September 10, 2008 / 8:12 PM / 10 years ago

Peace breaks out in war about IRA movie

TORONTO (Reuters) - A former infiltrator into the Irish Republican Army who spent months protesting against a film based on his life is now praising it and says a cash settlement had nothing to do with the switch.

Director Kari Skogland speaks beside actor Jim Sturgess (L) at the "Fifty Dead Men Walking" news conference at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 10, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

“Fifty Dead Men Walking,” which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday, is based on Martin McGartland’s best-selling 1997 memoir of a young Catholic hustler living in Belfast in the late ‘80s who was recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate the IRA.

As he moved up the chain of command, his work inside the organization saved more than 50 lives, according to McGartland and the movie’s makers.

But McGartland had threatened to sue the British and Canadian producers for distorting his story. At one stage he said he might try to stop Wednesday night’s premiere.

After last-ditch negotiations this week, which included 20,000 pounds ($35,000) for McGartland to waive his rights and agree not to pursue legal action, the former spy now says he is happy with the film.

“The producers gave me a copy of the DVD and I watched it again ... and the more I watch it, I just love it,” McGartland told Reuters in a telephone interview from Britain, where he remains in hiding for fear of IRA retribution.

He lives under a false identity somewhere on the mainland, he said.


The IRA unmasked McGartland in 1991 and nearly killed him during an interrogation in a Belfast apartment. He escaped by jumping out a third-story bathroom window with his hands and feet bound.

He cheated death again when the IRA tracked him to a hide-out on the northeast coast of England and shot him six times point-blank.

Prior to this week, McGartland said he saw an incomplete version of “Fifty Dead Men Walking” in May and was concerned about several fictionalized scenes, including the timing of his joining the IRA, which he thought called his motives into question.

Director Kari Skogland said it was hard for McGartland to understand that making the film based on his life was not like making a documentary about him.

“I think he’s been through an awful lot and he had tremendous anxiety,” she told Reuters. “His tune really changed right after press and industry saw it ... . Perhaps they weighed in and said, you know, you are portrayed as a hero.”

The film stars Jim Sturgess as McGartland and Ben Kingsley as his British handler, with Rose McGowan as an IRA femme fatale.

Filming in Belfast brought the cast and crew up against the realities of modern-day Northern Ireland, with former police officers and IRA volunteers acting as advisers and dogging the actors every step of the way.

“We had many secret meetings in dark places, there was no question we were being watched by all sides, our phones were tapped and there were cameras and various things,” Skogland told a news conference.

Ex-IRA men and women welcomed the cast with honesty, information and friendship in the pubs after a day of shooting, but their cooperation went only so far.

When McGowan, herself Irish-American, asked one group what they would do if the real McGartland walked in, they responded nonchalantly, “Oh, we’d shoot him dead.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Xavier Briand

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