At six o’clock this evening in St Mary’s University College I’m going to be chairing a discussion of the Palestinian people in general and in particular their circumstances in Gaza. The discussion is being sponsored by Trócaire The keynote speaker will be Tania Hary, Executive Director of GISHA, an Israeli not-for-profi organisation which works to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents. Mohammed Azaiza, a GISHa field officer was due to speak, but was unable to travel because his UK visa wasn’t granted.
This event is only one of dozens which go to make up the Feile An Phobail in Belfast. In some ways the Feile is a remarkable creation. It has (largely) moved the community from bonfire commemoration of internment to create one of the biggest festivals in Europe. If I’m in Ireland, I always make a point of attending a number of the Feile activities, particularly West Belfast Talks Back, which is on in St Louise’s College at 7.00 this evening. (Yes I know – I’m going to miss the first bit this year, owing to the Trocaire-sponsored event).
There are quite a number of things I admire about both Trócaire and the Feile An Phobail. Both insist on looking at humanity in general, not just the small portion of it we find cooped up in our North-East Nest (NEN). Commentators have in the past depicted West Belfast as an inward-looking area. Nothing could be further from the truth, and events like that on Gaza this evening confirm that. Trócaire itself isn’t simply a charitable institution that collects contributions for use in the most deprived areas of the world: it works to create justice in these areas, since human avarice and brutality are often behind the hunger and poverty that the cameras catch.
It’s more than easy to turn our thoughts away from the wider world, especially those in need of support. But Irish people have an outstanding record in this regard. Whether it is that we have experienced injustice and repression ourselves for so many centuries, or whether we are capable of looking beyond the simplistic emotional images that sometimes come to us through our TV screens, it’s hard to say. But we do have a proud record on that – especially at a time when voices in Britain are calling for the ending of foreign aid and the confining of this funding to problems at home.
So yes, I do feel honoured to be asked to chair a Trócaire event and I feel equally honoured to be part of the Feile. I remember once reading an essay which defined an idiot as a person who is totally absorbed in self, ignoring the wider world (Yes, Virginia, it is the same root as ‘idiosyncracy’); and a lunatic as someone so focused on events far away (yes indeed, Virgina, from the same root as lunar) that they ignore what is around them. The Feile organisers strike a splendid balance, where they have events which examine what’s happening at home (for example another discussion in St Mary’s at 1.00 pm today, where my good friend Chris Donnelly and others will discussing the shrinking Unionist majority) and events far afield (my own event at 6.00 pm.)
For those of you with a long memory, I have one final and selfish reason for admiring the Feile: it has given me the opportunity to take £1,000 from a man who thought he could predict Sinn Féin’s future in the south. Pardon me while I punch the air a bit and murmur “Yahoo!”