Feile an Phobail '99

Steve Potts reports on this year's Red Action delegation to Feile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival.With the majority over for the first time, this was the biggest and most politically rewarding for many years.

Established in 1988, Feile is the largest community festival in Europe. The main festival celebrations are timed to take place around the anniversary of the introduction of internment - the 9th of August, 1971. The injustice of internment was marked in subsequent years by street disturbances. Feile was intended to replace this with a time of creative expression for the people of West Belfast.

Most members of the RA delegation arrived early Friday afternoon, and were taken straight from the airport to the famous (or infamous according to the security forces) Felons club on the Falls Road, home of the Irish Republican Felons Association. As its name suggests, membership of the Felons is open only to those who have served time for the Republican cause and counts Nelson Mandela amongst its honourary members. Originally set up by Gerry Adams Snr in the 1940's, the club is presently at the centre of a concerted attempt by the RUC to have it closed down.

Every year the club hosts 'Prisoners Day', to coincide with activities arranged by prisoners inside the jails during Festival week. This year the main theme was the 1981 Hunger Strike exhibition and also included a display of Republican prisoners' handicrafts and artwork. In a packed main hall there then followed an emotional launch of a new book about Tom Williams, EXECUTED Tom Williams and the IRA, who at the age of 18 was hung in 1942. In the presence of Joe Cahill and John Oliver, themselves originally sentenced to death with Williams, it was introduced by its author, serving Republican prisoner Jim McVeigh, who was on leave for the weekend.

After this powerful opening to the weekend the delegation headed for their billets in New Barnsley and Turf Lodge, in West Belfast and the Lower Ormeau, in the South of the City. A raucous evening followed with entertainment provided by Glasgow's Eire Og at the Sloanes club at the Whiterock.

Bright and early next morning the delegation gathered at Milltown Cemetery for a tour which profiled some of the approximately 120 Republican volunteers and activists from Belfast who had given their lives during the last 30 years of war and who had been buried at this historical site. These included the Gibraltar 3 and the Belfast hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty. The guide read some passages from Sands' diary and pointed out the sometimes forgotten fact that had they not put themselves forward for hunger-strike, all ten, bar Francis Hughes, would have been released from prison by 1987. Attempting to place the esteem that republican dead are held in by the local community, the guide asked those assembled if they could remember a single name of a British soldier who had been killed during the 'troubles', or the location of a single public memorial. No one could. The tour also took in the burial plots of both the INLA and the Official IRA volunteers and profiled Joe McCann, Ronnie Bunting and 'Ta' Power amongst others.

Immediately after the tour the delegation travelled to the newly opened Sinn Fein (SF) centre on the Lower Ormeau Road for a meeting with SF councillor Sean Hayes and two of his colleagues. The Lower Ormeau nationalists are a relatively new community in Belfast and have been the target of a concerted campaign of loyalist violence, peaking with the infamous Sean Graham's bookies shop massacre. The area has also been the scene of recent state violence as the RUC have forced through a number of unwanted Orange parades.

The meeting which lasted for over two hours and centred around RA members obtaining an insight into the building of SF electorally and in particular it's successful development of working class community politics. Despite a host of useful advice, to a man the SF members were at pains to stress that at the end of the day what is required for success, was hard work and commitment; it had for instance taken them 10 years for them to take a single seat in the Lower Ormeau.

There was also a look into the new Community Restorative Justice schemes being pioneered in the North, before the meeting finally had to be brought to a close.

That evening RA members attended the controversial play, Forced Upon Us, by Dubblejoint Productions made up of local and professional actors, including ex-prisoners. The play, which is a dramatic argument about the history and experiences that lie behind the call for the RUC to disband had had its funding withdrawn by the arts board, on the grounds that it was lacking in artistic merit. In typical fashion the local community responded, packing out every performance.

Sunday was the delegation's final day in Belfast, which began with the thousands strong annual march and rally to the City Centre to commemorate the introduction of internment. Followed almost immediately by a tour of the tiny nationalist enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast. The historical, political, social, economic and cultural background of the area was outlined by a local republican activist.

The last formal event of the weekend was a presentation to an ex- republican prisoner and his family from West Belfast. This family have welcomed our members, supporters and contacts into their home, sometimes with little or no warning, for over a decade. Presenting them with a set of framed prints from the Spanish Civil War, a RA organiser pointed out that "while it is often said that Red Action never forgets who our enemies are, we certainly never forget who our friends are either". The opportunity was also taken to thank the organisers of the delegation, Matt and Tommo, who had put in a lot of hard work to ensure that this years delegation to Belfast was one of the most politically successful in our organisations history.

Red Action would like to thank the Republican communities of Belfast for the hospitality and generosity shown to our delegation during the Festival weekend.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '99