The main hall in St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road was busting with people last night. Car parks front and rear filled, pavements bulging with illegally parked cars, people stacked like grain in a granary inside the hall, people bunched outside the hall in overflow. And two lecture theatres providing a video view of business. I haven’t seen anything like this at Feile an Phobail since the 1990s, when the conflict was still alive.
So why now? Because people are engaged. People who normally would prefer to read the match report are now vividly aware of events which may provide a turning point in Ireland’s history. I arrived a full twenty minutes before kick-off and like the foolish virgins in the Bible, was turned away.
But the event has been widely reported, and the star of the show was clearly Gregory Campbell. It takes some going to outshine the leader of Sinn Féin and An Taoiseach in West Belfast, but Gregory did it. In my own direct dealings with Gregory over the years, I’ve found him courteous, obliging on occasion, responsive. Which is more than I can say for his party leader. But last night Gregory was in attack-dog mode. On TV, his voice and body language were full of burning indignation at the idea that his Britishness might be taken away. As for curry my yoghurt and all that – Gregory ne regrette rien. He stands by his mockery.
It made for stirring stuff, and the audience were clearly riled by his words. As well they might be, since in a new Ireland his Britishness will, if anything, give him deepened respect and influence. So why did Gregory bare his teeth and chomp at the audience? Because he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to his base (and I mean base) constituency, and they’d have cheered him to the echo for every syllable.
Which is rousing stuff, and cause for more flags in Sandy Row and more banners expressing love and solidarity for Soldier F. As Boris has rallied the Tories, Gregory last night was busy rallying unionists.
Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences says that for every unionist to whom he gave not-an-inch encouragement, Gregory gave dozens of nationalists even stronger belief that, as Mary Lou put it, Gregory and his base are living in the 1600s and that Stormont is a busted flush and where’s me border poll ballot, I mean FFS.
An Taoiseach, meanwhile, counseled postponement of any thought of even looking at any kind of new Ireland. So not only is he setting aside a core feature of the Good Friday Agreement – a border poll when it seems there is indeed a will for constitutional change – but he’s setting aside any question of even discussing it, making suggestions about how it might look, what it would need, what guarantees must be in place for all involved. “It’d be a new country!” Leo protested. Exactly, Leo. That’s exactly the idea. Now get your finger out and produce a green paper on Irish unity. We in the north are sick, sore and tired of this posturing you’ll-never-be-left-behind-again bullshit.