No easy answers for the Irish question

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Off the Walls, Channel 4, Thursdays, 11.20pm, Free information sheet, Educational Television Company, 01926 433333. Age range 14 to 17

What can a television series do, faced with prejudice and self-righteousness, asks John Gardner. This series of five programmes, exploring cultural and religious identity in Northern Ireland, leaves me with mixed, but mostly positive, feelings. It is an example of that useful genre of broadcast teaching aids that enables difficult things to be said, and complex matters to be discussed, without teachers necessarily having to broach the subjects themselves. Such programmes stimulate debate and, the theory goes, this brings enlightenment, understanding and tolerance. I wonder.

Designed to support the Education for Mutual Understanding element of the Northern Ireland curriculum, the series incorporates three dimensions in each of its 20-minute programmes. Presenter John Kelly provides short items on the religious divisions in Jerusalem; there is a studio discussion among a group of Northern Irish youngsters.

Another part of each programme allows us to eavesdrop on a series of well-acted vignettes, portraying aspects of young Belfast lives. All three dimensions loosely follow a set of themes such as identity, culture, religion and language, and address the conflict or potential for conflict that surrounds them.

For example, the uncompromising views expressed by the actors in the vignettes are juxtaposed with the views of some real young people and with the commentary of a visit to the site of the Zealots' last stand in Palestine.

The meaning and implications attaching to the various issues are explored both directly and indirectly, but I still had the sense that the liberal sprinkling of liberal views was trying hard, but not quite succeeding, to stand up to the tide of righteousness, certainty and faith. Perhaps they are not supposed to "succeed". Maybe the objective is to legitimise the extreme viewpoints and disarm them through raising awareness and generating tolerance.

It is difficult to address stereotypes without illustrating them - and in the process reinforcing the images that you're trying to escape. Irony surfaces here and there, amusingly but only occasionally in John Kelly's narration, but any subtlety in the intention to cause reflection through the vignettes is rendered somewhat less powerful by the use of all-too-familiar stereotypes.

The reflective, liberal views in the clips are predominantly female, educated and middle-class, while the angry and uncompromising views are reserved for actors, albeit including one female, using broad Belfast accents, presumably hailing from the unemployed or working classes. This is a mistake, as extreme views straddle the whole spectrum of Northern Irish society.

One scene seems not to fit. A young man has just been assaulted for "wanting to be himself" and the scene is probably designed to draw us away from only considering community and political division to looking at a wider understanding and tolerating personal preferences.

Throughout the series, an aggressive culture of righteousness, ("what we have we hold"), and a retaliatory victim culture, ("they did that so we are entitled to do this"), exudes from the expected quarters and extends into the studio discussions. I can't help thinking that many of those watching will not be amenable to the reason or persuasion that is needed to engage them in change. Rather they are likely to see, in the attitudes expressed, strong, and on occasions articulate, legitimisation of their political views.

Allegorical approaches to fostering change can have limited usage. Intellectuals may marvel at the cleverness of screenwriters, but their message can be too subtle for impressionable people. As for the hard cases, do habitual drunk drivers heed drink-driving campaigns? Are those who gloat over each atrocity against the "other side" affected by the clever advertising that tries to tug at their consciences by highlighting the plight of those left behind? I suspect not.

The series encompasses the subtle and the explicit, but unlike advertising campaigns it is specifically designed to generate discussion in the classroom.

In the hands of good teachers the series will undoubtedly be successful Q perhaps not in getting at the out and out bigots but reaching instead out to those who offer a tacit acceptance to an unacceptable status quo.

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