Review: Feile an Phobail – The invisible festival
John Mc Anulty
21 August 2006
It is normal to review elements of a festival – the plays, performances, events. However on this occasion the West Belfast Festival was itself the story. As the Americans say, it bombed bigtime, showing a decline in almost any dimension one cares to measure. As Feile an Phobail is the showcase for Sinn Fein Nua and the claims it makes for the Good Friday agreement, the decline of the festival has political implications for the Provisionals and for the future support for their policy of accommodation to a sectarian and partitionist settlement. The cut-down newsprint brochure outlining the festival attractions, replacing the glossy magazines of the past, may not have marked the beginning of the end for the Sinn Fein adventure, but they signal goodbye to the glory days when the Good Friday myth could be told as a true account.
The Festival organisers went into the celebrations accepting that it had been much reduced. They had a simple explanation – money. In the words of the director:
“The complacency from statutory organisations (particularly government departments) about what we and others have achieved – in terms of replacing communal strife – and what we could achieve if given proper and adequate core funding is frustrating and infuriating.”
This statement is almost worth an article in itself and comes much closer to expressing Sinn Fein’s private thoughts than the ludicrous and hilarious posters and banners proclaiming itself the revolutionary party. Without thinking, the conflict in the North is reduced to “community strife” rather than anti-imperialist struggle and the role of the Festival (and by extension Sinn Fein) to pacifying the formerly rebellious population – a role for which they expect payment by the state!
But even mechanisms of pacification have their internal dynamic. Things move and change. In this case the dynamic takes the form of a scissors. On the one hand, if pacification is successful, over time there is less rebellion to pacify and therefore less value to the pacification and less need for the state to pay. On the other hand a population that looses the impulse to rebel does not then become enthusiastic supporters of the status quo ante. Instead they become apathetic and unlikely to mobilise for any reason. Therefore the festival was hit from above by the cash cuts and from below by the loss of the people element from Feile an Phobail and the collapse of what had already become a minor element of street and community activity.
There is one other mechanism that operates in a pacification process. An organisation that turns it back on its revolutionary past eventually runs out of ideas. It has abandoned its original beliefs and cannot fully embrace the ideology of its enemies. The tissue of inventions and justifications that it has put together begin to fray. The rather limited and formulaic political elements of the festival clearly showed their age – for example, a talk about press and media distortion, rather hoary with age and repeated every year, descends into farce when sponsored by the republican spin factory Daily Ireland!
This political decay was shown most clearly in the Jewel in the crown of the Sinn Fein political calendar – the ‘debate’ in ‘West Belfast Talks Back’. This format, of a political panel show, has served a number of functions in the past. It has convinced the republican base that Sinn Fein have really made it into the bigtime by inviting celebrity guests. It casts ‘left’ Sinn Fein in a favourable light, as the guests are always to the right of themselves. It suggests that the republicans, able to interact cordially with the far right, are tailor made for coalition government with unionism and, finally, it has been the showcase for the Sinn Fein givaway – the drip of retreat and surrender that has characterised the peace process dressed up as magnanimous concession. Last year the chief celeb was Geoffrey Donaldson of the DUP, there to tell the unhappy base that the next concession was the surrender of the IRA arsenal. This year Peter Robinson was to head the bill. He didn’t attend. In a masterpiece of spin Daily Ireland informed us that the DUP were split – Peter wanted to come but the right wing of the DUP wouldn’t let him!
The reality is rather different. The DUP came last year. They asked for IRA weapons. They got IRA weapons. They don’t want Sinn Fein in government. The British have no intention of forcing them to have Sinn Fein in government. There will be no government, no settlement, and the hearty self-congratulation on which the festival was built is now ringing hollow.
The Provisionals have one substantial success to show from the festival. A national mobilisation and the fact of the 25th anniversary of the Hunger strikes managed to bring 15,000 people to the final rally in Casement Park. Despite being much smaller than the 60,000 that attended the 20th anniversary, this demolishes the ‘devil Adams’ theory of many republican critics, who argued that the movement was essentially sound but led astray by the leadership. What it does show is that Sinn Fein retains a very large base, one comfortable with the pageant suggesting that the lost lives could be justified by the present day votes and influence accruing to Sinn Fein and able to shrug off protests by republican Sinn Fein and the IRSP about the denial of political status to current republican prisoners.
Sinn Fein will be around for some time to come. It will be around as the catholic party, fighting for its share of sectarian privilege in the North and playing a role as Ógra Fainna Fail in the 26 counties. Just don’t expect festivals that produce cutting edge critical art or analysis or even engender much interest from anyone outside the grantocracy.