Wednesday 20 February 2019

Taoiseach has demeaned office with his republican courtship

Leo's acceptance of invite to Feile launch gave Adams propaganda coup he could scarcely have dreamt of, writes Mairia Cahill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Mairia Cahill

In The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, the author writes: "He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval." It's an excellent summation of the decision to use the Office of Taoiseach to launch the West Belfast Festival programme last Friday. Maybe Leo Varadkar thought his visit to what he termed "simply a community event", would be balanced out by his visit to the Orange Order, and no one would notice his attendance.

He either wasn't briefed that Gerry Adams was the festival chair for decades and is currently listed as one of its directors or he didn't care. Perhaps his office didn't research Feile before agreeing to the invite. Anything is possible.

If they did, and they sent the Taoiseach anyway, Ireland has a serious problem, because it is impossible to examine the latter without viewing it as a conditioning of the republican movement's path to an eventual power grab. Sinn Fein has Leo exactly where it wants him in its court to coalition.

At this point, I'm declaring an interest. I worked voluntarily for Feile for years, during a time when the only reward was a free carton of IRA counterfeit cigarettes and a pint of beer. As most know, I was abused by an IRA man, who also served on the management committee of Feile at that time.

He continued to hold this position long after some other members of the same committee (though not all) became aware. Although there was an exhilaration and an escape in becoming involved with helping out at concerts at times, most of my recollections of the festival now are tainted by memories of abuse. I avoid it mostly, though three years ago I received a standing ovation when I spoke primarily on IRA cover-up of rape at an SDLP fringe event. There was no sign of the usual suspects. I was fully aware that I was speaking at a festival with links to the republican movement and felt it was important to do so. I am not the Taoiseach, thankfully.

I wrote to Leo Varadkar's office last Thursday, pointing out that I thought whoever had advised him should have taken more time to explore Feile's history and some of its events. Part of the reply I received was to say "I fully understand your perspective in the context of (your) experience. I should explain that in launching Feile, I am acknowledging the important role that the festival plays in the cultural life of the city… It is not in any way an endorsement of each and every element of the festival or of its history". I took him at his word, though find it hard to see how he can cherry-pick only the events he likes when launching an entire festival.

Contrast his letter with his public comments the following day on a stage in West Belfast when he stated that Feile was "exactly what Belfast needed" during the Troubles. That's a hell of an amount of cognitive dissonance. It may be accurate of events, including face painting for children, but is he seriously suggesting hundreds of young people drunk chanting at a group on a stage "Go on home British soldiers go on home, have you got no f**king homes of your own, for 800 years, we've fought you without fear, and we'll fight you for 800 more" was a welcome contribution to Belfast society? It is precisely because of events of this nature that Feile was ostracised in some quarters, giving opponents an excuse to demonise the West Belfast community, who, contrary to public opinion don't all sing 'Ooh ahh up the ra!" at Wolfe Tones concerts.

By having H block floats as highlights at carnival parades in the recent past, (yes, really) and a headline act whose most famous song contained the words "Unrepentant Fenian Bast***s", Feile was just as guilty at caricaturing West Belfast people as those opposed to it were. That isn't celebration of culture, it's a deeply cynical use of people in a powerful propaganda war, which, for the most part, has worked.

To be fair, Feile has sought to bring voices that wouldn't normally be heard into West Belfast and it would be churlish of me to not recognise that most of my political education came from sitting at a range of debates, hearing voices I otherwise may not have heard.

I don't remember many being openly critical of the IRA or Sinn Fein, with the exception of the annual Talksback event. Leo didn't even attempt it, instead acknowledging Adams by saying he wanted "to commend those who founded this festival 30 years ago".

Feile is lucky this year in securing not only the Taoiseach, but also the Tanaiste who will speak at a discussion event. But it's one thing to participate in a debate, another entirely to use the Office of Taoiseach to launch the entire shebang. For those interested in attending some events, Justus Theatre company will be discussing its previous Feile plays entitled Just a Prisoner's Wife, Binlids - co-written by Danny Morrison, and Forced upon us, about a rape carried out by an RUC man. I await with interest a dramatic production exploring rapes committed by members of the republican community. There's also a talk on the impact of the Parachute Regiment, Adams will be talking about his life as a writer, or you can shout from the sidelines at an U16 seven-a-side Irish football event named after my relative Siobhan O'Hanlon, who is described in the Feile programme as "a committed community activist". Not a mention of her role as an IRA bomber, Adams adviser or another founder of Feile, of course.

For me, this is not political opposition, it's deeply personal. I have a good relationship with Fine Gael, and it's not something I raise lightly. Enda Kenny, Regina Doherty and Frances Fitzgerald in particular were extremely sensitive to my abuse case, and gave victims a voice through government when it came to challenging Sinn Fein and its deference to the IRA.

Varadkar in one fell swoop has strangled it. His party will now have a hard time criticising IRA links to Sinn Fein in the future when he's launched a programme that contains events such as the annual IRA prisoners' day in the Felons club, in a week when the NI Chief Constable has reconfirmed that the army council is still active.

The Taoiseach was "happy", to be invited to Feile, who were "delighted" to have him. And so they should be - he's done more for them and the republican movement in one afternoon than Gerry Adams has done in a lifetime. He's given events such as 'Ballymurphy - from Guerillas to Government' respectability, demeaning his office by doing so. The only logical step now is to succumb to the rest of Sinn Fein's manoeuvring and marry a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein government. Leo has now removed every single logistical reason for not doing so. The 'party of law and order', by not challenging the issue, have provided the cover.

Sunday Independent

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