16 August 2023
Jeremy Corbyn returns to West Belfast for Féile35
Jeremy Corbyn received a warm West Belfast welcome on 3 August when he addressed the main hall of St Mary’s College- plus three additional overspill lecture theatres - as part of the annual Féile an Phobail.
Having previously attended the Féile in August 2015, shortly after his whirlwind election as the unlikely leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was pleased to be back for the festival, especially as it celebrates its 35th Anniversary. Much has transpired within the intervening eight years and there was plenty of ground to cover in his keynote address.
The former British Labour Party leader began by paying tribute to the Féile, noting, “This festival includes many things. I am a very big believer in the use of culture and music to unlock the potential in so many people. So many young people feel that school isn’t for them, college isn’t for them, and they feel often very alienated. So, a political message for them is not just the dry facts of economic justice or world peace. It’s also about respecting the knowledge that so many people have and respecting the hope and spirit that’s there in people. If you can only unlock it. As I’ve often said, there’s a poet in all of us, but most are too afraid to admit it, to write that poem, and to let it out.”
Having visited Áras Uí Chonghaile earlier in the day, Corbyn paid tribute to, the former Belfast-resident, James Connolly, saying, “The more I understand and the more I read about James Connolly, the more in admiration I am of him.” He then quoted an extract from Connolly’s 1909 essay ‘Erin’s Hope’, observing that:
No Irish revolutionist worth his salt would refuse to lend a hand to the Social Democracy of England in the effort to uproot the social system of which the British Empire is the crown and apex, and in like manner no English Social Democrat fails to recognize clearly that the crash which would betoken the fall of the ruling classes in Ireland would sound the tocsin for the revolt of the disinherited in England”.
Corbyn concluded, “Just think for a moment if Connolly had not of been executed, had the others not been executed, they would have been free within a couple of years because politics moved on so fast. How different Ireland would be; how different the world would be but for the lives that were stolen from us by the executions of those who led the Easter Rising in 1916.”
Turning to more recent history, he paid tribute to those who brought about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, noting in particular the groundwork that was laid by the Hume-Adams talks. As he recalled, “I voted for the Good Friday Agreement when it came to the House of Commons in 1998, and I was thinking, I think, it was the first time I’d ever voted with a government on anything to do with Ireland in all the time I’d been in parliament! So, for me it was an aberration!”
He added, “But a week before that vote, I was given a copy of the 1799 Secret Government Report on the situation in Ireland. The report reproduced the entire statement of the founding conference of the Society of United Irishmen. The United Irishmen, and their sister organisation the Society of United Irishwomen, set out a vision of uniting Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenters in equal measure in a new Ireland. A vision, that while still not fully realised, looking around Belfast today, I can see there is hope. There is still a determination to bring about a true unity of people across this island.”
The Islington North MP noted that recent elections in the North have repeatedly returned a non-Unionist majority, remarking, “As someone who sits on the backbenches of the House of Commons, behind where the DUP sit - I hear stuff! I’ve got very good ears! And I can be very quiet when I want to be. It’s very interesting and I recommend it.”
He challenged the DUP on their boycott of political institutions and power-sharing. Remarking, “They think they’re pressurising the British Government, I’m not sure the British Government particularly cares what they think or what they say. I care what they think and what they say because I want to see that devolved Assembly up and running. Because people in Belfast, in Derry, all over Northern Ireland, face exactly the same problems as the working class in England, Wales, and Scotland”.
His address concluded with a poem written, by the Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, at a time when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in Pollsmoor Prison, entitled ‘Your logic frightens me, Mandela’:
“Your logic frightens me, Mandela, your logic
Humbles me. Do you tame geckos?
Do grasshoppers break your silences?
Bats’ radar pips pinpoint your statuesque
Gaze transcending distances at will?
Do moths break wing
Against a lightbulb’s fitful glow”.
Corbyn concluded, “It’s the bravery of those that suffered. Who were abused, tortured and imprisoned, that helped to bring about the peace, the freedom, the cultural diversity, and that hope that our generation enjoys. Let’s not close our minds to the future. Let’s open our minds to the future of the kind of world that we can all live in. That is what the real human spirit is really about.”
• Jeremy Corbyn speaking in St Mary’s College
The speech was followed by lively and thought-provoking contributions from the floor. Most notably from Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN, who paid tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s solidarity during the most recent Nurses strike in England and made the notable observation, “I believe the only hope for the NHS in the North is reunification, across the north and south, on an all-island health basis”.
During his visit Jeremy Corbyn also met with local political representatives and community leaders in West Belfast. He received a warm welcome at each and every engagement, with many saying that they hoped to see him back again soon.
The man himself said he would be happy to return, “I just think it’s a great thing, the variety of things that are on in the programme, the arts events, the discussion events, the films, the plays, the music, the folk music, as well as the contribution of the speeches. I just think what an amazing thing the festival is.”
Interview with Jeremy Corbyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLp2IQHc7dw
Full video of his address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNnVPrf5co0