The first question at tonight’s West Belfast Talk Back panel event asked about the definition of victims. The answers ran along party lines, though the DUP’s Gregory Campbell was happy to agree that the child of an IRA man was a victim as would be the child of a killed loyalist paramilitary. Asked whether today’s letter from First and deputy First Ministers to the British Prime Minister was a change of tone over Brexit from the DUP, he said “no … Brexit opens up massive opportunities and we should welcome [those opportunities]”.
For a large part, Joe Brolly played the overly sweary crank on the panel, criticising the nature of NI politics in one breath before comparing Gregory Campbell to God in the next … later criticising public representatives for sneering. At times his questioning opened up breaks for Campbell to look moderate and progressive – mostly passed over – as well as opportunities to undermine and over ridicule the East Londonderry MP. During the evening Brolly raised a number of issues, but his own tone tended towards being sneering rather than genuinely inquiring, weakening his counsel to Campbell that “you could be leading instead of peddling negative nonsense”.
Overall it turned into the Brolly/Campbell show with a question from the audience feeding the format and giving the DUP representative both the opportunity to defend his “curry my yoghurt” comments (no one start their Assembly contributions saying “Fair faa ye” and they’d be rightly pulled up if they did) and repeat the insult.
The women sitting to the other side of chair Tara Mills contributed less frequently.
Answering a question from the floor from Alan McBride about “moving on”, Long was applauded for her comments about inner identity and the confidence it gives people. The panel was “talking about the past through a bipolar lens”. She rebutted the notion that East Belfast had no similar event, mentioning the mothballed East Belfast Speaks Out that had included leading republicans (Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness) on its panel in previous years. The East Belfast MLA offered her analysis of the ramifications of Brexit and suggested that the upsurge in Irish passport applications from NI demonstrates that Remain supporters know the value of belonging to Europe.
Martina Anderson staunchly defended the need for equal marriage and outlined the cross-party effort behind the Private Members Bill. Earlier when the discussion veered towards Brexit Anderson said that anyone who things the British Government will replace local EU funding is “delusional”.
Less well-attended than previous years – though Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin was in the audience – the event suffered from being no different to an episode of the Nolan Show, with many of the same contributors on the panel and with the familiar faces and voices with microphones on the floor.
One year the Féile an Phobail organisers will have to swallow their allegiances and invite the SDLP and People Before Profit onto the panel. The SDLP’s absence in particular is increasingly nonsensical and party political. Even Mike Nesbitt had his turn in 2013!