Review: Feile an Phobail 2019
21 years old, many extras, needs attention. Feile an Phobail fails its MOT
19 August 2019
There is one inescapable reality about the 21st Belfast Feile an Phobail, the yearly cultural festival organised under the direction of Sinn Fein. That is its corruption. For many years the funding of the festival was shrouded in secrecy. We now know that it is peace money funnelled through Belfast City Council and part of a sectarian deal that helps fund loyalist bonfires.
No one seems to mind. Left groups such as the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Network who entered the Feile under the guise of debating Sinn Fein are now happy simply to put out their own stalls as part of the festival.
The event, which now covers Derry and much of Belfast, has a number of specific tasks to carry out. Its main task is to suppress nationalist dissent through a mixture of carrot and stick. Second is Sinn Fein's outreach program for conciliating loyalism. Thirdly the Feile tries to boost Sinn Fein despite growing weaknesses in its strategy. Partly this is done through a whole series of lectures talking up the prospect of a united Ireland. Others tried to present Sinn Fein as a left wing force, something it is not. Lastly the festival generates quite a lot of tourist income by presenting a Disneyland tale of the history of the Troubles, usually involving a tour of carefully crafted, and quite fake, wall murals.
These projects had limited success. The various circuses and pop shows were as popular as ever, but there were riots in West and North Belfast around attempts to erect bonfires, with Sinn Fein suppression defeated in North Belfast and Derry. It's not that there are not issues with bonfires, itís that the approach to loyalist bonfires (finding ways that most can continue with some cosmetic changes) is in sharp contrast to the ongoing attempts to eliminate nationalist demonstrations. Sinn Fein's alternatives are discos and pop concerts. They are not able to tolerate anything that actually smacks of discontent or resistance to Britain and the failing peace settlement.
One addition to the festival season is the ritual banning of republican anti-internment demonstrators from Belfast city centre, part of the deal to resolve Orange marches in Ardoyne. This year the Republicans outsmarted the police and held a successful rally at Belfast City Hall.
Sinn Fein's outreach program also ran into trouble. Attempts to collaborate directly with the loyalists seem to have run into the ground and they have had to concentrate on marginal forces interested in cooperation. The big failure here was the "Derry model" of marching meant to conciliate Loyal Orders. The idea is that Sinn Fein suppress protest and in return the loyal orders avoid any excessive provocation. This year a band modified their uniform to express support for the Parachute regiment and for "Soldier F", the only member of the British Army to be charged in relation to the Bloody Sunday massacre. The biggest blow to Sinn Fein was the speed with which the Loyal Orders and the unionist political establishment rushed to defend the band's "freedom of expression."
The final wound to the Shinners came with the highlight discussion forum "West Belfast Talks Back" when the Irish Taoiseach directly contradicted their dreams of a United Ireland, indicating that it was not on the immediate agenda, would require modification of the Irish state to align with the reactionary agenda of the British and loyalists and in fact should not be mentioned because of the danger of sectarianism in the Brexit era.
One unalloyed success was the tourist industry, although the groups of tourists moved through relatively empty streets and among a largely indifferent population. The extent to which the Feile organisers have adopted to the tourist market was underlined by an exhibition in a local shopping centre hailing a new James Connolly Centre as the "newest visitor attraction in Belfast".
The Republican organisers of Faile an Phobail are so far away from their roots that they see no irony in offering a plastic James Connolly as a tourist attraction. This hubris will eventually be followed by downfall.