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.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam