The Main Event

I was at West Belfast Talks Back last night – the highlight probably of Feile an Phobail. I’ve been going to the event practically every year for the last ten years and each year when I enter the crowded gymnasium of St Louise’s Comprehensive College, where the event is held, my heart rises. Around five or six hundred people, crammed in, hungry to hear the views of politicians, at least one of whom will hold views sharply divergent from their own. Could there be a better advertisement for the tolerance and public-mindedness of the West Belfast population?

Last night’s panel was Ian Óg Paisley of the DUP, Barry McElduff of Sinn Féin, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party and Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times. The man who merits applause, which he got, is Paisley. Like other unionist figures before him, he came into an audience which was 99% critical of him and his party: that requires a fair amount of courage. Not that he was treated with anything other than fairness by the audience – a number of his statements were greeted with applause.

The truth, though, is that not all of the speakers were effective. Naomi Long is a fluent and reasonable woman but I find her delivery washes over me in a pleasing, non-controversial way, leaving little trace behind. Ian Óg has some trace of the plain-speaking eloquence of his father but only some: essentially he’s a lightweight. He works hard at cultivating a laughing, laddish image, with talk of his motorbike and sporting events, but his ability to construct an argument is weak. Fintan O’Toole can construct an argument but he usually builds it so high, gives his views in such an over-wordy, abstract way, I find myself longing for the end of his sentence at the expense of the ideas he’s offering. Barry McElduff, though, as someone said to me afterwards, knows how to tell a story. Ninety per cent of the time when he addresses an issue, he finds a way to anchor it in real events. He also is unremittingly cheerful, which helps.

And yet when I left last night, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. Was it that I hungered after the old days, when big issues like cease-fires and Agreements and cross-border institutions were still in the making? Maybe it was the absence of a strong, challenging view from those who spoke from the floor? None of those, I suspect, or none of them principally. The problem was that both the issues presented and the solutions offered lacked originality. Yes, in the past discussion focused on life-and-death matters. But what I felt was missing last night was a speaker who could address the audience with passion and clarity, and offer a fresh, an ORIGINAL solution to the given issue: ‘Here is the problem you thought intractable; here’s what needs to be done. Whaddyatink?’

Fire in the belly, ice-cool in the brain: maybe next year.

2 Responses to The Main Event

  1. mattcollinssongs August 5, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Maybe the destination (or a pit-stop on the way) really is less interesting than the journey.

  2. Anonymous August 10, 2010 at 6:12 am #

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