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Review: three events at the Belfast Festival…

This year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s attracted some big names to their talks programme. Here St Etienne offers his assessment on three of this year’s big setpiece events: a talk by Lord Ashdown; a panel debate on Carson’s Legacy; and the National Anthem theatre production.

Reproduced from the Liberal Democrats flickrstream

By St Etienne

Lord Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown had his chat in a packed out Elmwood Hall – first time I’d been in the place – and as you can imagine he’s a very comfortable, but comfortable speaker. Kicked off with an excerpt from his new book! about his time in Bosnia – on the one hand containing his best achievement in life and the worst the very next day. His time in Bosnia obviously deeply affected and influences him.

I’m happy to report the Donaghadee man’s greatest smile of the night came as he recounted his days as a young officer in the Royal Marines and then again when he moved on to his time as an operator in the SBS. But what was insightful in all this, as the audience watched a man who it is assumed is now away from the frontline of world affairs, was his responses to questioning. They were not the answers you associate with someone looking back at the end of their career, which while sometimes humorous – “In your time at Westminster who do you think would make the best MP?” “ME!” – also struck me as being sincerely looking to the future, the next challenge.

And I reckon that for Lord Ashdown the next challenge is in Kabul. He turned down a UN role there before, but tellingly only after Karzai himself appeared unwilling to have a ‘corruption buster’ on board – and after his ‘wife told Paddy he couldn’t stand idly by while young men put their lives on the line for their country’. That sounded like a speech to go to war on. And if it didn’t, the retelling of a tale about the 1879 retreat from Kabul debacle in which the army endured it’s worst military defeat showed the audience just where Ashdown’s mind is.

Will be watching his next move with interest.


Professors Graham Walker, Paul Bew and Dr Eamonn Phoenix sat in on a packed Elmwood Hall discussion in the 75th anniversary year of Carson’s death. Interesting factoids were shared throughout the evening – Carson’s family background, his maternal family from the West, the Presbyterianism of his Father, his own romance at the height of the Home Rule crisis, etc – but I found the two apparent ‘heavyweights’ of the evening hard going. I have always thought that godfather of academic politics Bew to be overrated as a narrator and media personality: while his analysis is undoubtedly incredibly exacting and trustworthy, it is often difficult to follow and at times rather unfocused in term’s of a narrative.

Phoenix on the other hand comes across as just another nationalist historian incapable of espousing anything other than his own political dogma on matters of history. Struggling to maintain interest while Phoenix speculated Carson was a ‘complete failure’ to himself and that he would also have to accept responsibility encouraging later Irish republican violence with the formation of the 1912 UVF. I can only conclude that poor Eamon has not yet read up on the history of Irish republicanism pre-1900 and is therefore unfortunately ignorant of a couple of centuries of Irish ‘political’ violence and the fact that the 1912 paramilitaries – both nationalist and unionist – remained untried in terms of violent effect. If Phoenix felt Carson was a failure for delivering partition I wonder what he thought of the republicans of the time.

No matter – Prof Walker came across as a hidden diamond in the discussion. I had not heard of him before, but frequently he tied up disjointed and rambling efforts from the other two contributors with succinct and interesting analysis – I’d like to hear more from him in future or at least give the other has-beens a lesson or two in how to raconteur successfully.

Undoubtedly Carson was on the inside a brilliant manifestation of contradictory thought and influences – no better a question then that from within – that delivered to an external audience perhaps the most professional articulation of Irish Unionist thought and argument in the perennial battle for understanding at the mother of all parliaments. Certainly among his contemporaries he was unrivalled and as Walker noted the leader of Ulster Unionism Craig with his worldly acumen recognised this at an early stage. The result was to elevate this personality to pop history’s saviour of a people while in comparison his courthouse contemporary on the other side of the divide John Redmond barely gets a look-in ahead of the more violent personalities of the age.

It’s true about who writes the history books.

National Anthem

On the final day of the festival I went for Colin Bateman’s National Anthem, a play that hits on the ludicrousies of what passes for current political life in Northern Ireland. I’m a big fan of Bateman, not just for the fact that he’s an incredibly funny writing talent, but also for the fact that his caustic wit reduces the self-absorbed world of the political spectrum here – media and politicians alike – to the comedy that too often remains unchallenged.

One thing that wasn’t comedy however was the steep 10% surcharge for booking online. My gut instinct is that companies pay for their expensive little ecommerce shopping carts this way. This isn’t 1998 anymore. However, the play.

George Best vs Bobby Sands, the Department of Thankyous and a National Animal – this may be his first play but it’s pure Bateman gold. Bateman was interviewed prior saying he found the medium challenging – unlike a book or screenplay he has to keep nailing the dialogue in order to keep a live audience interested. And he starts off all guns blazing – the exchange between the two main protagonists builds up a sense of the contradictory narrative various elements of NI have been spun up to where we are. The biting pace lessens into a more non-descript humour-in-vulgarity fare when the pair leave momentarily but returns for the twist in the tale.

One thing, all through the performance I was completely prepared for an ending with no anthem in sight. But unlike the society it gently mocks, there is no fudge from Bateman. The surprising thing is it’s actually a decent shot at something Northern Irish – with not a small hint of Windsor Park’s “We’ll Support You Evermore” about it – and I loved it when everyone was morally obliged to their feet, the usher bringing in the words on blackboard, and the cast blasted out a 2nd rendition of our anthem. Maybe they’re prone to dramatics but actor Alan McKee (Mouse in Divorcing Jack) definitely had something in his eye at the end.

Hoofing effort all round. Really enjoyed everything about this. Far from the tired old Hole in the Wall Group cliches – this was a sharp, funny description of the NI we live in today. Bateman needs to do more of everything he does, because I’ve yet to experience a peer in his field.

This blog was originally posted on the Aleatory blog


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