West Belfast Talks Back is probably the highest profile annual public debate in Northern Ireland, after the MacGill Summer School [okay, I know it’s in Donegal, but you get my drift]. No DUP representatives this year, so I wondered whether I should bother going. There was an edgey confrontation between David Ervine and Raymond McCord father of a 22 year old beaten to death by a UVF squad back in 1997. But I came away with the vague feeling that no one knows really what there is to talk about, given the context the stalled negotiations. Indeed Gerry Kelly had been negotiations that very day and had to report that precisely nothing had changed in any of the positions of the main parties, including his own.
The most enlivened conversation (mostly between Lord Laird and the audience at large) came when one young Unionist stood up and asked whether the cause of peace would be advance if Drumcree 2007 were allowed to take place.
Gerry Kelly suggested that anything could happen, if only it were subject to dialogue. Ervine noted that parades can be subject to conversations, but that those conversations should be wide ranging and take in more than parading. He added that they should be taking place 365 days a year.
When Laird made the disclosure (it wasn’t exactly a state secret) that he was an Orangeman it seemed more than some of the audience could bare. When he asked the audience, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had the biggest festival in Northern Ireland on the 12th of July capable of attracting tourists from all over the world to Belfast’, one woman in the audience, from Sparkhill in Birmingham, said she could not understand the Orangemen’s walking through Nationalist areas, when, by dint of the Orange oath, ‘they had an insult in their hearts’.
Then, when Laird noted that funding for such an Orangefest was not forthcoming from official sources, one guy at the back shouted out ‘that’s because you’re all a bunch of big-ots’.
Unperturbed, the jovial Lord appealed to the audience, “we [in the Orange] have had some difficult lessons to learn in the last few years, but we are on a journey. Will you not come on that journey with me?” At the time it seemed that few in the audience had little appetite for such a journey. Though he seem to hit a resonant chord later when he told the audience, in his familiar declamatory style: “You are gonig nowhere without me, and I am going nowhere without you”.