Nelson McCausland: How thousands of pounds of your money is used to bankroll festival that ends in ‘Ooh, ah... up the ’RA’
Thirty years ago IRA was sending soldiers home in coffins; now republicans just sing about it, writes Nelson McCausland.
Thirty years ago, in 1988, two Army corporals were dragged from a car in west Belfast and savagely beaten by a republican mob. They were beaten, stripped of their clothing and brutally murdered by members of the Provisional IRA. That evening the sheer savagery of the murders reverberated around the world as film footage was shown on news programmes.
That was the background to the first West Belfast Festival, which was organised by Sinn Fein just a few months later in an attempt to improve the image of what had been branded “a terrorist community”.
Thirty years on the West Belfast Festival, now Feile an Phobail, reached its climax with a concert at which The Wolfe Tones sang Go On Home British Soldiers, Go On Home. Meanwhile, the crowd chanted “Ooh, ah... up the ’RA”, and there were Irish tricolours decorated with the letters IRA. The rest of the bill that night was Shebeen, The Rising of the Moon and Gary Og, who all perform “rebel music”.
It was nothing new and the “rebel night” has long been the “highlight” of the festival, but this year it has finally attracted greater scrutiny because of social media coverage.
In 1988 republicans were sending soldiers home in coffins. Today they just sing about sending them home, promise to keep on fighting them for another 800 years, and praise the Provisional IRA, the organisation that murdered the two young men.
It is grotesque, and yet Feile is lavished with public money by a number of major funders.
The strongly political and republican ethos of many of the events seems to present no problem to the funders. Yes, they had a concert by Olly Murs, but the heart of Feile is still a stridently republican heart.
The main funders are the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council and Tourism Northern Ireland, but other funders include BBC Children in Need, Community Relations Council, the Executive Office, European Union, Policing and Community Safety Partnership and Foras na Gaeilge.
Tourism NI gave them £65,000 this year to attract international visitors. But does Tourism NI want to attract visitors to “Ooh, ah... up the ’RA”? Indeed, how do they reconcile that with their statutory obligation, as a public body, to promote good relations?
The Arts Council awarded Feile £116,559 and its chief executive said: “We’re proud to have been alongside Feile throughout its journey.” So, is the Arts Council proud of “Ooh, ah... up the ’RA”?
Meanwhile, the Arts Council, strapped for cash, has withdrawn its Lottery funding to such an iconic institution as the Linen Hall Library.
This year0 the largest funder is Belfast City Council.
It hasn’t yet managed to work out how much money it gave, but it runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The most recent Feile accounts in Companies House were up to March 31, 2017, so even the next accounts, up to March 2018, will not give us the full picture for this year’s festival.
Nevertheless, those most recent accounts, albeit almost two years old, disclose a “voluntary (grant) income” of £840,000, with ticket sales of just £222,019 and bar sales of £180,035.
However, an income of £1.2m isn’t the full picture, because they had to draw on their “unrestricted reserves” and there was a deficit in unrestricted reserves of £501,482.
Feile is obviously not strapped for cash if it has managed to build up sufficient reserves to be able to draw out that sort of money.
In truth, it would take a forensic accountant to get to the bottom of it all, but it is clear that public money is lavished on Feile. It’s time for the three principal funders to get together and sort this out — something they seem afraid to do.
Indeed, it seems that, year after year, these public bodies turn a blind eye to what happens in west Belfast and just keep on doling out the cash.
All of them have a statutory responsibility to promote good relations and it’s time they faced up to that responsibility.
Public money should not be supporting a festival where the climax is “Ooh, ah... up the ’RA”.