HAWKS AND DOVES— the Crown and Ireland’s War of Independence

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

RTÉ, BBC, Oireachtas TV
June 2020
Midas Productions

By Donal Fallon

That Michael Portillo is not afraid to be critical of the British handling of the Irish Revolution was evident in his 2016 documentary The Enemy Files. An episode that received little attention in Ireland’s ‘decade of centenaries’—except for the efforts of a local history group in erecting a commemorative plaque—was put centre stage by Portillo. A former Conservative Party cabinet member (and Defence Secretary at that) bringing the North King Street massacre to public attention was unexpected. By then Portillo was a veteran of historical documentary, of course, having presented Great British Railway Journeys and Portillo’s State Secrets with the BBC, but Ireland represented a new departure.

Portillo has returned with Hawks and Doves—the Crown and Ireland’s War of Independence, a two-part documentary examining British State policy and the War of Independence. Once more, Portillo has proven himself to be not merely a very entertaining and capable historical broadcaster but also one not fearful of interrogating difficult truths. Hawks and Doves feels like a more ambitious undertaking in scale of production, and perhaps one will never wish to see a drone camera shot of rural Irish terrain for some time after having watched it. Yet despite the glitz, the documentary is at its best, across both episodes, when reduced to its simplest form, of Portillo speaking to leading historians in the field.

With the exception of a Bureau of Military History witness statement and the occasional contemporary newspaper report, Portillo’s source material came from British State papers. Much like The Enemy Files, this documentary is intended as an insight into the British State and how it perceived the Irish situation. The ‘hawks’ were those who favoured an aggressive confrontational approach to the rise of Sinn Féin, the ‘doves’ the more conciliatory elements of the State, including some in Dublin Castle, willing to engage politically.

To some extent, all who engage with history are shaped by their own lived experiences, and Portillo’s project is both topped and tailed with reference to the more recent Northern Ireland conflict. With brutal honesty, he describes how he himself went from something of a ‘hawk’, a self-declared Thatcherite who had political allies killed at the hands of the IRA, to a ‘dove’, willing to do business with the Provos. Undoubtedly the revolutionary period of the early twentieth century had a bearing on the Northern conflict in the later decades of that same century, but here the point is considerably over-egged. Jonathan Powell, chief government negotiator in Northern Ireland in the lead-up to the Peace Process, talks at considerable length about meeting Martin McGuinness in Derry. It is fascinating stuff but perhaps the subject for another day.

Above: Detail from The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919 by William Orpen. Portillo puts the developing crisis in post-First World War Ireland into its international context before travelling to Soloheadbeg. (IWM)

Portillo avoids the pitfall of many before him, of beginning the story of the Irish War of Independence with a roadside ambush in Tipperary. We do see Portillo standing by the side of the road in Soloheadbeg, yes, but before that he brings us on a journey to Versailles, where Maurice Walsh, author of the masterful Bitter freedom: Ireland in a revolutionary world 1918–1923, puts the developing crisis in post-First World War Ireland into its international context. Imperialism, we are told, ‘looked like yesterday’s idea’. The two strands of the crisis—the political and the military—run throughout, and the ability of the documentary to explain complex ideas succinctly is impressive. As well as Walsh’s explanation of post-war Europe, particular praise is due to Fearghal McGarry, who expertly summarises the idea of the Northern Irish state, a peculiar thing, ‘a new state choosing to be smaller than it could be’.

Above left: Presenter Michael Portillo at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary. (Midas Productions) Above right: Jonathan Powell, chief government negotiator in Northern Ireland in the lead-up to the Peace Process, talks at considerable length about meeting Martin McGuinness in Derry—fascinating stuff but perhaps the subject for another day. (Midas Productions).

Contributors come from across the island of Ireland, and occasionally beyond, and it is a diverse list of voices, from Marie Coleman to Brian Hanley, and from Paul Bew to Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc. Curiously, no one who is interviewed in Part 1 is returned to in Part 2. There was, perhaps, a lost opportunity here in the conclusion of the documentary; much space is given to Powell’s recollections of the Northern conflict, while many viewers instead might have preferred the concluding thoughts of the historians encountered earlier on this journey.

Portillo’s prop throughout the documentary is a folder, bursting with primary source materials, to be interrogated by the historians he encounters. Being the papers of the British State, they are high-table politics, reflecting the internal debate and discussion of an empire at war. They reveal the complexity of bureaucracy, and that elements of the State were working not so much in conflict with one another as often in ignorance of one another. There are also missing narratives—the voices of women are totally absent; perhaps an obvious link was missed in the story of Elizabeth Mernin, the typist in Dublin Castle who operated as a secret agent for revolutionary Ireland and who was known as ‘the Little Gentleman’.

Ultimately, Portillo is quite damning of the British government’s handling of the Irish crisis. This comes through especially when, with Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, he explores the failure of the British to secure a peaceful settlement earlier than the Truce of July 1921. His journey ends not with the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament and the conciliatory speech of King George V (‘the most content-laden speech I have ever seen from a monarch’, in Portillo’s words) but instead with our presenter standing inside the chambers of Dáil Éireann. Tantalisingly, Portillo alludes to the subsequent Civil War, a war that Ireland is ‘less keen to remember now than its War of Independence’. He is on record as stating his wish to complete a trilogy of documentaries with an exploration of that conflict, and undoubtedly many viewers of Hawks and Doves will eagerly await it.

Donal Fallon is co-author (with John Gibney) of Revolutionary Dublin, 1912–1923: a walking guide (Collins Press, 2018) and presenter of the Three Castles Burning historical podcast.

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