Féile an Phobail is truly a jewel in West Belfast’s non-monarchical crown.
It has managed to blend politics, debate, community, music and craic in a unique way.
But in the past few years it has excelled. Under the stewardship of Kevin Gamble and his team the development of Féile has been honestly extraordinary, lifting to Feile to being on a par with any of the music festivals, let alone community festivals.
That the debate on the suitability of booking an A list comedian could happen at all, whatever the rights and wrongs, well it would have been unimaginable a decade ago, let alone 20 years ago.
I have often been challenged by some of the speakers that have appeared at Féile. But actually one of the greatest strengths of Féile is to reach out to those with whom we don’t agree and create a space for a respectful conversation. Many political and peace process related issues have been given community platforms with Féile – and that has proven an essential part of the development of the peace process.
This year I notice something that needs urgent attention. And it is how we include. How we ensure that we create spaces that foster equality.
A read of the debates and discussions pamphlet is extraordinary. The debates range from historical analysis, contentious political issues and international perspective. A truly important space has been created and this builds on years of Féile and community working together to build this clár.
However there is a significant lack of women speakers. 69 men and 19 women are named speakers. Nine of the 19 women are speaking at the same event on women political prisoners. 78% of named speakers are men. There are a significant number of all male panels – “manels”. That is of course in no way to diminish the women who do feature on the clár. But there are not enough.
As someone who has been involved in organising events over the years I know how it happens. Women are under-represented in politics and public life and this becomes reflected in debates. Political parties are approached to put in speakers and they put in men. Women are approached and they say no. I get all of that. It is hard.
But different choices and different spaces could have been created to prevent what is a very, very male dominated discussion and debate arena.
It is time for a gender lens to be applied. Groups putting forward debates and discussions and Féile itself should as policy ensure equal participation by women, and I don’t mean tokenistic after thoughts. And an analysis of the overall programme for women’s inclusion should be carried out as policy.
If that is proving difficult in the current formats – then change the formats. If you focus on privileging political voices to the exclusion of community you will exclude women – include and it’s a win win.
Féile is West Belfast putting its best foot forward and the women of West Belfast absolutely merit equality – otherwise what is it all about?