Ronan Bennett: A sense of impending tragedy

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Writer Ronan Bennett talks to Shaun Doherty about the lead up to the Iraq war, the ignorance of New Labour and being a political writer

How did 10 Days to War, your series of eight short dramas marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, come about?

Someone had come up with the idea of dramatising the run-up to the war in a series of short films. It was green lit, fully financed, and given a broadcast date - which was obviously the anniversary of the war - but had no script. So I was asked.

We set ourselves the goal of dramatising events that happened each day five years ago. So it limited what we were able to do in some ways. Then we had to pick stories that we felt would illuminate things that had been forgotten or overlooked.

One of the things that came through strongly from the research was the issue of the second United Nations (UN) resolution. The danger is that what's left in people's collective memory is Blair saying, "We're working flat out for a second resolution." We talked to diplomats at the UN and to many people who knew what was going on at that time, and it is clear that there was never going to be a second resolution.

Up until as late as the week of 10 March Blair was still saying there would be a second resolution. He was trying to persuade the country that the war was legal and that it had UN sanction. To me that was a complete lie, because they all knew they were never going to get it, yet they carried on with that fiction. So one of our films dramatises the fight for the so-called "second resolution", which also involved pressure on the non-permanent members from all sides.

We used the historical anecdote of Yemen who in 1991 voted against a US resolution calling for the use of force against Iraq. They had a multimillion dollar aid package about to be approved by the US which was then cancelled. The US ambassador turned to his Yemeni counterpart and said, "That's the most expensive vote you will ever cast." So we show the threats, the bullying taking place at the UN.

What do you think it will be like for an audience who watch the films with the benefit of hindsight of the last five years?

Well, for example, we dramatise Colonel Tim Collins, played by Kenneth Branagh, who made the speech made famous by the Daily Mail. It was actually really beautiful and stirring and contained lines like "We will leave Iraq a better place" and "We will treat them humanely and with respect."

I asked myself, by having an actor like Branagh deliver these lines is there a danger that this would be misinterpreted as gung-ho? But you can't listen to what he says and not think about the five years that have been. So he says, "Tread lightly there" - 500 pound bombs, "Treat prisoners with respect" - Abu Ghraib. So I let the speech stand and people can measure it against what happened afterwards.

I went to see Collins and one of the interesting things he said was that they only found out that the war had started from the television. The US hadn't bothered to tell them. So they suddenly had to get into gear because they were supposed to be spearheading the invasion from Kuwait into southern Iraq. So he jumped into his jeep and his driver said, "I'm not being funny sir, but why are we doing this?"

This is far more effective coming out of the mouth of a soldier than if any of us had said it.

What do you make of David Miliband reasserting the doctrine that humanitarian intervention is still something they can maintain?

Miliband comes across as unbelievably crude, ignorant and stupid. New Labour has never been very good with history. It's never been its strong suit, but you would have thought that the lessons of the last five years should have been learned. Those arguments are confounded, in just about every quarter, by every experience we have had over the last five years. He's just had to admit that secret rendition flights did use British ground.

I had a heated argument with Chris Mullin [the MP] who used to be a half decent bloke when he was campaigning for the Birmingham Six. But two or three years ago detainees at Belmarsh prison had hearings - a bit like Long Kesh in the 1970s after internment. They had witnesses giving evidence from behind screens. I asked Chris - he was a government minister at the time - "How can you possibly defend this?" He said, "Ronan, 9/11 changed everything." History didn't start with this! They are philistines - with their lack of history or any other perspectives than the West's.

Do any of the films look at the anti-war movement, and what do you think is its legacy?

One of the films deals with the impact the coming of the war had on the Muslim population and the way Muslims were radicalised. You see a group of Muslims preparing to go on a march - not the biggest one, which is out of our time frame. One says that Blair and the British government didn't listen after the 15 February march, so why should they bother marching? Another person makes the argument that politics is part of a process: you keep going and that's how you get results.

We do have a responsibility not to be pessimistic. But for me the big shock and disappointment was that Blair was re-elected. I can't square the feeling that I sensed all around me on the marches, with people then going and putting their X on the ballot and putting New Labour back into power.

Now even the military families are campaigning. Some now find that soldiers who have survived, but are severely injured, are being abandoned and mistreated.

That's the thing you want to say to the parents and kids who join up. They will use you and then they'll discard you. We're not shocked about that because we know the history. That's all it takes - a bit of historical knowledge. The Ministry of Defence doesn't feel any obligation to these people. It doesn't feel any moral responsibility for them.

But I'm far more critical of soldiers and the military than a lot of others would be. I think there is a tendency even among ourselves - broadly speaking, the left - to say that they are just following orders. But soldiers do not cease to be moral, responsible citizens just because they put on a uniform. I think they get the benefit of the doubt too much.

Do any of the programmes look at the war from an Iraqi perspective?

Yes, one is about an episode when the weapons inspectors went to a milk factory. They knew they weren't going to find anything, and yet everybody was trying to be helpful. The point was that the Iraqis wanted the weapons inspectors there because the minute they were pulled out that meant they were going to be bombed.

So I try to convey that sense of impending tragedy and the impact it's going to have on the Iraqis through this relationship between the weapons inspectors and the people they're inspecting. I went to the UN to talk to weapons inspectors and other people. In Iraq, they were in a place called the Canal Hotel on the outskirts of Baghdad and had Iraqi staff - cleaners and so on. And the news came through that they were being withdrawn. Apparently there was screaming and howling by the cleaners, because they knew what was coming: their children were going to be bombed. So we tried to get the sense in the film of what that meant for Iraqis.

Have you got any novels on the go, given your preoccupation with this project?

One I hope to finish by the end of the year is called This Is Private. There are kind of two strands to it. One is the issue of privacy - and having once or twice been the subject of intrusion it made me wonder about the issue. But the other thing I deal with is something I started thinking about three years ago. I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the suicide of a child in prison, called Joseph Scholes, from Manchester. I went up to the inquest and it was just so shocking. This kid had been from a broken home, had been involved in some really quite minor offences, and was sentenced to two years in jail. Everybody - the psychiatrist, the doctors, the social workers, the care home - said to the judge, "If you send this boy to prison he'll kill himself." The judge didn't care and sent him to prison for two years. Joseph only lasted nine days.

When I came back from the inquest and turned on the news, the first item was on a 15 year old boy named Gareth Paul Myatt who had died in a Group 4 run prison. He had left the kitchen area in bit of a state and gone back to his room and the staff had said, "Clean up the kitchen," and he'd said - according to the staff - "Fuck off!" Three Group 4 people followed him into his room and by the time they left he was dead.

Coming back from the inquest and hearing that on the news, I just thought I had to write about this.

The prison numbers are rising and rising, and the number of women and children. There's no end to it.

Do you mind being characterised as a political writer?

Well, I am a political writer. Everything I do, whether it's a Hollywood project, a novel, or 10 Days to War, I choose because it has a political side to it. I'm interested in the intersection between the personal and the domestic on the one side, and the political on the other, and that's what motivates me as a writer. If I didn't feel I could do that, I wouldn't write.

I've been very lucky because I work in the mainstream and people get to see my films and read my books. But there are compromises you have to make. On one level it can be a Hollywood script in which I had a reference to Abu Ghraib and the studio notes came back saying, "This has to come out." So things like that happen, but for all the politics you can't forget the domestic and the personal. That's why people are interested in books and fiction and drama because it's about people, and you mustn't short change that side of it.

Also there's probably a greater element of uncertainty and doubt in my fiction about political issues. I feel very clear about where I stand on things, but you can't put that certainty into a novel because fiction can't thrive on certainty: it thrives on doubt.

The thing I have to reconcile is just mixing that uncertainty and questioning and doubt and the weakness of the characters, their flaws and so on, but trying to get the message across at the same time. Sometimes it goes wrong. Sometimes things can be misread. I was told this week that two prominent Blairites are apparently huge fans of my novel Havoc, in its Third Year, and that made me think I'd done something wrong. But I have no objection being called a political writer at all.

I have lived in Hackney for 20 years now and I'm very interested in this community. I went to the BBC a year ago and said that I really wanted to write a screenplay about kids in Hackney, and it was commissioned. I hope it will be made this summer. It's a look at life on the street for kids, mostly black kids, and the struggles they face with the police and all the rest of it.

That satisfies me on a political level because it's about the community I live in and it'll be from a view I don't think is often represented on television. Working in the mainstream is really important to me, because as much as I admire people who have their niches, there's no fun being a writer if people are not reading your words.

The 10 Days to War mini-films will be shown in the Newsnight slot on BBC 2 from 10 March. The paperback of Ronan Bennett's novel Zugzwang will be published next month.

Ronan Bennett at a glance

  • 1956 Born in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland
  • 1974 Convicted at juryless Diplock court for the murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary inspector and sent to Long Kesh prison. Conviction overturned in 1975.
  • 1978 Arrested in London for conspiracy to cause explosions, spending 16 months in prison on remand. Bennett and co-defendants acquitted in 1979.
  • 1990 Writes Stolen Years: Before and After Guildford with Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four
  • 1991 Ronan's first novel, The Second Prison, is shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Prize
  • 1998 The Catastrophist, Ronan's third novel, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award
  • 2004 Havoc, in its Third Year, wins the Hughes and Hughes/Sunday Independent Irish Novel of the Year Award.
  • 2006 Zugzwang serialised in the Observer newspaper