Violence rewarded, while Feile gets punished
Violence rewarded, while Feile gets punished

Last September there was major loyalist rioting in Belfast after the Orange Order and UVF were curtailed from marching through a nationalist part of the city’s Springfield Road.

Last Monday the Parades Commission (which includes two members that to nationalists suggest an Orange lobby) ruled that Orangemen will now be allowed through this contentious area. It has put certain restrictions on next Saturday’s proposed march but this does not assuage the anger that nationalists feel about their rights being ignored.

Mainstream unionists refused to condemn last year’s rioting. They linked it to anger over the Parades Commission’s decision and to “a sense of alienation” among working-class unionists who feel they are being deprived of their fair share of government money in comparison to investment in nationalist areas.

Belatedly, unionists have come to recognise the concept of alienation - which they derided in nationalists.

Unionist parties, particularly the DUP, boast of the quality of their representation, their attendance record at Westminster, at how many committees they sit on and how many questions they table. All, apparently, to no avail. So, the degree of demoralisation within unionist communities is not unconnected to the ineffectiveness, complacency and the obsessive negative policies of those whom they elect. Ian Paisley Jr boasts that he prefers British direct rule to power-sharing if that means having a Sinn Feiner about the place.

Nationalist areas, despite unionist propaganda, are not funded in a generous or privileged way but have had to fight tooth and nail with government departments and statutory bodies.

The struggle to reverse decades of structural discrimination, generational unemployment and low wages is far from over.

Where there has been a reversal of traditional sectarian malpractices and discrimination it is because nationalist representatives and community activists have been tenacious in their job.

It is this campaigning spirit and limited successes, and not a sense of triumphalism, which has given rise to a buoyant and optimistic mood among nationalists.

The cost to the taxpayer/exchequer of last September’s loyalist rioting and destruction was #3 million (?4.2 million).

Many years ago, buses used to be burnt on the Falls Road at a cost in compensation of about #100,000 for two, I think.

That was before Feile an Phobail was established as a West Belfast community arts festival in 1988.

The festival was aimed as a positive alternative to the annual protests linked to the anniversary of the introduction of internment and RUC/British army attacks on marchers or those at bonfires.

It was aimed at supplanting riots and civil strife and providing an alternative to conflict.

Of course, its critics never let up about its political debates and lectures or sporting events named after dead republicans. If you weren’t moulded in their middle-class, middle-of-the-road image, and no matter what good you were doing, you were to be demonised and denigrated, especially if you were having fun.

Over the years the festival - as a result of voluntary workers, and funding from state and statutory bodies - became better organised and formally established with an office and staff.

West Belfast is not prolific in terms of businesses, industry or financial corporations yet thanks to consistent sponsors, such as Bass Ireland, the festival became the envy of even mainstream festivals and a major attraction to overseas visitors. During festival time people were employed as bar and security staff. The resources of the area were utilised and optimised.

Feile an Phobail also sees itself as having a role in education and in promoting non-sectarianism, community relations, inclusiveness, anti-racism.

Given the historic deprivation in the area prices were kept at a minimum and all literary, political events and lectures were deliberately free. The events which made some profit - marquee concerts, comedy night, tribute nights - helped to defray the costs of some of the cultural events which had received only limited funding, but it was never easy.

The Northern Ireland Events Company (NIEC) - which is funded by the Department of Arts, Culture and Leisure (DCAL) - likes to subsidise the occasional Elton John or Pavarotti concert in the grounds of Stormont.

Four years ago it refused to fund the Harlem Gospel Choir at Clonard Monastery for spurious reasons, including that it made no “significant contribution to promoting social cohesion.”

All the main churches were represented, including Buddhists and Hare Krishnas, and a delegation of Shankill women’s group. That same week DCAL listed Feile as attracting the largest audience in Belfast City Council area. The refusal meant that Feile had to find more than #10,000 to cover costs.

Last year it was faced with laying off five workers because of pending cutbacks. However, a representative at DCAL intimated that the posts would be funded and that we shouldn’t lay anyone off. We continued to pay these staff but were then told three months ago that there would be no funding. The result: Feile accrued debts which it can only probably only discharge by remortgaging Feile House - and we had to lay off the five workers.

Nevertheless, between the staff working extra-hard, and with the help of sub-committees, planning for this year’s August festival went ahead. Acts and speakers were booked, flights organised, halls hired, sound and lighting equipment ordered, a programme drawn up and designed, ready for printing, all in the usual, nerve-wracking funding vacuum dictated by government practice.

The Department of Social Development (DSD) and DCAL, which had been major funders of festivals, have been faffing around for some years deciding on a festivals policy. Last February they announced that a Community Festivals Fund with an annual budget of #450,000 would be administered by the Northern Ireland Events Company.

On March 2 the Northern Ireland Events Company stated that the budget was to be divided into three tranches of #150,000. The second tranche - applying to festivals between August 1st and November 30th - was the one for which Feile could apply, along with established festivals and new ones.

Last year Feile received #145,000 for events and associated costs. On Monday Feile received a letter from the NIEC announcing a major reduction in funding to #45,000, a massive cut which has the potential to gut Feile 2006. However, the letter from the NIEC was also quite insulting. It said: “[we feel that] your festival shows potential to be a very successful and sustainable event.”

Feile has been successful for 18 years, has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to west Belfast, has helped stabilise the area, has played its part in offering a platform to the unionist community in debates and discussions, has broadened the minds of people (with lectures from the Battle of the Somme to Shackleton’s Antartic to Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling for Columbine’) and has brought a little bit of peace and stability into a conflict-wracked community. The August programme has now been thrown into total disarray leaving the events manager with the nightmare of deciding what gigs to cancel. There is anger in West Belfast at this attack on what is after all a unique people’s festival. One can understand if alongside that anger they are also feeling just a little bit alienated, after all that we have been through.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News