West Belfast Talks Back: Gorgeous George and Gregory didn’t fall out over comments belittling the Robinsons

West Belfast Talks Back – George Galloway talks about Féile an Phobail’s annual West Belfast Talks Back event returned to St Louise’s College on the Falls Road this evening. A panel of George Galloway, Gregory Campbell, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Gerry Kelly. Yvette Shapiro chaired. Next year the organisers should issue her with a fog horn to drown out members of the audience who want to deliver lectures rather than ask precise questions.

West Belfast Talks Back 2012 panel

Impersonator John McBlain provided the warm up act with his take on Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, William McCrea and the late Gerry Fitt. Though the jokes and the laughing didn’t end there: it simply became more smutty, puerile – and at times resorted to personal insult – when the panel came on.

First up was a question about Palestine and Israel tucked onto the end of an advertisement for Thursday’s selection of Palestinian Human Rights festival events. Dudley Edwards more measured approach didn’t play well with the predominantly West Belfast audience. She pointed out that conflicts weren’t straightforward, and called on the festival to invite a pro-Israeli speaker next year. But it was a home question for Galloway. A representative from Northern Ireland Friends of Israel made her point but was dismissed by Galloway saying “if that’s the quality of NI Friends of Israel no wonder it’s a small group”.

While Galloway was at times undoubtedly a talented orator and a quick thinker, he often relied on personal attack and innuendo rather than a winning argument.

Second question asked why unionist politicians could come onto the radio each year and make offensive comments about homosexuality. Campbell stated clearly that disadvantage, discrimination and attacks against gays were to be condemned. He went onto accuse assertive and aggressive people in the LGBT community of trying to use the equal marriage debate to silence those who believe that traditional marriage is between a man and a woman. He said that his views shouldn’t be construed as an excuse for attacking gays. But he wouldn’t be changing his mind, would never support the promotion of homosexual lifestyle, and didn’t mind losing pink votes.

Kelly said Campbell had a right to his opinion, but Kelly found it odd that he was turning the argument round to say that LGBT community was silencing him. Kelly went on to address funding of initiatives, saying that they had to fight for them in the Assembly (think he meant Executive) and that they couldn’t always get them from the DUP. Dudley Edwards said she didn’t know “what got into” Ken McGinnis the day he spoke on the radio (cue sniggering from audience) and said that the UUP leader had disciplined him. A member of the audience challenged whether public comments about bestiality were illegal and incitement to hatred, naming Iris Robinson.

Galloway welcomed that Campbell was absolutely against discrimination – that statement was “worth bottling” and not common for the DUP. Galloway suggested that he was even more in favour of marriage – seemingly due to his many wives. He then went into an astonishing rant (you can listen about 3 minutes 55 seconds into part 3 of the audio):

[George Galloway] I’ll tell you what’s perverse. How’s this for perversity. Somebody that attacks other people for breaching traditional ideas of marriage by being gay who when their husband is in London in parliament is rolling around in her husband’s bed with somebody else and giving his money away. That’s a perversion as far as I’m concerned. That’s a perversion of traditional marriage much more so than anyone else’s sexual orientation. If there’s one thing worse, if there’s one thing worse, Gregory (pauses)

[Gregory Campbell] (pretends to snore) “I fell asleep there”

[George Galloway] If there’s one thing worse than fornication, it’s hypocrisy. And Iris Robinson and hypocrisy and the DUP are oddly forever joined in my mind.

Incendiary words for DUP supporters in the audience. (I suspect some of the individuals mentioned – in spirit if not by name – would dispute Galloway’s version of events.) Gregory didn’t directly react to the obvious attack on his party leader’s wife, but commented that he’d heard Galloway praising the previous DUP leader on the radio that morning. Galloway batted that away saying that Ian Paisley would never have been found in bed …

Should the Orange Order be proscribed after the loyalist band played offensive songs in front of a chapel? Campbell: no, and neither should the GAA. Campbell launched a very weak defence of the band and the incident. Kelly reminded the audience that two unionist elected representatives had watched the band play. Kelly asserted that he’d witnessed a republican band doing something similar he would have intervened.

This was also the point that Kelly told the audience that Campbell had not acknowledged him in the green room before the event. Campbell said we are a community in transition; he acknowledged the bombing and killing. Kelly elaborated that Campbell did speak to him when he was a minister. Campbell retaliated that he was willing to do business with Sinn Fein but they shouldn’t expect pleasantries.

Gregory Campbell was not intimidated but the audience, several times leaning forward to stress a point that he knew they would disapprove of, for example stating that republicans didn’t believe they had done anything wrong.

One of the cameraman who had filmed the loyalist band incident stood up and said that Orange Men had attacked him too and confirmed that the offensive words had been sung to the Beach Boys’ tune. Campbell immediately demanded to know if he was a member of Sinn Fein. Yes, a proud member. Campbell said that made his statement “partisan” and moved on.

Protesters at back of West Belfast Talks Back

A large group of protesters asking for the freedom of Marian Price leafleted cars entering the school car park and again as people walked into the school. It looked like a deal had been done to guarantee them a chance to ask their question in return for their silence during the event. Should the 58 year old Marian Price be released from internment?

Dudley Edwards said she was sorry for Marian Price … and sorry for her sister. Sorry for the company they’d got into and the crimes they had committed. While she would air on the side of compassion, she didn’t know what threat Marian Price posed.

Campbell referred to the postcards being handed out: “Free Marian Price” on one side, “Justice for Marian Price” on the other. Campbell asked “which do you want?” He found her previous recovery from ill health to be remarkable and talked about not being “taken for a fool” again.

Kelly found the loss of the Royal Prerogative “unbelievable” and talked about his requested prison records being supplied on disk, and being complete. Galloway had spoken to Marian Price – he was talking to her husband when she rang from prison – and described her as sounding ill.

At this point a republican ex-prisoner in the audience who’d been nabbed by a senior Sinn Fein activist before the event started got his chance to deliver the message that “all republicans” would call for her release or trial.

Are the Quinns getting a fair trial. While Kelly say Quinn as a businessman rather than a banker abusing the system, he said Quinn hiding money was wrong. He expressed ambivalence: while Quinn should be held accountable for using people’s money, he shouldn’t be made a scapegoat.

Dudley Edwards unexpectedly got applause when she said she hated the “if he’s one of us he should get away with it” attitude.

Clearing up a misunderstanding, Kelly reiterated that he hadn’t come out for Sean Quinn. Was Sean Quinn a contributor to Sinn Fein? Kelly wasn’t treasurer but didn’t he was a contributor and said people could check on the accounts they publish online.

Kelly explained to the audience that border people support Quinn because they had jobs in his companies. The “parochial” had to be understood as well as the national.

A straw poll of the audience revealed a handful of support for Sean Quinn, a majority not in support and a sizeable minority keeping their opinion to themselves.

audience not in support of Quinn at West Belfast Talks Back
The announcement that Paddy Barnes had won his fight got a huge cheer. There was a quick question about the economy, allowing Galloway the opportunity to rehearse his Tweedle Dum/Tweedle Dee line about the ConDem coalition.

The event closed with the panel outlining their favourite moments. Galloway said he hadn’t watched any of the Olympics, but admitted that be been wrong about London’s inability to host them properly. He spoke about the positive feel good effect and the business opportunities.

Dudley Edwards said that she hadn’t watched sport for years and was a “classic grumpy Londoner”. A heckler reckoned “nothing’s changed”. But she’d been glued to the TV all Sunday.

No surprise that Campbell’s moment involved Coleraine rowing. And Kelly loved tonight’s news that Paddy Barnes had won.

As the event concluded, it looked really inappropriate to watch Gregory Campbell sitting laughing heartedly while George Galloway whispered something in his ear when about an hour earlier Galloway had uttered such cruel words about Iris Robinson. Happy to exchange pleasantries with Galloway, but not with Gerry Kelly.

Galloway was mobbed with people wanting to get autographs and photographs. In contrast, Campbell was left sitting along on the platform with just one or two people talking to him.

Politically the most – maybe only – significant remarks probably came from Gerry Kelly with his analysis of the Quinn situation. For the most part, the answers to the questions reiterated existing stereotypes rehearsed familiar positions, failing to offer any opportunity for mutual understanding. Gregory Campbell defended his unionist and conservative evangelical position (though not his leader’s family) but didn’t surprise nationalists in the audience with anything he said. Everyone on the panel – except Gerry Kelly – experienced the sharp end of George Galloway’s tongue. Sister event East Belfast Speaks Out got through a lot more questions and had less of the personal jibes in its last outing. And where was Occupy Belfast?!

Afterwards, some of the audience commented that Gregory Campbell had appeared softer than they had expected. But as I went out to the car, one woman talking into a mobile phone summed up her impressions of the evening: “It was a fantastic evening. Palestine came up, and Gorgeous George was on our side”.

Update – you can catch Jude Collins’ musings on the evening and ratings for the panellists over on his blog.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.