It had been a while, maybe four or five years, since I was in Hill Street after dark and what a pleasant surprise it was; bustling bars and restaurants, some totally new to me, casting a warm glow and friendly noise onto the cobbled street. I pulled my collar over to fight off the drizzle and saw the dark empty yard of a bar/restaurant specializing in al fresco drinking and dining. Smoking ban or not, it probably wasn’t the soundest business model for a city where it rains for weeks at a time. If I had a ticket rather than a reservation, then Slugger O’Toole Christmas bash would be the hottest ticket in town at least for politicos like myself who see politics, whether the local, national or global variety, endlessly fascinating.
The Dark Horse was warm, dry, inviting and packed. Belfast’s Twitterati was out in force, grey-haired, well groomed and speaking in grammar school accents. The bar was adorned with old mirrors bearing the logos of long-defunct Irish whiskey brands and an old-fashioned cash register with huge, clunky keys sat majestically on the counter behind the bar. The place was brand new of course, all the tradition was faux, the best that money could buy and the bar area was seemed curiously devoid of optics and spirit bottles – God knows where they brought the drinks from. After four or five gourmet canapés, tasty little devils – none of your cold cocktail sausages or scalding vol au vents here – I took my ringside seat and waited for battle to commence, except it wasn’t really like that. In fact, it was quite civilised. The panel were perched on tall stools like game show contestants but looked relaxed for all that. Alex Kane was on the far left, physically that is, not politically, with Katy Hayward to his life, Alan, the moderator in the middle with Cathy Gorman-Heenan to his right and on the far right (again not politically) Chris Donnelly. It was a bit strange seeing people you know only from television close up; they always seem familiar but different from what you expect – smaller usually.
The format was a round-robin where Alan invited his guests to comment on a particular aspect of the year ahead: highlights, lowlights, biggest disappointment, etc. Alex Kane seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Liberated from the censoring hand of the BBC, he let rip with several busts of industrial language which the crowd lapped up.
In truth I was impressed. It is good to hear knowledgeable people at the top of their game, speaking in an informal and relaxed setting and if Norman from Bangor or George from the Shankill were there, they kept their peace. We were spared a Nolanesque Christmas panto. Things were going swimmingly until Alex confessed he admired Jeremy Corbyn, not for his politics, but for his convictions. That was too much for Northern Ireland’s Tories, probably all four of them, who were seated nearby – one unleashed a broadside claiming Corbyn admired Mao who was worse than Hitler, an inevitable comparison somebody was bound to make about someone before the night was through. That was enough to kick off the hecklers, but mostly it was good clean fun. If only our friends at Stormont could be so reasonable.
The night ended with predictions, as informed and probably as accurate as these things can be, and questions from the floor. Reviewing the review, would I go back? Yes definitely. If politics is show business for ugly people I was thoroughly entertained. See you next year.
Sam Thompson is an amateur historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
Photos by Brian O’Neill