Ive no problem with the West Belfast Festival.
Its completely harmless, a good thing even -
certainly preferably to the annual Internment Day
Riot its successfully replaced. So if Im
feeling slightly paranoid here at the West Belfast
Talks Back debate, its my own fault entirely.
Theres no reason to be scared of Danny Morrison
years 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.
McCafferty quickly establishes herself as the comic
relief, although that doesnt 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 dont want to talk to us.
dont agree. Im a Unionist, I dont
feel marginalised, I dont feel the Agreement
makes me less British, and Id love to talk to
Nell McCafferty - if I thought I could get a word
in. Id tell her I dont appreciate being
lumped in with the criminal underclass, and Id
be as happy as anyone here to see loyalists
dealt with. But I cant see that happening until
theres cross-party support for 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. Thats not dealing
with the problem, thats living with the problem.
fact Im surprised at how often the audience
raises subjects that definitely arent 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 its a terrible business altogether.
Caoimhghín Ó Caolín panics and
starts wildly changing the subject. Nell McCafferty
says Well, they were hardly tourists, were they?
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 harms way, while you get on with - oh, running
a power-sharing executive, for example. Its
a pity Cubas got so passé, this sort
of thing never happens there.
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.
think what the audience wants to do here is establish
that theres 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.
suggestion of a Truth Commission also finds little
favour. Someone shouts out bitterly Itll
need to go back 800 years! which would certainly
make the lawyers happy, but wouldnt make republicans
happy - because the truth is that 800 years ago, Ireland
and England were simultaneously invaded by the French.
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 hell tell the whole truth
about his past in his forthcoming autobiography -
which seems unfair, given that Austin hasnt
murdered 2,500 people. There is universal agreement
that Unionists should apologise for Fifty years
of misrule. You can probably expect that any
debate ends inconclusively, with much impatient hand-waving
by those who havent 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.
Belfast Talks Back has been very much the sound
of one hand clapping, but its 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, Im
afraid that the republicans win by default.
article first appeared in the Irish News and is reprinted
here with permission.
Newton Emerson is the editor of The
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