A Community Fights Back


On this day, August 9th, thirty one years ago, the British government introduced internment without trial in the North, locking up in prison camps civil rights and students organisers, republicans who had been last active in the 1950s and a handful of IRA activists. Most IRA people escaped the swoops. Initially used exclusively against nationalists, nationalist areas immediately erupted. In the week which followed over twenty five people were killed and scores seriously wounded. (Later, in Derry, the thirteen people shot dead were killed while they were on an anti-internment march.)

Every year, the week around August 9th with its demonstrations and street clashes was perhaps the most dangerous time of the year to live in or visit West Belfast.

It was a time of major gun battles, of fatalities (mostly of local people), funerals, riots, bonfires and street protests, with people coming out to rattle their bin lids at four in the morning (the time internment was introduced) as an annual act of resistance to the British government and to show that the repression had not succeeded.

In Andersonstown one year, after IRA Volunteer Danny Lennon was shot dead by the British army at the wheel of the car he was driving, the vehicle crashed into and killed three children, Joanne, John and Andrew Maguire (which led to the founding of the Peace People). In Beechmount, where I lived, a kid on a bicycle, a random victim, had his nose shot off by a bored soldier.

Come to West Belfast now and where the twisted wreckages of burnt-out vehicles once blocked the roads, with deliveries and essential services suspended, instead you’ll see a huge carnival parade with thousands of costumed children dancing to the sound of various bands playing a selection of traditional Irish and international music, interspersed with a variety of colourful floats.

It is all due to Feile an Phobail (the West Belfast Festival) and there is really no other comparable community festival in Europe.

From an idea given flesh by the area’s MP, Gerry Adams, and community activists in 1988 the festival has grown exponentially from its relatively humble first outing. After the killings of two British army corporals in March of that year - they drove their car at high speed into the funeral cortege of an IRA Volunteer - locals felt they were being demonised by the media and republican opponents. Peter Brooke, a secretary of state, referred to them as ‘the terrorist community’.

In order to lift the morale of the people, showcase its creativity, channel the energies of the youth into constructive activity and provide a cultural alternative to the annual, and often lethal, street protests around August 9th, Feile was established.

It is organised by a full-time staff with their own offices, managed by a committee which is elected at a public meeting every autumn.

Clearly, Feile has its roots in and is naturally informed by the politics of West Belfast. It has had an uphill battle getting proper funding, with its critics, especially those in the media whose caustic comments influence funders, attempting to make the claim that it is insular or, worse, sectarian.

Thus, you may read snide comments about a festival event such as the football tournament played in Twinbrook/Poleglass for the Bobby Sands Cup (Bobby Sands lived in that area before his arrest and death on hunger strike) but nothing about Gordon Lucy from the Ulster Society addressing an audience in St Agnes Parish Hall in Andersonstown about the Battle of the Somme.

The fact that Feile strenuously attempts to be inclusive is largely ignored. Last Friday, for example, I was working in the hospitality room prior to the stunning performance in Clonard Monastery of the Harlem Gospel Choir. One of the groups I was serving with wine and soft drinks was made up of six women from the Shankill Road who, later, along with nine hundred others, were on their feet dancing and clapping to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’! Every denomination was present, every ethnic community had representatives there, and in the audience were Palestinian visitors as well as the American Consul-General in Belfast.

Former guests on the panel at Feile’s annual debate, ‘West Belfast Talks Back’, have included commentators such as Ruth Dudley Edwards and Professor John A Murphy, Tory MPs, US republican congress representatives, Ulster Unionist Party Assembly members as well as Sinn Fein MPs. Two years ago, the Reverend David McIlveen of the Free Presbyterian Church stole the show with his blend of humour and fundamentalism and had the audience literally rolling in the aisles.

Last year’s Ulster Unionist speaker was assembly member Duncan Shipley-Dalton who told us that the last time he was on the Falls Road was with a rifle, referring to his life as a British soldier in the back of an armoured car! Afterwards, he came to the Feile marquee and joined an audience of over twelve hundred people for a concert of international music. Behind him was sitting the man who organised the IRA’s mass break-out from the H-Blocks in 1983!

Shankill Road Women’s Centre has its own slot on Feile FM, the festival’s radio station (which also trains young people how to present programmes: some of whom have subsequently found careers in the media). Other young people who have taken part in the many dramas performed over the week have also went on to become full-time in the theatre.

This year’s guest lecture was given by Robert Fisk, the international award winning journalist, who has lived in Beirut for the past twenty-six years and who flew into Ireland especially for the event. His subject was: ‘September 11th: Ask who did it but for heaven’s sake don’t ask why.’ An audience of six hundred listened spellbound to Fisk, who has met Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. He condemned the bombings in the USA as “wicked” and was scathing of the campaign of suicide bombings in the Middle East. But he also condemned the double standards of the West which held Bin Laden when he was fighting the Russians and Hussein when he invaded Iran as ‘our allies’ and ‘heroes’. He criticised journalists who failed to address important questions about the violence in the Middle East having much of its source in the USA’s unqualified support for Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinian people.

Feile also had a ‘Palestinian Day’ and helped organise a trip to Belfast for four young Palestinians from refugee camps.

But, in addition to ‘political’ events and debates the festival also has exhibitions, dramas, sporting and literary events and a selection of music to suit all ears.

One poignant moment during this week was the meeting between Jonathan Shackleton, cousin of the legendary Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, and Billy McCulloch. Billy, who will be ninety one in November, was taken by his father in 1919 or 1920 to hear Shackleton speak and give a lantern show of his expeditions when he came to Belfast. Jonathan Shackleton (who gave a lecture about his cousin) said, “Billy is only the second person I have ever met who heard the great man speak in public. Unfortunately, there is only one recording in existence of Ernest Shackleton talking about his expeditions so it is priceless to meet someone who heard him speak.”

The self-confidence within the community of West Belfast is palpable, and what a turnaround that is from more grim times. Of course there are still many problems and even as people were enjoying a night of traditional music in the marquee, nationalist homes two miles away in North Belfast were being attacked with loyalist pipe bombs.

But this year, for the first time in thirty years, Belfast republicans are, quietly, no longer organising the ‘traditional’ anti-internment march and rally, which says that people no longer feel the need to protest over that particular bloody event. Instead, they are putting on their dancing shoes!

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison