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Malachi O'Doherty: Criticism of Leo Varadkar for opening the West Belfast Festival is unfair... some events are a showcase for inclusion

Malachi O'Doherty has had a wary relationship with Feile an Phobail, but says it can congratulate itself on being wide open to conflicting views

I know what it is like to be received circumspectly at the Feile an Phobail, so I am well-placed to empathise with Leo Varadkar. He will be going there against a background of criticism from some in the victims sector, but also aware that there will be mutterings about his intentions from people around him.

Is he courting a coalition with Sinn Fein? Would he like to repeat now some of his past sneering jibes at how well the West Belfast constituency has fared while championed by Sinn Fein?

I have often gone to Feile events warily myself. I have had a troubled acquaintance with the festival and other cultural events in the republican ambit.

Gerry Adams gave me a warm welcome once, but others have been downright rude. Tom Hartley once told a group of people following him around on a history tour that half of west Belfast would cheerfully string me up from a lamp-post.

And well I remember - having got so much mileage out of the tale - how Bobby Storey put me up against a wall in the Felons Club and told me I was a slug and not welcome in west Belfast.

Once, Tommy Gorman - the republican one, not the RTE broadcaster - interviewed me on the Feile radio station. That went well. Tommy is a civil bloke. But a future minister came into the room, saw me and gave off to him afterwards for inviting me: "What's he doing here?"

But, over the years, the Feile has extended its reach and incorporated some groups that are more warmly disposed to me. Amnesty International had me chair a debate at St Mary's Teacher Training College. But Jim Gibney introduced me and got my name wrong.

Mr Gobney is a commentator himself and could be expected to know me, so perhaps he was making a point.

And, a couple of years ago, Culturlann invited me to display an exhibition of landscape photographs. They also took some criticism for letting me do that, but had me back to introduce loyalist artists, the writer Beano Niblock and the painter Geordie Morrow.

Moving through the Feile with a sense that you are not warmly admired by everyone you meet is probably not a rare experience.

I put some of that down to the fact that old militant republicans, in particular, have been at the receiving end of abuse for decades and have never really adjusted themselves to the contempt in which their militancy was held.

If you have been a gunman, or a bomber, then you are going to have to live with the fact that most people will not endorse the path you took.

Part of the motivating spirit of the festival is to reinforce the dignity and self-respect of that wasted generation. Yet, paradoxically, the Feile can congratulate itself on having been wide open to opposing views.

The terrific debates at the annual West Belfast Talks Back have been a showcase for inclusiveness. Loyalists have been invited. Political critics from the republic have been invited.

I remember the exhilaration around Jude Collins challenging Eoghan Harris to a bet that Sinn Fein's vote would continue to rise. Harris took the bet, lost and paid up.

The late Sean Crummy - the impersonator behind Folks On The Hill - had the audience in fits with his take on Jarry Kally, chewin' a brick. Even in the early days, the Provos were keen to show that they were game to be made fun of.

Denis Donaldson once told me that he and some of his mates had gone to see The Hole In The Wall Gang at the Andersonstown Leisure Centre and wondered afterwards if they had held back. "We can take it," he said.

Of course, Denis had another agenda that I wasn't aware of at the time.

My feeling about the Feile is that the voice it least wants to hear is the voice of critical neighbours. I grew up in west Belfast. I sat in classrooms with future Provos. I was a close witness to the start of the Troubles and I have a take on that experience which is hugely at odds with the standard Provo narrative. I don't think republicans want to hear that. They can cope better with a loyalist from the Shankill, or the Chief Constable.

I was at an event once with Cathal O Searcaigh, reading from his wonderful memoir A Light on Distant Hills. Cathal talked about a flowering of memoir writing in Ireland and cited some other authors, including - very generously - myself.

Afterwards, we talked and he asked why I had not featured in the festival and I voiced my theory, to his horror, that a writer of books about growing up in Andersonstown would not be as welcome here as a writer from the Shankill, if his experience contradicted the republican vision.

And how many other writers are there with roots in the area who have never been invited to read, or launch their work, there? I can easily think of a few. Danny Morrison isn't one of them.

But, though the West Belfast Festival will always seek to remember with nostalgic affection the benign endeavours of the IRA to achieve justice for the people and much of the outside world will continue to regard that as an unwarranted and eccentric stand, that doesn't mean that the whole city isn't better off with the festival than without it.

Leo Varadkar will open it and he is accused of effectively endorsing the celebration of the IRA that is always a feature of the festival. That isn't fair.

He will be visiting Schomberg House and telling the Orange Order that it is a fine, all-Ireland institution. That doesn't mean that he endorses the sectarianism that gathers around much of what the order does, the loyalist paramilitary bands that march with the lodges, or the sneering at Catholicism and the Irish language which has featured in recent events.

The Orange Order was born out of sectarian faction-fighting in Armagh over 200 years ago. It retains and excuses much that is sectarian and problematic. Its achievement is to preserve the memory of those riots as part of a noble struggle.

There isn't much difference between that approach and the one the Feile represents, trying to think well of a disgraceful past, while moving beyond it into self-respect and amicability.

Leo Varadkar, like many of us, would rather indulge them both in that endeavour than shut them up.

Belfast Telegraph

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