restricted access Cities under Watch: Urban Northern Ireland in Film
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Cities under Watch:
Urban Northern Ireland in Film

Because they have been urban epicenters for sectarian violence, and because this violence has inflicted tens of thousands of casualties since the late 1960s, Belfast, Omagh, and Derry have long been subjected to the gaze of surveillance technology—a field of vision that endeavors to organize each of these cities into observable units. Military watchtowers in South Armagh, built during the 1980s to monitor the activities of the Irish Republican Army along the border, are some of the more visible examples of the elaborate network of surveillance wired throughout Northern Ireland. Even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the British army continued to maintain these watchtowers and the surrounding garrisons that in 2001 comprised an estimated "1,500 microwave dishes, infrared cameras, and other surveillance equipment at 31 look-out posts in South Armagh."1 In combination with urban CCTV surveillance cameras, this network in South Armagh gives one the distinct impression that cities in Northern Ireland are cities under watch. Not surprisingly, the heightened presence of surveillance technology has not gone unnoticed. Witness Ciaran Carson's rendering of Belfast in his prose-poetry collection Belfast Confetti. As Carson observes in "Intelligence," Belfast embodies an urban environment plotted, built, and inhabited as if all citizens are "being watched through [End Page 56] peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras, talked about on walkie-talkies, car 'phones, Pye Pocket phones"; for Carson this technology of gazing ramifies a hierarchy of vision in the city, for there are those who are watching and those who are being watched, as the narrator of "Intelligence" posits: "Everyone is watching someone, everyone wants to know what's coming next."2 As "Intelligence" wagers, the urban surveillance camera in Northern Ireland has historically functioned within a long-established system of colonial observation, and its increasing presence in these cities throughout the 1980s and 1990s created urban spaces and suburban neighborhoods largely organized under the sign of the gaze.3

Urban development in Northern Ireland has reflected this lived reality for more than forty years. Walls and concrete barriers have divided the cities into observable (read manageable) zones; urban planning was choreographed by sectarian division; public-use institutions such as political-party headquarters, libraries, community centers, churches, pubs, unemployment offices, and schools tended to more or less abide by the implicit politics of ethnic zoning, while public murals provided aesthetic force to the underlying tensions within urban development. The fierce politics of metropolitan visuality created cityscapes where citizens became hostages to this ethnic zoning, where the practice of "everyday life, a heretofore devalued and hidden terrain excluded from serious political struggle, emerges as a political-military object of internal colonization," as Allen Feldman records.4 Without question, then, urban, built space in Northern Ireland is highly symbolic and intensely political, with the camera playing a major role in both physical and metaphoric constructions of the city. Moreover, as the writings of Henri Lefebvre [End Page 57] suggest, the problematics of this urban, built space in Northern Ireland imply also the complex of social relationships that actively produce, reproduce, and inhabit these spaces.5 Otherwise put, the disposition of Northern Ireland's urban geographies has historically given body to ideological projects of sectarian design.

But these cities are under watch and being produced in another sense. Since 1992, the year that The Crying Game (Neil Jordan) was released and Northern Ireland gained a more visible presence on the international film scene, several films about Belfast, Omagh, and Derry have explored the relationship between urban geography and political identity, providing us with screen images of the city that are not simply mimetic or derivative or empirical but participants in the ongoing debates about the iconography of political representation in Northern Ireland. In many of these historically based films, such as Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002), Omagh (Pete Travis, 2004), Hunger (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009), and Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), the issue for many critics and viewers seems to be either how accurately the film portrays an iconic event in the history of the "Troubles" or how the film invests this portrayal with political meaning. John Hill's recent...