"What the fuck are you people running here? Your own private shooting war?"
On my first watch of Hidden Agenda I, like many others, found it to be a one-sided affair which rather tempered my appreciation and enjoyment of it on the whole.
Granted, Hidden Agenda is an impartial production - after all, it isn't considered a controversial film ("the IRA entry at Cannes" as one Tory MP put it) without good reason - but on reflection, it's worth noting that Ken Loach and his scriptwriter Jim Allen took what was, at the time, an extremely unprecedented step here, by allowing Sinn Fein a voice in the media.
It's easy to forget that from 1988 to 1994 Gerry Adams could only appear on the news with his words dubbed by an actor, whilst any perceived sympathy to the Irish cause on television was immediately embargoed; a clear example of this was a performance by The Pogues on Friday Night Live in 1988. The performance of their song 'Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six' was forcibly interrupted by an unscheduled advert break (the station, Channel 4, had previously muted the words of a striking miner on an episode of The Tube four years earlier) and the song was subsequently banned for broadcast anywhere by the IBA who concluded that the song claimed "convicted terrorists are not guilty, the Irish people were put at a disadvantage in the courts of the United Kingdom and that it may have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA" It was three years later that this was indeed proven to be the case in a court of law and the Birmingham Six were granted their freedom.
When Jim McAllister, a real-life Sinn Fein politician, compares the actions of the IRA to the historically vindicated campaigns of George Washington, Jomo Kenyatta and Archbishop Makarios, it's easy to see why critics accused Loach of turning in a film that refuses to offer an objective balance, but to do so ignores the fact that there wasn't a free debate in this period to begin with.
As The Wind That Shakes The Barley would later remind us, Ken Loach's sympathies may lie with the Republican cause, but its core is in the socialist ideals that some of its factions possessed. Whilst dialogue from Frances McDormand's character serves to remind us that "not every Republican supports the IRA", it's perhaps telling that Loach chooses to set his film via a caption over the first scene in Belfast 'a few years ago', perhaps to disassociate his depiction of the Republican fight from the funding via drug trafficking and prostitution that had become de rigueur by 1990 and would continue to be so until the peace process a little over a decade later.
Revisiting Hidden Agenda, I don't feel Loach truly glorifies the IRA or Sinn Fein in the way that some critics vociferously suggested, but I do fee that both he and Allen were perhaps laying themselves open to criticism by neglecting to tell the story of the innocents who truly suffer in the tit-for-tit war between the IRA and the security forces representing the interests of the UK. But then perhaps what Loach is really trying to depict here is the lack of morality and a growing callousness on either side when it comes down to this 'collateral damage', whilst undoubtedly his real message lies in the fact that our intelligent services are now on record as going against our wishes in our supposed free and democratic society. Because it is a film about British dirty tricks; not just in Ireland, but on the mainland too.
The plot of Hidden Agenda revolves around the execution of Brad Dourif's civil rights lawyer and the subsequent investigation conducted by Brian Cox's British police inspector, Kerrigan, and the victim’s grieving partner and colleague, Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand, excellent). The film takes inspiration from John Stalker's hampered investigation into the RUC's 'Shoot to Kill' policy (Kerrigan is as much a thinly disguised Stalker as he is an avatar of the audience) and it is clear that Loach believed the constabulary to be an out-of-control militia which was responsible for the deaths of 130 people between 1969 and 1980, half of whom were innocent of any crime. Loach’s intention with Hidden Agenda is to highlight the civil war occurring in the UK and that our government's actions were just as reprehensible as that of the terrorists.
It's strange therefore that Loach and Allen muddy the waters by planting in a secondary storyline concerning the conspiracy theory that claimed a cabal of politicians, high-ranking members of the security forces and captains of industry operated a black propaganda campaign in the 1970s against both the Labour PM Harold Wilson and his Conservative opposition rival, Edward Heath. Though it bolsters the notion of the dirty tricks the security services and establishment play against the wishes of the general public, and despite a fine turn from the great Maurice Roeves as Harris, the former SAS officer turned whistleblower, I still feel that Loach overreaches himself in asking his audience to accept two extremely big, contentious political viewpoints in the one film and Hidden Agenda suffers for it.
However, it's important to remember that Hidden Agenda brought about a return from the wilderness for Loach, one of this countries most important and renowned filmmakers. For that alone, we must be grateful to it.