Talking past and through the doldrums?

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”.

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  • Garibaldy


    Was there much discussion of economic or educational issues?

  • Justin

    Also, was the issue of policing touched at all?

  • Rory

    It really is a wondrful forum that can accomodate leading Provisionals, UVF leaders, aggrieved fathers of UVF victims and Orange Lodge propagandists on the same programme, not to mention inviting DUP representation and I believe all shades of political, academic and artistic views. I cannot see its like happening anywhere else in these islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) and it is something really encouraging and to be very proud of.

    Loath as I might be to take a walk anywhere with Lord Laird, least of all down a dark alley, it is good to know that the noble old duffer had a good time.

  • It sounds as though it was eventful and not without merit but can anyone in attendance tell me what, in their opinion, was the most positive aspect of the event? I am interested to know what good people feel arises out of such gatherings.

  • Chris Donnelly

    It never ceases to amaze me how unionists assume that talking must inevitably lead to walking with regard to Orange Order parades.

    Surely, in the interests of peace, the Drumcree parade should be consigned to history.

    Though you highlight the reaction of one solitary heckler in the crowd Mick, the fact remains that, by virtue of the fact that several hundred nationalists attended the event organised by those within their own community, clearly the broad nationalist community is ready to listen to unionism- a pity reciprocation is not forthcoming from political unionism.

    If the audience appeared to you to be reluctant to accept the notion of a Bastille Day 12th July, then that should not come as a surprise. Those in the audience will have seen the various grotesque bonfires which annually announce the 12th July, and will be aware that it remains as it was always intended,i.e. a day to commemorate the supremacy of the Orange, Protestant tradition.

    Imagine, if you will, Gerry Kelly announcing to a unionist audience that he would invite them on a road to concelebrating the 1916 Rising? One can imagine the reaction, and it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise.

  • Fanny

    Rory, I really like that IONA acronym! Is that your own invention?

  • webcam willie

    …several hundred nationalists attended the event organised by those within their own community…

    Nationalists or Republicans? There is a difference and that difference matters to Unionists. It’s funny how Republicans turn into Nationalists when they wish to appear moderate isn’t it? It would appear that the people who hold moderate, political views don’t attend events like this and if some do, it is certainly not in the hundreds. People who hold moderate, political views aren’t even bothering to vote in the same numbers anymore, let alone turn out to public debates. Sounds like there was a cloud over Donegal and there was a right shower there too!

  • Garibaldy


    using the terms catholic, nationalist and republican interchangeably is a deliberate political linguistic ploy, like that you’ve pointed out

  • na

    This would be a good event to podcast. The Feile website is a disgrace and improving on it would be great and easy. They weren’t even showing the events on the daily events link and other links including one link to the radio station are incorrectly formatted and lead nowhere.

    Sort it out.

    Maybe Mick could ask about providing a podcast service on Slugger’s if he goes next year?

  • Chris Donnelly


    You raise a good point. The website was a disappointment this year.

  • Rory

    I really like that IONA acronym! Is that your own invention?

    Alas no, Fanny. Though I like it so much too that I have adopted it and use it as much as possible. There was something broached about it a few years ago and I thought it might have reached a wider audience as it seemed to have been launched by a fairly serious think-group. But memory fails me as to more detail. I bet there are a few Sluggerites who can tell you more. I’ll do a Google and see what happens .

  • red ted

    There is something called I.N.O.L.A. (Ireland New Orleans Louisianna)- an Irish-American exchange group.

  • Nevin
  • Fanny

    Thanks, Nevin. Yes, I’m really warming to IONA. “British Isles” never did it for me, it being erroneous. IONA is simple, historical, and with connotations of peace and learning.

  • Reader

    Fanny: “British Isles” never did it for me, it being erroneous.
    So what are your feelings about the “Irish Sea”?

  • Garibaldy

    Atlantic archipelago?

  • Mick Fealty


    Great idea, and I would love to it.


    I was just trying to capture the event as I read it. I don’t think many in the audience approved of the heckler’s incivility, but the feeling in the hall was certainly not one of preparedness to compromise. Kelly sounded more conciliatory than most of the contributions from the floor. And to be fair, the woman from Birmingham spoke to the reason a lot of people feel that way too.

    I can’t remember who it was but there was a call for some kind of reciprocation. I get the impression that quite a few Unionists would like to be in a position to do that. But I’m not sure it is realistic to expect such an invitation to be forthcoming, since the events themselves do not exist in the first place.

    Maybe it will happen in time. But it would be as well to remember that Unionist society is not only structured differently, it has different cultural pre-occupations that do not conform to norms within nationalist areas.

  • Rory

    Bet you like the ‘English Channel’ though, what, Reader?

    Project IONA

    Thank you for that reference, Nevin.

  • Fanny

    My ancestors hailed from Atlantis and didn’t like the idea of Americans and Greenlanders laying claim to their ocean. I think they might have been a little bígoted.

  • Nevin

    Can Greenland be part of IONA? What about Orangeland?

  • Nevin
  • Rory

    That was funny, Nevin. It set up my day with a good chuckle.

  • inuit_goddess

    Who is this IONA group?

    I’ve often thought this sort of all-islands “devolution all round” approach is, at the very least, useful in acting as a bridge between Unionist and Nationalist perspectives.

  • Reader

    Rory: Bet you like the ‘English Channel’ though, what, Reader?
    You mean – ‘La Manche’?

  • Rory

    La Manche? Mais certainment, monsieur.