West Belfast Talks Back … without the DUP this year #feile17

The organisers explained at the start of the night that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had agreed to attend and was listed in the paper programme. They understood that he was no longer available and, as well as avoiding empty chairing the party, they offered no opinion on why the DUP had not organised a replacement when they had sent representatives over many previous years.

The DUP absence took much of the bite out of the evening. In some ways it prevented issues becoming bogged down in ‘us and them’ debates and created a better quality of discussion. However, it did remove nearly all drama and excitement from the community hustings, and removed the exposure of exactly which aspect of issues most distinguishes Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Noel Thompson chaired the event (reminding the audience at home and online that he was there in a personal capacity) and stirred things up among the panellists:

  • Patricia Mac Bride (former Victims Commissioner)
  • Ray Bassett (former Irish Ambassador to Canada who recently retired after a long career in the Department for Foreign Affairs (DFA) and was called unpatriotic for suggesting that Ireland had made a mistake with its position on Brexit of not negotiating and accepting )
  • Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin’s ‘Queen of the North’ as Noel Thompson quipped)
  • Alex Kane (former UUP spin doctor, and not Jeffrey Donaldson)

The main questions:

  • Is America a threat to world peace?
  • Does Brexit make a United Ireland more likely?
  • As a young person looking into the future, what does the panel think about the impact of Brexit on children’s rights and how can politicians engage on the issue?
  • Can there be an amnesty for British soldiers?
  • Should there be any limits to freedom of speech? Should Kevin Myers have been sacked?
  • Should there be a Sign Language Act to protect rights?
  • Is Arlene ever challenged about her view of victims?

It was all rather jolly and good natured at the front table. There was little argy bargy between panellists, and instead it was audience who picked arguments with their utterances (with Jude Collins eliciting an apology after scolding the ex-Ambassador for using ‘Ireland’ when he surely meant ‘the 26 counties’).

Noel Thompson kept the pace with his robust interruptions that pressed panellists for clarifications and at times created conversations that drilled into issues rather than allowing passive answers to bore.

Michelle O’Neill spoke confidently – a sure-footed performance, that demonstrated that she could listen and reason – but wasn’t rewarded with the gratuitous applause that might have been expected at this Sinn Féin heartland event. At times, Patricia Mac Bride seemed to be the figure whose rhetoric and answers chimed best with the audience. And she was the one panellist who was able to sign the start of her answer to the signed question about a Sign Language Act (that the whole panel agreed on).

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  • T.E.Lawrence

    Don’t think it was much of a West Belfast Talks by leaving out one of its political representatives PBP from the debate ? or is it just a SF talking shop with a Felons Club audience ? If this is the case then you can understand why the DUP would make no effort to attend such an event

  • Granni Trixie

    They don’t mind asking DUP (shows how broad minded they are) but much less likely to ask a local who doesn’t fit in eg a Malachi ODoherty type figure.

  • babyface finlayson

    Have pbp been invited to any of the discussion events I wonder?
    I seem to remember this came up in previous years.
    Maybe Alan can enlighten us.

  • mickfealty

    Not sure that ever mattered to the DUP before TE. The SDLP (a diminishing presence these days) had their own event in the feile but were generally more evident by their absence. I suspect neither party wants any further unnecessary embarrassment ahead of a possible rapprochement.

    Sounds like Michelle’s been heavily prepared and processed – in her long period off stage and screen – to fill that leadership vacuum left by Martin’s untimely death. Should we prepare for a butterfly to replace the ‘wee girl from Clonoe’?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Noticeable however on the exclusion of PBP and its 6K West Belfast Voters from the debate ? Problem with crushing democratic structures is it leaves political vacuums which leads to the streets to do the talking as seen it Belfast this week. Been along time since I seen SF behind the Black Ball but the political vacuum that they have maneuvered to create has seriously backfired on them in my opinion. Now they are left to hope for Unionist generousity to get them off a hook that they foolishly got themselves onto

  • Zeno

    “She (Michelle O’Neil) questioned how people of different backgrounds could shape a new future in Ireland post-Brexit and suggested that the Irish constitution could be amended to recognise British identity.
    The Mid-Ulster MLA said she was keen to see a united Ireland which also respected people’s sense of Britishness.”
    ========
    Change of strategy there, Brits Out is gone and has been replaced by Brits In.

  • Zeno

    To be fair they are not the only party here who regularly over play their cards.

  • At 1pm today there’s a Feile event with PBP http://feilebelfast.com/calendar-list/the-left-speaks-on-brexit/

    And they were present in the audience last night, as were reps from SDLP, Greens, DUP (!) and there may well have been other parties present I didn’t spot.

  • Dan2

    It shouldn’t be forthcoming.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I don’t think it will SF attack on bonfires this summer has harden Unionist opinion in the grassroots making it more difficult for the DUP to compromise on cultural issues

  • babyface finlayson

    Thanks Alan
    I am glad to see they have some opportunity to take part.

  • Neil

    I don’t think it will SF attack on bonfires [which threaten property or life] this summer has harden Unionist opinion in the grassroots making it more difficult for the DUP to compromise on cultural issues

    Slight edit there TEL.

  • I didn’t scold him, Alan – I merely expressed disappointment that he’d joined the ranks of those in the south who use ‘country’ when they mean state and ‘Ireland’ when the mean the 26 counties ( which compose the state known as the Republic of Ireland(. I don’t want him or particularly mind whether he calls the state the 26 counties or the Republic of Ireland. Just so long as he doesn’t try to erase my Irish and my conviction (damned odd, I know) that I live in Ireland…

  • james

    But Ireland – unless you’re a geologist – does consist of the 26 counties you mentioned, Jude. Politically, socially, and for all practical purposes what you seem to think of as Ireland doesn’t really exist.

  • james

    It does seem rather odd to omit PBP. After all, even if SF do seem to regard West Belfast as their own personal fiefdom populated with pliant, undemanding smallfolk it isn’t actually ‘theirs’….

  • james

    “making it more difficult for the DUP to compromise on cultural issues”

    Which is, of course, as usual all part of the cunning plan by SF”s geriatric brain trust.

  • james

    Well, yes, that would threaten the long-cherished dream that all Catholics will do whatever the Republicans tell them.

  • Granni Trixie

    But not all Catholics support(ed) Republican “teachings”.

  • james

    Oh, yes I fully agree. I just think that SF are looking to peddle the myth that they all did.

  • “The organisers explained at the start of the night that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had agreed to attend and was listed in the paper programme. They understood that he was no longer available and, as well as avoiding empty chairing the party, they offered no opinion on why the DUP had not organised a replacement when they had sent representatives over many previous years”

    And yet, maybe they just didn’t ask anyone else: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4d27302e3d481c2732165bcced70ef9ae335b6ebf1f46eacd0349f13c5fc58e7.png