Self-confident & outward-looking, Feile An Phobail is a perfect fit for Modern Ireland

I was somewhat taken aback when I first heard that Arlene Foster had tweeted her ‘concern‘ at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s decision to attend the opening of Feile an Phobail yesterday. Having attended many events at the Feile since the late 1980s, I was conscious of the fact that many Unionist politicians- and known loyalist figures- have been involved in its programme of events annually.

In what can only be interpreted as a shockingly poor piece of research, the DUP Leader clearly failed to realise that her own party colleague, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, actually opened the Feile in 2012, exposing the cynical and ignorant nature of her ‘concern’ at the Taoiseach following suit six years later.

Alas, it’s just another day for Arlene.

The Taoiseach’s visit to St Mary’s University College campus to launch Feile An Phobail was the second of three statement visits on the day, coming after his very well received trip to the headquarters of the Orange Order and site of the Museum of Orange Heritage- which I wrote about on Slugger after visiting it some three years ago.

It is notable that nationalist and republican comment on Leo Varadkar’s visit was universally positive, with the Sinn Fein Mayor of Belfast, Deirdre Hargey, making a point of welcoming the Taoiseach’s trip to the Orange Museum in her speech at the Feile launch.

As this Slugger article from two years ago illustrates, the Feile has an established tradition of encouraging and inviting voices to be heard and narratives to be told that are not common with the strongly Republican host community of west Belfast.

A recognition that this is something positive, a source of strength, is one of the many reasons that those involved in conceiving of and organising the Feile over its 30 years are worthy of the rich praise directed at them by the Taoiseach in his address yesterday when he labelled it “a genuine festival of the people.”

Feile An Phobail is a manifestation of a positive, progressive, outward-looking community, confident in its own place and identity but also comfortable with recognising the diversity of opinions and experiences in the north of Ireland.

In the deeply segregated society that is Northern Ireland, Feile provides a template for how cultural expression, exploration and remembrance can and should be organised.

West Belfast is rightly proud of its republican and nationalist tradition and culture, and aspects of Republican remembrance and reflection will continue to form a part of Feile alongside events which may be interpreted as providing directly contrasting narratives of our troubled past and contested present.

That is as it should be, for what has long defined Feile An Phobail, and set it apart in a wholly positive manner, is its willingness to invite the Other in a society in which community-based cultural expression has traditionally taken the form of organised events reflecting exclusively single-identity narratives and experiences.

The third statement visit by the Taoiseach on his highly symbolic visit yesterday was to the Maverick Bar in downtown Belfast for a quick pint. The fact that this is a gay bar was quite clearly a deliberate gesture of solidarity to the LGBT community currently fighting to secure the same right to marry afforded Irish and British citizens in all other jurisdictions in these islands (a theme he revisited throughout the day.)

Allison Morris noted Varadkar’s sharp-witted riposte to Arlene Foster’s ill-judged criticism of his Feile presence in today’s Irish News:

“I read up on the history of Feile and the one thing I found out was that Arlene has done more than me, she’s actually spoken at Feile back in 2005, so perhaps next year she’ll launch it and I’ll speak at it.”

Interestingly, apart from the begrudging voices allying with Arlene to bemoan the Taoiseach’s presence at Feile’s launch yesterday, the only discordant notes struck at any point during the day-long visit was by the Bernie Smyth-led protesters who assembled outside St Mary’s to protest at the Taoiseach’s support for the Repeal of the 8th Amendment referendum which passed in an overwhelming manner last month.

North and South, Ireland is changing. Those on the wrong side of history have a difficult road ahead of them.