Féile an Phobail
Sinn Féin’s Success Kneecapped by Reality
20 August 2022
This year, 2022, marked the 24th year of Féile an Phobail. It was the year when they announced their final triumph. There were no bonfires in West Belfast. This was something of a surprise to festival attendees, but in fact the Féile receives over half a million in funding from Belfast City Council, with one-fifth of that from a specialist bonfire diversion fund.
It can easily be argued that bonfires are a bad idea. The problem is that the Sinn Fein alternative is to party in the park. There are no alternative means of resistance because there is no need for resistance. The political settlement, which Sinn Féin reluctantly accepted, turns out to be perfectly adequate, so much so that they excluded mention of a United Ireland in the recent elections in order to push for Michelle O’Neill as First Minister of the partitioned statelet.
There are a number of unintended consequences arising from the success of this strategy. Outside of the music and partying, the festival is pretty dull. The political arena is vacuous as it has run out of figures to the right of police chiefs and loyalist paramilitaries.
It fosters corruption. The bonfire diversion fund is split down the middle by Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party and handed out as straightforward patronage. There is a growing wedge between youth and the organisers. They youth know nothing but the institutionalised sectarianism of the current settlement, but they resent it and see the many faults.
This all came together and exploded on the final night of the Féile with the Wolfe Tones concert. A mainly young audience chanted "ooh ahh, up the Ra," leading to outrage from Unionism and a demand that public funding for this sectarianism be withdrawn.
Leaving aside the avalanche of sectarianism around Unionism, this is an example of Loyalist wokeness, where anything that offends is defined as sectarian - the Irish language is defined as sectarian by the mere fact of its existence. The IRA is defined as sectarian because a struggle against the British military presence is, from the unionist perspective, entirely illegitimate.
The most important part of the row was the Sinn Féin response, where they said that the Wolfe Tones event had been firewalled so that no public money was involved. This is a standard response, conciliating bigotry rather than confronting it.
They should look over their shoulders. The youth rap band Kneecap caused outrage when they unveiled a mural of a burning police land rover with the caption “nil fáilte roimh an RUC (the RUC aren’t welcome)”. As the band members explain, they are not looking back at the past, but responding to their own experience of the police today.
Sinn Féin may, after 34 years, have won the battle of the bonfires, but new forms of protest are emerging.