Hidden Agenda (1990 film)

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Hidden Agenda
Hidden agenda ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKen Loach
Produced byEric Fellner
Written byJim Allen
Music byStewart Copeland
CinematographyClive Tickner
Edited byJonathan Morris
Distributed byHemdale Film Corporation
Release date
  • 21 November 1990 (1990-11-21)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Hidden Agenda (1990), directed by Ken Loach, is a political thriller about British state terrorism during the Northern Irish Troubles that depicts the fictional assassination of an American civil rights lawyer.


The film opens with an Orange walk on The Twelfth, and a tape being handed to an American human rights activist, which becomes his death warrant. It begins with a quote from Margaret Thatcher insisting that Northern Ireland is part of Britain. It ends with one from a former British intelligence agent, stating, "There are two laws running this country: one for the security forces and the other for the rest of us." [1]

Investigator Peter Kerrigan (Cox), assisted by Ingrid Jessner (McDormand), investigates the killing of Paul Sullivan (Dourif), an American civil rights lawyer and political activist in Northern Ireland, whilst he was accompanied by a Provisional IRA sympathiser. The investigation reveals that the two men were shot without warning. A mysterious tape recording surfaces, made by a Captain Harris, an ex-army intelligence officer, now in hiding, of senior military leaders and Conservative Party politicians discussing how they arranged the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. Eventually, Harris gives a copy of the tape to Jessner, but British security forces kill Harris, and blame his death on the IRA. Kerrigan is blackmailed into silence about the conspiracy. Jessner still has the tape, but without Harris to authenticate it, the recording can be dismissed as a forgery.


The story makes references to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, which imply that British rule of Northern Ireland was sustained with terrorism equivalent to the terrorism Gen. Pinochet inflicted upon his enemies; that the political ascent of Margaret Thatcher was like that of General Pinochet, by means of a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état, not an election; and that police and right-wing politicians, who denounced the IRA as terrorists, were, themselves, engaged in State-sponsored terrorism. The implication that British state authorities are terrorists is reinforced with a scene (occurred in an Irish republican club) of a singer singing a Wolfe Tones ballad honouring the H-Block hunger striker Joe McDonnell, including the chorus:

   And you dare to call me a terrorist while you look down your gun / When I think of all the deeds that you have done / You have plundered many nations, divided many lands / You have terrorised their peoples, you ruled with an iron hand / And you brought this reign of terror to my land. 

The story of Hidden Agenda was inspired by the investigation into the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Shoot-to-kill policy. The Peter Kerrigan character represents John Stalker, the leader of that investigation. Secret unit E4A, of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was believed involved in the assassinations, is briefly mentioned. The Captain Harris character represents Colin Wallace, who was a technical advisor to the film. The Chief Constable Brody character represents RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon, and the Right Wing Tory conspirators, Andrew Neame, and member of British Intelligence (MI5 MI6) Alec Nevin, claim Airey Neave was involved in similar intrigues during the 1970s. All three of these characters have the initials A.N although Airey Neave was killed in 1979, the conspiracy in question was in 1974. In conversation with Kerrigan, a conspirator justifies breaking the law to fight terrorism, by citing the use of force to extort confessions from the Birmingham Six (which turned out to be false, and they were released in 1991, a year after the film's release). At one point Teresa Doyle (Republican journalist Michelle Fairley) shows Jessnser a photograph of a masked British soldier posed with an IRA cadaver, after a cross-border operation into the Irish Republic, representing the rumour that Captain Robert Nairac had such a trophy photograph of the body of John Francis Green.



The production was originally set up at Columbia Pictures in 1987, when David Puttnam ran the studio. After Puttnam was ousted, Loach had to find new financial backing, and eventually found it with John Daly who ran Hemdale Film Corporation.[2]


Critical response[edit]

Hidden Agenda was praised for its honesty and complexity,[3] as well as its resonance.[1] It was criticised for a simplistic view of the Northern Ireland Troubles as an anti-colonial war[citation needed] and for portraying the Troubles as an adjunct to British rather than Irish politics.[4]

Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 18 reviews and gave the film a score of 83%.[5]


Hidden Agenda won the Jury Prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival[6] and was nominated for Best European Film at the Goya Awards. At the Festival press conference, the Northern Irish critic Alexander Walker publicly denounced the film as IRA propaganda.[7]


  1. ^ a b James, Caryn (21 November 1990). "Review/Film; Seeking Truths in Northern Ireland". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  2. ^ Gritten, David (1 January 1991). "Ken Loach's Agenda Is to Rile the British Establishment : Movies: The activist director, relatively inactive during the Thatcher years, tackles the issue of Northern Ireland in 'Hidden Agenda.'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  3. ^ Hinson, Hal (11 January 1991). "Hidden Agenda". The Washington Post. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  4. ^ McIlroy, Brian (1998). Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Flicks Books. pp. 93–95, 97–98. ISBN 978-0-94891-152-1.
  5. ^ "Hidden Agenda". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  6. ^ "Hidden Agenda". Festival de Cannes. Archived from the original on 6 November 2012. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  7. ^ Walker, Alexander (2004). Icons in the Fire. London: Orion. pp. 131–132. ISBN 978-0-75285-610-0.

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