jail, and the level at which they stood up for each other was amazing, People who were poorly educated, who might have been thieves or pimps before they were politicised. It was one of the most inspiring experience of my life.

Did you get much flak here for basing the book around Sendero Luminoso, given that most of the left here and in Peru would have massive criticisms of the way Sendero operates?

Well, Sendero's authoritarianism was far too much for me. But say you're an Andean Indian, your life expectancy is lower now than it was under the Incas. If you're born into one of the Andean villages you live and die in poverty and there's no way out. You can go to the city and end up in a shanty slum. No one is going to do anything. The left parties have let you down and a political group comes along and says "fight", "Take Land". What do you do ? Either your existence goes on like this for your life and your children's lives or you just have to fight. I think as well there was a lot of misinformation put out about Sendero.

What's next ?

I love cinema, I love it as an art form but there are some ideas that feel like a book. I've got a film called "Days Like These" in development. It's set in Derry between 1969 and 1972. It begins with the Battle of the Bogside and ends with Bloody Sunday. It's fast paced and, hopefully, funny and it's got lots of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Then there's a four part series for the BBC called "Rebellion" which goes from 1916 to the defeat of the anti-treaty IRA. It's about an IRA man who starts off as a Pearce nationalist and ends up as an anti-treaty communist. There's a new book, a love story set in the Congo, "Cursed to Eat Bread", which is partly about the sabotage of independence and partly about the role of the writer (the central character is a writer) and it tackles the argument that writing should not be political, that commitment damages art, which is the dominant ethos at work. I'm also working on a book about a zero tolerance campaign in the 1630's, which mirrors Howard's and Straw's sweep the poor of the streets campaign. It is intended to be an allegory for today. It's called "Havoc In Its Third Year". Its about the politicisation of law enforcement as a campaign against the poor.

How do you keep your integrity as you become more successful ?

Being a writer was never a role I'd envisaged for myself and the last thing I want to do is grow into a middle class respectable writer- that would be death for me politically and creatively as well. One thing is I avoid the "scene" - I don't go to Grouchos, I don't "hang out". I've got the same friends I had at the start. I go back to Derry and Belfast and work with up and coming writers in the nationalist community and you can't go back to those places without being reminded of who you are and why you started. I'm trying to encourage Republicans to get together as a writing group, to analyse their experience through fiction or films or short stories, whatever. I think people from a working class background can come through but it always helps if you see someone else break through. So you get people like Ken Loach or Jimmy McGovern, people who're writing authentically about their lives, it's a real boost for people, it proves what can be done.