24 December 2005

Irish Playwright Speaks From Hideout

New York Times

December 24, 2005

LONDON, Dec. 23 - Gary Mitchell, a prominent Northern Irish playwright, has been forced into hiding along with his family following an attack on his Belfast home by what he called rogue paramilitary figures linked to the Protestant loyalist cause.

"We are a bit mystified, a bit frightened, a bit shook up," he said late Friday.

In a telephone interview from a secret hideout in Northern Ireland, Mr. Mitchell, who is 40 and a Protestant, described months of intimidation of himself and members of his family apparently inspired by his plays depicting Protestant paramilitaries and their influence on Protestant communities in the hardscrabble, blue-collar districts of Belfast he has known since childhood.

"I depict the Unionist community in a fair light," Mr. Mitchell said, referring to the Protestant groups that oppose Irish republicanism and seek continued ties with Britain. "I depict them the way I see them. Maybe they want it more romantic. I don't find anything heroic in attacking 17-year-olds and pensioners."

His flight into hiding on Nov. 23 reflected the seething unease across the sectarian divide that has persisted, despite the 1998 Good Friday agreement that was supposed to end the decades of strife between Protestants and Roman Catholics known as the Troubles, which have claimed 3,500 lives on all sides.

This year, Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old Belfast Catholic, was killed in a barroom Tattack blamed partly on members of the Irish Republican Army. Rival Protestant gangs fought battles in which four people died last summer.

The sectarian strife has touched Mr. Mitchell in increasingly dramatic ways. He was forced to move two years ago from the hard-line Unionist Rathcoole area, where he grew up and where he learned the harsh cadences that have made him what some critics consider the most authentic dramatic voice of working-class Unionism. Since then, he and his family have lived in the Glengormley district, a mixed area populated by middle-class Protestants and Catholics.

But, he said in the telephone interview, the volume of criticism about his plays - like "Loyal Women," performed at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2003 - and of personal threat intensified this year, culminating in a warning to leave within four hours, or every member of his family would be killed.

"I have had threats, people saying they were going to get me," Mr. Mitchell said. "The police have told me to alter my routine, not to frequent certain pubs and clubs. There's a playground-bully mentality that I have lived with."

Since the latest attack, he added, "my whole family and extended family are scattered around secret locations."

Unlike the novelist Salman Rushdie, who was protected by British government bodyguards after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against him in 1989 following publication of "The Satanic Verses," Mr. Mitchell said he had no police protection. "We asked for police protection," he said. "They said they were too busy."

On Nov. 23, he said, men with their faces covered and wielding baseball bats came to his home and blew up his car, forcing him, his wife, Alison, and their 8-year-old son, Harry, to flee. "My car was bombed in my driveway," he said. Simultaneously, the home of an uncle was also attacked. His parents had already been forced to leave their home.

"It's very disruptive to watch a family struggle through it and see a little boy being frightened all the time," Mr. Mitchell said. His son, he said, has been so disturbed by the bombing that he is afraid of every small noise.

But he said he is determined to continue to work: "It's not going to stop me. I have a laptop. I have access to e-mail. I can send scripts off."

"Once you go outside the reach of these people," he added, "you are trying to establish a sense of normalcy."

Part of the reason for the attacks on him, Mr. Mitchell said, may be that republican writers tend to "create heroes and legends."

"I don't do this to loyalist paramilitaries," he said.

The Guardian newspaper in London recently reported that Mr. Mitchell's plays, including "As the Beast Sleeps" and "The Force of Change," show the continued power of paramilitary groups over Northern Ireland's divided societies. His work has been performed in Britain, the United States and Germany.

Paradoxically, though, he was once accused in San Francisco of being biased against Roman Catholics and refusing to allow them to perform in his plays. A 1999 production of "Trust," he said in a 2003 article in The Guardian, was favorably reviewed but poorly attended in San Francisco because of rumors that he would not allow Catholics to perform, direct or produce any of his work - a charge he denies.

He wrote in 2003: "Some of my neighbors have threatened me because I criticize the Protestant people. I can only offer that if I am being critical, then I am criticizing the human experience and not the Protestant community of Northern Ireland alone."

In the interview on Friday, he said, "I think everybody is opposed to my work."

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