Well Taoiseach, Féile an Phobail is not “simply a community event”…

Little did I think on Tuesday when I wrote that precedent in politics is no guide to the future that it would take less than 24 hours for some modest proof to emerge.

So the Taoiseach is coming to meet the Orange Order, but the real political interest lies in the fact that he is launching the Feile an Phobail or West Belfast Festival: one of the most richly funded community festivals in these islands.

As Chris pointed out on Twitter, two years ago the Taoiseach used Sinn Fein-run West Belfast as an electoral warning to the good burghers of his own West Dublin constituency to vote for him and Fine Gael…

The chances Leo gave that tweet a second thought five minutes later are vanishingly small, even though the view in West Belfast may well be that the Taoiseach is paying ‘tribute’ to the Sinn Fein leadership (aka, the Army Council).

So what’s the fuss? DUP MP Gavin Robinson launched it before, albeit when there was a civil administration in Stormont. Others have taken part. Iar Thaoiseach Albert Reynolds even opened its own wholly owned Teach Na Féile headquarters.

The answer lies partly in the traumatic origins of the festival itself in August 1988 when the IRA’s image was tarnished by the PR disaster of the Enniskillen bomb and their jubilant public execution of soldiers Derek Wood and David Howse.

It coincided with the IRA signalling it was preparing for “a sustained run of killings” which claimed both civilians and security personnel. In July two civilians had been killed on the Falls after “a volunteer accidentally detonated the device”.

Later that month, the Hanna family from Hillsborough – mother, father and one child – were killed as a result of “mistaken identity” as they returned from Dublin after a holiday in the US. Two civilian workers were ambushed in Fermanagh.

Charlie Haughey, the Fianna Fail Taoiseach at the time, inveighed against the “deaths and injuries to members of the security forces in Britain and Northern Ireland and injuries to many members of the public”.

The Feile was initiated by West Belfast MP Gerry Adams (still one of just two trustees on a new charitable body set up in 2016) to improve the image of the IRA (and distract from that said “sustained run of killings”).

And, of course, perhaps he hoped to improve his own chances of re-election (he wasn’t). In the background, Adams was also beginning to explore new but highly modified terms for peace for the IRA via the ultra-secret Hume Adams talks.

That first Festival was a modest and – outside the ATN – largely unreported affair back in 1988.  It’s since been hugely successful, developing resources such that it can invite internationally famous [but non-Republican? – Ed] entertainers.

For a long time, its flagship West Belfast Talks Back panel debate was a key event in Belfast’s political calendar. And it spawned a range of smaller scale entertainment, cultural and sporting events in other, largely nationalist, areas.

So it’s not simply a community festival. At its core, it remains a Sinn Fein owned PR/public diplomacy exercise designed not simply to clean up the IRA’s past, but to re-represent it to a younger generation as heroic and justifiable.

An important context that’s missing from Taoiseach’s rejoinder to his critics yesterday:

It’s easy to extrapolate too much from the Taoiseach’s actions, other than it feeds his preferred narrative as Ireland’s latest ‘coming man’, north and south. But it is consistent with a long departure from FG’s reflexive and aggressive anti-SF line.

Something’s afoot.

Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar” by “Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar” is licensed under “Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar

Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar” by “Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar” is licensed under “Election 2011 – Leo Varadkar

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