Belfast Telegraph

Feile an Phobail a success today thanks to NIO money

By Nelson McCausland

As I looked through the programme for Feile an Phobail, otherwise known as the West Belfast Festival, which is running throughout this week it occurred to me that some things change and some things never change.

Feile an Phobail started in 1988 as a fairly small event but has grown over the years and has become a very large organisation with a considerable number of staff and an extremely large budget.

There has been a lot of controversy about the decision to book the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle as a headline act, mainly because of his jokes about people with disabilities, but the fact remains that his fee for this event will not be a few hundred pounds.

You can rest assured that his fee will be in the tens of thousands of pounds and quite a few tens of thousands of pounds, which may explain why the organisers didn't cancel him.

Moreover, he is not the only big name to have appeared in the west of the city.  and comedian Lenny Henry have all performed at Feile an Phobail.

So how is it that the organisation has grown to this extent? The main reason is that, from 1988 onwards until devolution, it was a pet project of the Northern Ireland Office.

Throughout those years, as it was building up its staff, its expertise, its capacity and its credibility, it was supported and funded by the NIO.

Direct rule ministers from London lavished public money on the West Belfast Festival as part of their policy of wooing Sinn Fein.

The festival was very much the creation of Sinn Fein and has even been described as a "wholly-owned subsidiary of Sinn Fein".

The founders included Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and IRA bomber Siobhan O'Hanlon.

Indeed, for some years successive direct rule ministers operated a closed system whereby their festival funding was limited to a handful of organisations and restricted to those festivals which had been funded the year before.

West Belfast was locked into the NIO funding and many others were locked out. On that basis it would have been hard to fail.

Some things change, but on the other hand some things never change, and alongside the headline acts such as Frankie Boyle, UB40 and Human League there are plenty of other highlights of a more local and traditional nature.

On Saturday night, veteran republican group The Wolfe Tones will perform in Falls Park, or you might want to join the Annual Plastic Bullets Vigil outside the "former Andersonstown Barracks".

On the other hand, you could revert to the Rock Bar on the Falls Road for "Feile at the Rock". There the musical delights include "Songs of Freedom" with Terry 'Cruncher' O'Neill. His singing has been reviewed in An Phoblacht and one of his musical performances was described as "phenomenal".

Indeed, the same venue offers the musical talents of Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane, who was convicted in relation to the bombing of the Bayardo Bar, and Gary Og from Scotland.

One of Gary's best known songs is Say Hello To The Provos, Say Hello To The Brave, which was written by John 'Bap' Kelly, an IRA man who was killed by his own bomb.

Of course, there is plenty of choice. If you don't fancy the Rock Bar you do have an alternative at the Felons Club, where you can enjoy the "Felons Rebel Night", again with McFarlane and Og.

The Felons is also hosting its "Annual Prisoners Day" and a new play about two hunger strikers, one from the old IRA and one from the Provisional IRA.

As the recipient of public money, the West Belfast Festival cannot go on riding two horses with mainstream entertainment and arts running alongside "rebel nights" and "Up the Provos". It's time to move on.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.

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