It’s hard to encapsulate just what a transformation the West Belfast Festival has worked in its community. Newton Emerson does better than most in articulating its benefits. But he also wonders why Republicans would deny the Orange the same path in shifting their community away from a violent and atavistic past towards a particularist celebration, since the Feile an Phobail is the very project that proved the concept in the first place.
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 big-otry in Ireland is Protestant and all the political big-otry 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.