Nelson McCausland: Why it's simply not good enough any more to turn a blind eye (or a deaf ear) to Ooh, ah ... up the 'Ra
Summer has arrived and with it the annual controversy about Feile an Phobail. Originally known as the West Belfast Festival, it was founded by Sinn Fein in the wake of the murder of two Army corporals, who were beaten and shot dead by the Provisional IRA on March 19, 1988.
They were particularly brutal murders and the BBC described republican west Belfast as a “terrorist community”. Sinn Fein was concerned about the “negative” image of the area and its response was to create a West Belfast Festival.
That’s how it started.
It was very much a Sinn Fein initiative and when Feile was incorporated as a limited company in 1995 the four directors were Gerry Adams, his secretary Siobhan O’Hanlon, a convicted IRA bomber; Cairan Quinn, who became a Sinn Fein special adviser and now Sinn Fein director of publicity, and Geraldine McAteer, who is a Sinn Fein councillor.
That helps to explain why it has been described as “a wholly-owned subsidiary” of Sinn Fein.
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.
After many years of sustained and generous public funding it has grown in scale and has built up a large body of corporate experience and expertise.
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It has also broadened its programme and this year the big names include Boyzone and boxer Michael Conlan.
But the republicanism that was there at the start is still there, and nowhere is that more evident than on ‘Rebel Night’.
The final Sunday night in Falls Park is Rebel Night and this year a crowd of 10,000 people will each pay £10 to hear The Wolfe Tones and supporting singers belt out such classics as Go On Home British Soldiers Go On Home.
That is always popular with a crowd that is then able to chant “Ooh, ah... up the ’Ra”.
Indeed, last year some of the crowd really got in the mood, with a tricolour decorated with the letters ‘IRA’.
In case anyone is in any doubt about the ethos of that particular event, it is organised by Feile, but is advertised by it as “supported by the Felons Club”, whose members are former IRA prisoners.
Festival director Kevin Gamble has said: “None of the money we receive from ratepayers goes into booking The Wolfe Tones, it is paid for through money we bring in ourselves.”
However, the capacity to stage such an event is a capacity that is largely paid for from public money.
Without that, it wouldn’t happen.
Indeed, at £10-a-head, The Wolfe Tones are bound to be a big money-spinner, producing an income of £100,000 and even after deducting the band’s fee, there will be plenty left over to address any overall festival deficit.
Furthermore, this is only possible because Belfast City Council spent £300,000 on a new event space in Falls Park, and while other events may use it, the biggest beneficiary will be Feile an Phobail.
Of course, we could ask questions of Feile and its directors, but the more important questions are those which have to be directed at the funders and sponsors, because they are the organisations that enable it all to happen, and that includes the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council.
Earlier this year Mr Gamble said “everything that Feile an Phobail does is open and transparent” and I am sure that everything the funders do is open and transparent.
So, perhaps, in the interests of transparency and accountability, I could ask: how much public money — your money and mine — has each public funder put into Feile an Phobail, whether it be Arts Council NI, Tourism NI or city council, and how does support for Feile fit in with the public sector obligation to promote good relations?
Simply turning a blind eye (or a deaf ear) to “Ooh, ah... up the ’Ra” is simply not good enough if public bodies are really committed to building a shared and better future.