The film has many fine qualities; but one of its most striking aspects is its opening sequence, when a little boy’s street game of swords and battles is suddenly and shockingly interrupted, within seconds, by the reality of brutal sectarian conflict, as a mob appears, intent on burning the few remaining Catholic families out of a mainly Protestant street.
The boy stands frozen in horror; his terrified mother runs out of the house and through the raging crowd, to scoop him up and take him and his older brother to relative safety under the kitchen table.
All three are visibly in shock. For them, this is the beginning of the Troubles; and as we know, they were to last almost 30 years, from that summer of 1969, to the signing in 1998 of the Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement.
This week, the world – or some of it – paused briefly to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, instituted by the United Nations in 2005 to encourage knowledge and memory of the most notorious act of ethnic hatred in modern history; and this is certainly as good a moment as any to reflect on war and peace, and on the constant hard work and vigilance that is necessary to protect the peaceful conditions that most of us in western Europe have been able to take for granted, for the last 75 years.
The west’s growing unease at the gradual massing of Russian troops close to the eastern border of Ukraine – already under way for many months, if not years – has now brought matters of war and peace in Europe back onto the daily news agenda; and for many at Westminster, and on the international stage, the matter of containing Russia is purely a question of resisting force with force, both economic and military.
Indeed many on the Conservative benches at Westminster have argued, in recent days, that Britain should now forget about Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ scandals, and concentrate instead on injecting what they doubtless see as some British backbone into the international response on Ukraine, where the UK has already delivered a small amount of material military assistance.
For supporters of the Prime Minister, though, the inconvenient truth is that ‘Cakegate’, and the wider row about Boris Johnson’s conduct and policies in office, is much more relevant to the current western confusion over Ukraine than they would wish; and those with a serious long-term interest in building and sustaining peace, both at home and internationally, understand exactly why.
In the first place, the building of peace involves support for the economic security of all citizens, and the cultivation of a culture based on hope rather than fear.
Ever since the west made the huge strategic blunder, after 1989, of trying to export to the east not a decent form of social democracy but the most savage model of capitalism available – with its encouragement of gross economic inequalities, and its relative contempt for the institutions of democracy – it has been laying the ground for greater division and fear in those countries, and therefore for the rise of authoritarian governments.
This is overwhelmingly true in Russia, where Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999 after a decade of kleptocratic chaos in which huge national assets were looted by a wealthy elite, and at least 1.3 million excess deaths occurred because of the abrupt withdrawal of state support from vulnerable groups.
The second and closely related condition for peace involves the creation and development of trustworthy institutions, both national and international. No justice, no peace, says the old slogan; and those who want peace therefore have an overwhelming obligation to seek to build and sustain institutions of law, justice and co-operation at every level, including the international one.
The brilliance of the European Union, as a project, is that it addresses both of these conditions, enhancing economic co-operation and stability, and embodying the idea of a rule-governed international order.
And for that reason, Boris Johnson’s wrecking-ball approach to Brexit – first campaigning for it, then insisting on a damagingly extreme form of it, then trying to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement he himself had negotiated – has fast become a notorious example of the irresponsible behaviour of right-wing US and UK governments in recent years; a picture of disruptive antagonism to the keeping of agreements, and to the rule of international law, that, particularly during the Trump presidency, contributed greatly to the current strategic weakness and division of the west – and has also, of course, threatened the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself, undermined from the outset by the very idea of Brexit.
All of which helps to explain why those distressed by the contempt Boris Johnson has shown for his own lockdown rules may well see this behaviour as part of a much wider picture, and feel that despite the best efforts of his backers to make it so, a little last-minute sabre-rattling and arms exporting on Ukraine cannot make a great defender of peace and democracy out of a leader who has proved himself an instinctive mocker and disrupter of all those carefully constructed institutions and policies that actually make peace possible.
And for us, the ordinary citizens – well, as Branagh’s fine film reminds us, the trick is never to succumb to the complacent myth that this kind of horror cannot happen to us.
It can happen, in the middle of a summer’s day, in any society which ever forgets that politics truly matters, or which submits to the leadership of grandstanding fools, rather than true men of women of peace; and let us remember that, if nothing else, on every Holocaust Memorial Day.