Nelson McCausland: Tracking the rise of the West Belfast Festival and the public money which filled its coffers
There was an imbalance between the funding of unionist and nationalist cultural projects, says Nelson McCausland
Under direct rule the Northern Ireland Office used to prepare papers titled ‘Iceberg Watch’ for ministers. They identified issues which were not up there in the news, but were problematic and had the potential to cause difficulty, hence the name.
They were internal documents, but occasionally they were leaked. I only ever saw one, but it came to mind this week when I was in St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road to take part in a panel debate at Feile an Phobail.
This is the 30th year of Feile an Phobail, otherwise known as the West Belfast Festival, and it started in 1988. West Belfast was coming under intense scrutiny and intense criticism and Sinn Fein responded by creating the event.
Feile was incorporated as a limited company in 1995 with four directors — Gerry Adams, former Sinn Fein president; Ciaran Quinn, a former Sinn Fein special adviser; Geraldine McAteer, now a Sinn Fein councillor, and the late Siobhan O’Hanlon, a former IRA volunteer and later secretary to Adams.
Today it has just three directors: Padraig O Muirigh, a solicitor and son of veteran republican Sean ‘Spike’ Murray; Sean Baker, a Sinn Fein constituency manager, and Harry Connolly, director of Failte Feirste Thiar.
When I came home from St Mary’s I looked out the old NIO document from 2004 and the fourth issue on it was ‘festivals’ with this comment: “PQs on Transitional Funding of Festivals in Summer 2004 exposed a marked imbalance between those which would be viewed as Nationalist and those which would be viewed as Unionist. Loyalist and Unionist politicians have flagged up concerns about this and are likely to look for development support for new Orange and Ulster Scots festivals.”
Back in 2004 a series of Parliamentary Questions had uncovered the “marked imbalance” in festival funding, and a series of Freedom of Information requests raised further concerns.
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Nevertheless, the public money has kept flowing, from Tourism Northern Ireland, the Arts Council and Belfast City Council, and in 2016 the Culture Department channelled more money directly to Feile.
However, this is about much more than money, it is about what the money has enabled the organisation to do. As it reaches its 30th anniversary Feile an Phobail has managed to build up a body of experience and expertise and has been at the heart of the cultural infrastructure in west Belfast.
The NIO document said that unionist politicians would look for comparable “development support” and that happened. Indeed, I have notes of meetings where such requests were made, but Tony Blair’s Government was more interested in placating Sinn Fein.
The difference was that Sinn Fein had a bargaining power that unionist politicians did not have, the firepower of the IRA. IRA weapons were not decommissioned until the following year.
More recently money has got tighter for Feile and while its most recent accounts (2016-2017) reveal a reported income of £1.25m, it also acknowledge a financial deficiency, which was met through some cutbacks and through “increased funding and sponsorship”.
Belfast City Council had agreed “additional funding”, and there was also the money channelled from the Culture Department.
Of course, Feile an Phobail relies on the work of many volunteers, and the other night I saw quite a number of Sinn Fein politicians giving of their time to the festival. But none of this could have happened without all those years of public funding, and yet when questions are asked about it, they seem to be quietly buried.
At some point there will be a new round of political negotiations. In preparation for that it is only fair to ask how much public money has been channelled into Feile and other “cultural projects” so that when the negotiations come round to “equality” everyone knows the landscape.
As Gerry Adams, the founding father of Feile an Phobail, once said: “Who could be afraid of equality?”