Between 12 and 18 March, Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics will host 80 free events in over 30 venues across the city to encourage people to engage with the big issues of our times, whether that be Brexit, poverty, (in)equality, gender or fake news. There’ll be talks, workshops, theatre, comedy, music, film, tours, exhibitions, dance, poetry and a video competition.
Sinn Féin’s new party president, Uachtarán Shinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald paid tribute to her friend and mentor Gerry Adams and spoke of a desire to double the size of the party while changing how it operates. She also spoke about looking forward to working with the DUP and promised that there would be no return to the status quo at Stormont.
In her acceptance speech as the incoming vice president of Sinn Féin – Leas Uachtarán Shinn Féin – Michelle O’Neill anticipated that the “[Stprmont] talks will conclude next week” and “the issues which caused the collapse of Stormont can be resolved with political will and mutual respect”. Later she called for “cohesion” in the expanding party.
The parallels with 2018 are immense. The on-screen battle between politicians and the fourth estate may remind local audiences of politicians boycotting interviews with certain mainstream news outlets and harassed questioning the veracity and reporting of stories which are embarrassing. After nearly two hours, I also learnt that if you’re ever near the NY Times office, be careful crossing the road: nearly everyone in this film narrowly escapes being run over!
A slim green file AG/15/60A (selective scans) released under the 20 Year Rule and available to peruse at the Public Records Office deals with the vexed issue in 1986 of milk being illegally imported across the border from the Republic of Ireland and sold in Northern Ireland shops. Buttermilk wasn’t covered by the same import ban!
While there was a flurry of activity to plan for the unlikely event of a Russian satellite crash-landed on Northern Ireland soil in 1988, the alerting procedures failed and the NI emergency planning heard the ‘all clear’ on the midnight radio news when London colleagues failed to notify them that the satellite had missed the UK and they could stand their staff down.
Between 1989 and 1992, local civil servants responded to two requests for Northern Ireland to offer accommodation for refugees from two regions of the world: Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. In the second instance, the internal response lacked enthusiasm with officials unwilling to state publicly that they were willing to accept in families to NI as part of the UK-wide programme.
Peter Robinson’s influence on unionist politics can be clearly seen in government papers that were recently released under the 20 Year Rule. In one file the NIO considered that Robinson was worried that his party leader Ian Paisley was in the pocket of UUP leader James Molyneaux as they analysed a constituency speech that was forcefully in favour of devolution.
A civil service file released under the 20 Year Rule shows how the potential bilingual publication of a report about Irish Medium eduction provoked one civil servant to comment that “given the small and gossipy world of serious Irish language enthusiasts in Northern Ireland, I think we could assume that a refusal to publish this report in Irish would leak sooner or later”
One single buff-coloured file, three or four inches thick, contains the stapled minutes of NIO meetings with political parties in May 1991 as they negotiated about the strand one, two and three talks. While perhaps the single most frustrating file I’ve flicked through in PRONI over the last couple of years, the level of detail in the civil service minutes of meetings is incredible, and the retention of humorous asides provides a lot of colour about the characters involved and their relationships.
Files released today under the 20 year rule contain Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s August 1989 proposals for ‘a model of consensus government’ – with a structure ’management committee‘ to help set departmental policy under direct rule – included a damning assessment of the Alliance Party, “their usefulness as a party has been as a catalyst rather than a main player”.
The pressure group – The Monday Club – for which membership of either the Conservative Party or the UUP was a prerequisite to be a member recommended in 1990 to the Secretary of State Peter Brooke that there should be a two month amnesty for terrorist activities (short of murder) and that the Union should be made permanent as the provision to leave only encouraged terrorists.
The religious zeal and fervour normally on show at the November DUP conference was missing from much of today’s proceedings. The banter, jeering and spontaneous bursting into song was muted, actively discouraged (or forbidden). The flags, normally already laid out on seats when the delegates arrive, were only distributed after lunch. It seem that with supposed power in Westminster comes responsibility.
In her speech to the party’s autumn conference held in Derry, Alliance leader Naomi Long this afternoon called for a way to be found through the current political impasse to “[demonstrate] through words and actions, mutual respect for both British and Irish Identity and our commitment to share this space together, in co-operation rather than conflict”.
New documentary examining the Loughinisland massacre goes deeper into the evidence that any existing investigations, naming the chief suspects. An exemplar on how to tell an investigative story in a manner which gives dignity to the victims and their families, No Stone Unturned avoids politicisation and politicians, and exposes the messy ‘dirty war’ that was thoroughly intertwined with the paramilitary action during the Troubles.
Sustained anti-Irish Language Act rhetoric was an effective smokescreen that diverted attention from any focus on the UUP’s disappointing election results. Robin Swann confidently delivered his first speech to conference as party leader with a call a new unionism and the desire for radical moderates (though he was light on detail).