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West versus the rest over 'Bigotfest' event

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

It is telling that Sinn Féin invoked the West Belfast Festival in response to the NIO's decision to fund the Orange Order.

Assembly member Michael Ferguson said there was "disbelief" in Belfast "given that the British government had denied funding for the feile".

Assembly member John O'Dowd compared the Orange "bigotfest" to the "successful inclusive community festivals in north and west Belfast".

Even eminently sensible councillor Paul Maskey was wheeled in front of the cameras for some predictable outrage on the subject – although his heart clearly wasn't in it.

But was it wise to equate the two events so publicly? For a start, the West Belfast Festival will continue to receive more funding than 'Bigotfest' for at least the next three years, on top of the far larger sums of public money invested in it to date.

Feile has been running since 1988 and has a turnover of £500,000. Its big-name sponsors include several companies that previously backed other Belfast festivals, which must now struggle by without an inextricably linked political party to argue their case.

So the question is not why the West Belfast Festival doesn't get more money but why it still gets any public money at all. However, there is no question over why the British government supported feile so generously in the first place. The West Belfast Festival was launched in the wake of the Gibraltar and Milltown cemetery killings with the wider aim of replacing the August internment protests. In this regard it has been a tremendous success.

What was once an annual orgy of youth-driven street violence has become an annual Christy Moore concert complete with sixth-form debate at St Louise's, sixth-rate exhibitions at the Conway Mill and a poignant closing ceremony at An Culturlann, where Frances Black serenades Gerry Adams with 'Something Inside So Strong' while an audience of distinguished guests politely refrains from laughter.

So who are the Shinners to say that the same trick won't work on the July fortnight? Indeed, aren't the Shinners the very last people who should be saying that the same trick won't work on the July fortnight? When Orange Order spokesman William Humphrey claims the Twelfth is "an event that can be enjoyed by the whole community" this is obviously self-serving nonsense – but it was equally self-serving nonsense when exactly the same thing was said in the first years of feile.

Even today the West Belfast Festival is hardly a comfortable cross-community event – some aspects seem determined to prove Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich's dictum that all the religious bigotry in Ireland is Protestant and all the political bigotry is Catholic. But that is besides the point.

The West Belfast Festival is a lightening rod that collects negative energy and dissipates it harmlessly into the ground – leaving only positive energy behind.

Demanding that the negative energy should not exist in the first place would be optimistic to the point of obstructionism.

It is obvious that something similar needs to be done to neutralise the Orange Order. A common unionist complaint is that the institution would have simply died out due to lack of interest if only Sinn Féin had let the issue lie for another 10 years.

Whether or not this is true, it is too late to ignore the problem now.

Many unionists would be perfectly happy with an aggressive law and order solution to contentious parades.

However, the authorities have made it clear that they don't support aggressive law and order solutions to anything, while republicans can't even call for a security response to loyalism without tripping over their own ideological baggage.

So that just leaves the slow, pragmatic and initially dishonest approach taken with all other protagonists to our conflict.

The Orange Order must be lured into the phoney political posturing of culture, heritage, rights, equality, ethnicity, identity and inclusivity – until the self-serving nonsense serves it well enough to drop the loyalist flute bands, reroute the unwanted marches, recognise the Parades Commission and talk to the residents groups. In its pathetic bleat of "civil and religious liberty for all" can be seen an early sign that this might even work.

There is certainly no better idea available, not least from the republicans who pioneered this very approach to their own community's problems.

What Sinn Féin's representatives should have said last week when they were wheeled in front of the cameras was that they welcomed the NIO's "republican-inspired strategy" towards tackling Orange violence – and looked forward to the first Orange parade at the West Belfast Festival.

July 8, 2006

This article appeared first in the July 6, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News