The Blanket

The West Belfast Festival
Feile debate sticks firmly to party lines

Newton Emerson • 15/8/2002, Irish News

Honestly, I’ve no problem with the West Belfast Festival. It’s completely harmless, a good thing even - certainly preferably to the annual Internment Day Riot it’s successfully replaced. So if I’m feeling slightly paranoid here at the ‘West Belfast Talks Back’ debate, it’s my own fault entirely. There’s no reason to be scared of Danny Morrison any more.

This year’s speakers are Austin Currie, Nell McCafferty, Caoimhghín Ó Caolín TD, and Ulster Unionist MLA James Leslie. The referee is Susan McKay, who scores ten points straight away by introducing James Leslie with a straight face. Mr Leslie is well-spoken young aristocrat, born in colonial Africa, educated at Eton and a former merchant banker. I judge him to be average officer material. Unfortunately, his opening remarks imply it takes balls for a Unionist to come here at all, obliging Nell McCafferty to attack him for patronising the natives.

Ms McCafferty quickly establishes herself as the comic relief, although that doesn’t stop her making strong points. As the subject turns to loyalist attacks on nationalist homes, there is genuine anguish expressed throughout the hall. The other panellists offer the usual platitudes about dialogue and engagement, but Nell cuts them down. “Unionists are marginalised, they have no reason to engage,” she says. “Every step they take towards us is a step away from Britain. They don’t want to talk to us.”

I don’t agree. I’m a Unionist, I don’t feel marginalised, I don’t feel the Agreement makes me less British, and I’d love to talk to Nell McCafferty - if I thought I could get a word in. I’d tell her I don’t appreciate being lumped in with the criminal underclass, and I’d be as happy as anyone here to see ‘loyalists’ dealt with. But I can’t see that happening until there’s cross-party support for policing.

Policing is the elephant in the corner at this debate. An attempt by Austin Currie to mention it gets shouted down - even while people are asking what should be done about the UDA. In a smug and cynical speech, Caoimhghín Ó Caolín says Sinn Fein are working to “dissuade the community from retaliation”, so Unionists should do the same. That’s not dealing with the problem, that’s living with the problem.

In fact I’m surprised at how often the audience raises subjects that definitely aren’t Sinn Fein Approved Conservation Topics - especially the ‘Colombia Three’. This is a major issue for a lot of people here, with the Colombian Solidarity Campaign out in numbers, circulating literature to eager readers. But, disappointingly, the panel keeps to the party line. James Leslie outlines an international terrorist conspiracy bent on embarrassing David Trimble. Austin Currie thinks it’s a terrible business altogether. Caoimhghín Ó Caolín panics and starts wildly changing the subject. Nell McCafferty says “Well, they were hardly tourists, were they?”

I reckon they were tourists though - ‘tourists of the revolution’. Have you ever seen that photograph of Gerry Adams as a teenager, in trenchcoat and beret? Have you ever met one of those boring young men with a Che Guevara badge and a copy of Socialist Worker, trying to get the grammar school girls to take them seriously? There are many such men here tonight, not all of them young. Some people never grow out of their youthful radicalism. Which is why you might let them go off to Colombia to pursue their little hobby out of harm’s way, while you get on with - oh, running a power-sharing executive, for example. It’s a pity Cuba’s got so passé, this sort of thing never happens there.

The cosmopolitan theme continues, with indignant questions about Afghanistan, Iraq and ‘American imperialism’. “What right has George Bush to interfere in Colombia?” asks one man. About as much right as the IRA has, I suppose. “How can America justify the war against Afghanistan?” asks another. The audience murmurs in approval, even the women, who would of course have been beaten to death by the Taliban just for leaving the house tonight, let alone talking in public half-naked.

I think what the audience wants to do here is establish that there’s no moral difference between dropping a bomb from an aircraft, and parking a bomb in a car - because this makes the British Government no better than the IRA. The flipside - that the IRA is thus no better than the British Government - is probably best not mentioned in present company.

The suggestion of a Truth Commission also finds little favour. Someone shouts out bitterly “It’ll need to go back 800 years!” which would certainly make the lawyers happy, but wouldn’t make republicans happy - because the truth is that 800 years ago, Ireland and England were simultaneously invaded by the French.

The IRA apology raises further historical begrudging. Austin Currie says the IRA should tell the whole truth about its past. Caoimhghín Ó Caolín angrily asks Austin if he’ll tell the whole truth about his past in his forthcoming autobiography - which seems unfair, given that Austin hasn’t murdered 2,500 people. There is universal agreement that Unionists should apologise for “Fifty years of misrule”. You can probably expect that any day now.

The debate ends inconclusively, with much impatient hand-waving by those who haven’t had a chance to speak. Perhaps the thrill of saying anything ‘political’ in public is as therapeutic for most of us as the remote possibility of an interesting response.

‘West Belfast Talks Back’ has been very much the sound of one hand clapping, but it’s impressive to see an event like this take place in Northern Ireland at all. The only attempt to organise something similar in Portadown resulted in several people being ordered out of their houses. And while that remains the case, then however poor the quality of the debate, I’m afraid that the republicans win by default.

This article first appeared in the Irish News and is reprinted here with permission.
Newton Emerson is the editor of The Portadown News.






Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives





If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.
- Thomas J. Watson, Jr

Index: Current Articles

18 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Unidentified Mob Rule
Aine Fox


The West Belfast Feile
Newton Emerson


The Most Useless, Most Spineless, Most Pointless of Them All
Ciarán Irvine


North Belfast: A Resident's View
Joan Totten


A Tawny Sinew
Anthony McIntyre


Deepest Sympathy


Ahmed Al Kouraini
Sam Bahour


A Personal Voyage of Taboo

Davy Carlin


Reading Connolly
Liam O Ruairc


15 August 2002


Put Spotlight On Republican Aims
Eamonn McCann


No Hierarchies Here!
Anthony McIntyre


Freedom to Dissent

Dorothy Robinson


Freedom of Whose Speech?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Political Intimidation
Anthony McIntyre


Class War is Over!
Billy Mitchell




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices