Unfinished business – West Belfast Talked Back and I listened…

There was a time, not very long ago when the only reason people from unionist areas would have gone to West Belfast would have been to pick up their car after it had been stolen and abandoned. These days West Belfast is a far less frightening place which welcomes visitors, particularly those who would have formerly shunned it.

Féile an Phobail has played an enormous part in changing the reputation of that part of the city and opening it up to visitors. I have to confess I was one of the many that avoided the place like the plague but I was warmly welcomed to ‘West Belfast Talks Back’ – a Féile event loosely modelled on the BBC show and introduced to Sinn Féin Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill whom I found warm, engaging and likeable. Other panel members included widely-read columnist Alex Kane, Patricia Mac Bride, former Victim’s Commissioner and former diplomat for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, Ray Bassett.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was due to attend but for reasons that are unclear, failed to do so and no one went in his place. The result was a somewhat one-sided debate for the thousand-strong crowd. Alex Kane default had to deliver generic Unionist arguments and Noel Thompson, there in a private capacity, felt obliged at times to do the same.

Some questions from the audience were predictable, such as ‘Does Brexit make a United Ireland more likely?’ –The consensus was yes, it does, though not necessarily inevitable. Overall, the tone of the debate was civilised and good natured. Alex was witty and slightly provocative as usual and the only even slightly aggressive tone, came from Noel Thompson as he grilled panellists à la Paxman.

One audience member who had a father killed in August 1971 (I assume by the British Army) raised the thorny question of a possible amnesty for security forces. In fact what has been proposed is a statute of limitations which exits in many EU countries for serious crimes including murder, the effect though would be broadly the same. Applying such a statue only to state actors would clearly be unworkable and to apply it all, unpalatable. Dealing with the legacy of the past is, without question, the most difficult issue we face. The prevailing British narrative as one of the ‘good guys versus the bad guys’ must be challenged insisted one man, leading me to think is the prevailing Republican narrative not equally simple? Only with the roles of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ reversed?

Ray Bassett pointed out a partial amnesty already exists for those offering information on the disappeared and giving evidence to the Saville Inquiry. Michelle O’Neill insisted Republicans ‘would not be found wanting’ in dealing with the past, building on her earlier desire to ‘build bridges.’ The Devil as ever, is in the detail and such loaded terms as ‘victim’ are things we find difficult to agree on. Our society has ‘so much unfinished business,’ sighed Alex Kane, seeing no way out of the quagmire of the past.

Perhaps the most surprising and positive contribution came on the subject of sign language. All the debate was signed for the deaf and John Carberry, a user of sign language, pointed out there are far more sign-language users in Northern Ireland than Irish language speakers. Patricia Mac Bride explained that unlike local Irish speakers who can also communicate with officialdom in English, deaf people have no alternative but to use sign language for which little if any legal provision is made. It is therefore imperative she argued, that priority is given for sign-language users, even above the Irish language. The audience applauded heartily and I was pleased that here at last, was something we could all agree on but, there is always a ‘but’, there are two sign languages in use here, British Sign language and Irish Sign language. The situation reminded me of the old joke that Northern Ireland has a problem for very solution. We seem doomed it seems to go around in endless circles, getting nowhere.

But I realised that is not the case. It would have been unthinkable for me to even go to such an event a few years back and there was something uplifting about airing difficult issues in a challenging yet respectful atmosphere. There will be many difficult conversations ahead for us all. Let’s start having them.

  • Brian O’Neill

    That as maybe but you would think the DUP could have sent someone.

  • Msiegnaro

    Why? The event is irrelevant to Unionists.

  • Mach1965

    Why have they chose to engage in previous years.

  • Ruairi Murphy

    Siege mentality is alive and well.

  • james

    Sign language in Irish?? Forgive my ignorance, but isn’t sign language universal?

  • ISTemmaP

    No, not universal, why would it be? – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sign_languages

  • Oggins

    So is Sam irrelevant? Was Sir Jeff irrelevant in the previous years? Are you say Alex Kane as irrelevant?

    Or are they not unionist?

  • Nordie Northsider

    You are the DUP’s Nationalist Outreach Officer and I claim my ten pounds.

  • ted hagan

    Displaying your usual ignorance.

  • ted hagan

    The DUP seems closed to any challenge from the media these days, except when it suits them. Rather disturbing.

  • james

    Oh, just wrongly assumed it would be, that’s all.

  • james

    I think that comment probably says more about your character than mine, Mr. Hagan.

    As I said, I genuinely didn’t know that – had assumed sign language for the deaf/hard of hearing to be universal or near enough.

  • ted hagan

    I think it mirrors perfectly your general snideness.

  • Granni Trixie

    James is not alone
    In his assumptions this time.

  • ISTemmaP

    Easily done James, on the back of this looked up how many languages there are – 6909 apparently!

  • Croiteir

    Now now – he is not saying unionists are irrelevant.

  • james

    Hmmm…I think you may be falling prey to a bout of psychological projection there, Ted.

  • james

    Bloody hell….. ‘live’ ones??

    That is quite humbling, actually – particularly given the (generally speaking) linguistic ignorance of people in the UK and Ireland compared to the average European.

  • the keep

    You displaying your usual arrogance as normal.

  • the keep

    Why wasn’t the Sdlp or Pop present either instead of Patricia McBride that will known republican.

  • Jeff

    Absolutely no need for that ted. James was asking a question I too thought that sign language was with some variations universal. Case of playing the man tho me things ted . Not cool my friend

  • Croiteir

    And what is wrong with being a republican? Incidently Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood shared a platform at Feile on Tuesday night

  • Aodh Morrison

    Ignore the pettiness if you can.

    When you’re dealing with an Offence Hound they’ll sniff out the most innocent of comments to scent with their prejudices’ wizz. It’s a knee jerk, or more accurately leg lifting, ingrained habit.

  • In Belfast

    There’s a sort of basic universal sign language https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Sign

    I was surprised too when my sister was learning sign language and told me how many they were.

    It’s probably obvious though, the languages grew up in isolation from each other and would evolve separately.

  • the keep

    Nothing at all its a bit strange that PBP and the SDLP were not invited?

  • Msiegnaro

    Unionists have went in previous years and it’s been of no benefit, why would this year have been better?

  • Msiegnaro

    Thinking it may have been of use, it has not been.

  • Oggins

    You said irrelevant. Stop trying to change the script chum.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    *gone.

  • murdockp

    Of course it is relavent. If you heard kids discussing stealing your car you would intervene.

    Reminding the people of northern Ireland about their NHS, lack of toll roads, free education etc. Should be their approach. Not ignoring the issues that is what the remainders did assume they were going to win.

  • murdockp

    Of course it is relavent. If you heard kids discussing stealing your car you would intervene.

    Reminding the people of northern Ireland about their NHS, lack of toll roads, free education etc. Should be their approach. Not ignoring the issues that is what the remainders did assume they were going to win.

  • Mach1965

    Exactly non engagement is useful.

  • Chris Morris

    I enjoyed that Sam. Fair play. Credit to the organisers who have led by example in facilitating inclusive debate over many years. This year may not have been vintage, but more power to them.

  • file

    James – it is not sign language for the Irish language; it is an Irish method of signing for the English language.

  • file

    Samuel: a bit pedantic, I know, but the Shankill is in West Belfast, as are other Protestant areas.

  • james

    How does that work then?

  • Granni Trixie

    Looks like “inclusive” is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Granni Trixie

    You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that.

  • Granni Trixie

    I quite like people on Slugger who don’t pretend to know everything.

  • Zig70

    The line about West Belfast and stolen cars is fairly horrible. It’s a big place with some big house prices at one end, terrible social deprivation at the other and everything in between. Any person that has a fear of ‘west Belfast’ in this day and age should take a good look at themselves. I still hear West Belfast put down lazily by folk. Winds me up. It would have been better to be honest about it. ‘We were bigots and don’t like nationalists but the medication is working’

  • Jeff

    Have to agree it was a lame attempt at humour but we are very good stereotyping in NI

  • ted hagan

    Oh well, you won’t like me then.

  • ted hagan

    I’m hanging my head in shame.

  • Msiegnaro

    Agreed.

  • Msiegnaro

    Stereotyping people from WB as car thieves is hardly productive.

  • Msiegnaro

    It’s became irrelevant as Nationalists now just hate us.

  • Oggins

    Lol, yeah we hate unionists. You found out. Every single one of us hate you. We are all in a massive WhatsApp Group that is called we hate unionists.

    Come on bud, far from it

  • Msiegnaro

    Aka LAD.

  • Mach1965

    Typical, I wouldn’t like trying to serve you in a shop.

  • Oggins

    Lol very good word play .

  • I went to a talk by a Dublin company that does translations for mobile phone companies so they can sell in more countries. You need 200 languages to get a big market, 2000 to reach nearly everyone.

  • file

    Ask a deaf person.

  • james

    Presumably you don’t know?

  • file

    I know that there is such a thing as Irish sign language, and that it is sign language of the English language . But serioulsy: what do you think googe is for? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Sign_Language

  • james

    What do I think Google is for? In this case it appears to be for getting you out of a hole 😉