Fact or fiction?

Former IRA man and British secret service informant Martin McGartland talks

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This week’s new release, Fifty Dead Men Walking, is a thriller adapted from Martin McGartland’s book of the same name. McGartland is a working-class Belfast boy who became both a respected member of the IRA and an informer for the British secret service. McGartland has been living in hiding for the past two decades, during which time he has been tracked down and shot twice. So it came as something of a surprise when he contacted Time Out to discuss his reactions to the film which, he asserts, crucially misrepresents some episodes from his life story.

The best way I can explain it, in basic, blunt terms, is it’s as near to the truth as Earth is to Pluto,’ McGartland insists. ‘If a film is loosely based on someone’s life story, how does the audience know what’s true and what’s fiction?’

McGartland cites various specific incidences where the film strays from his version of the truth. ‘I have never drank in my life, I have never smoked in my life and [actor] Jim Sturgess is in pubs getting p***ed all the time and smoking cigarettes. All the stuff about me getting shot in Canada, I’ve never been to Canada in my life except for a brief holiday. I never lived there. And I certainly was not present when a suspected informer was interrogated and murdered. That made me so angry.’

But for McGartland, this isn’t just a case of creative licence. ‘Not only is there sympathy for the Republican movement [in the film], but the director, Kari Skogland, has done some kind of deal with the IRA whereby she has allowed them to be consultants and also, this is on record too, they’ve actually been on set when the film was being made, which is unheard of. How can you make a film about the IRA when they’re standing there watching over your shoulder?’

Director Skogland angrily refutes McGartland’s claims, though she admits she did consult ex-IRA members when researching the film, and accepts that ex-Republicans were on set during shooting. ‘But so were the army!’ she argues. ‘They were there at the same time. Everyone was getting along, it was really very important, the army was there, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was there, everyone wanted me to get it right, to have a very authentic view. While I would not want to suggest the IRA had any influence on the film, because they didn’t, I certainly had to go to people to make sure that if I’m portraying them I’m not portraying them from some ill-conceived, stereotypical Hollywood perspective.’

She also asserts that she offered McGartland an advisory role on the film and held numerous conversations with him during shooting. ‘I spent hours talking to him, and recognised that he had quite a distinct agenda.
I felt because he had such a passionate perspective, his intention would have been to make it a political document. That was not the intention of the movie. This was not an agenda-oriented film. I listened and I was very respectful. But I couldn’t let his voice change the dynamic of the picture, which I knew was a truthful story of what it is to be an informer.’

Whatever the respective merits of their conflicting views, the incident highlights the responsibility filmmakers bear when telling real-life stories, particularly when their subjects are alive and eager to speak out. McGartland is concerned that the film will now be the only way people remember his contribution to what he views as a righteous cause.

‘I’ve been kidnapped by the IRA, jumped out of a window to save my own life,’ he says. ‘I’ve been through the mill and back again and I accept those consequences as a result of what I do… I didn’t want any control over the film, I just wanted them to do it in a fair way.’
Fifty Dead Men Walking is in UAE cinemas now.

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