The Aspects Debate

Whether it's apathy across the water or sighs down south, the authors at Aspects agree things are only getting worse  

Tucked away in the North Down Museum on a rainy Sunday afternoon, four of Ireland’s top wordsmiths are locked in debate.

Or rather, locked in agreement.

The subject is the relationships between writers in the north, the south and the mainland – three territories separated by an invisible border, a sea and, according to this lot, an enormous cultural gulf.

The event’s blurb suggests that ‘cross-border movement and cooperation [are] more and more common’ – but that doesn’t seem to be the script today. The Vacuum’s Fionola Meredith notes the indifference shown towards Ulster by the London and Dublin media, while novelist Carlo Gébler asserts that publishing houses across the water ‘fail to grasp or just don’t care’ about the Irish narrative.

The panellists have plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up their grumbles. The Irish Times recently closed its Belfast office; Gébler talks of the sighs that greet him at spoken word gigs in Dublin when he offers to read short stories set in the north. But perhaps the most potent argument comes from the esteemed journalist Henry McDonald, who rails against the dearth of UK media coverage for this week’s 10th anniversary of the murder of Martin O’Hagan – still the only British or Irish journalist to have been killed by terrorists.

Like most of the London papers, McDonald’s editors at The Guardian and The Observer seem only to be interested in Northern Ireland when there’s a 'celebrity' involved, such as, er, Martin McGuinness. ‘He’ll be on Strictly Come Dancing one of these days,’ predicts veteran author Mary Kenny, and I don’t think she’s joking.

It’s a ludicrous state of affairs all right, and the panellists aren’t afraid to pull their punches. ‘When they [England] have riots, you know all about it,’ Meredith spits.

Kenny bemoans the lack of satirists on the island. ‘We don’t have people who are prepared to be savage. I want someone to stand up and say, “This is complete and utter rubbish.”’

The lively and inspiring debate – part of Bangor’s outstanding Aspects Irish Literature Festival – is probably the first time I’ve heard Northern Irish terrorists being compared to the Third Reich, at least in public. Of the four participants, Gébler is especially fearless.

‘The republicans very kindly said they would stop killing us if we allowed them to run our lives,’ he growls, before delivering a similarly scathing attack on the DUP. ‘The weasels are in charge,’ he sums up.

Talk turns to the 50 Sunday World hacks tagged with death threats, then to Gébler’s own run-ins with the IRA (‘They don’t really have a good sense of humour’). In just over an hour, we have ricocheted from bankers to crime lords to James Joyce’s passport issues to the unresolved matter of Irish neutrality during World War II to the sheer unfunniness of the Hole in the Wall Gang.

But will anything change in this most stifled and stifling of media landscapes? Probably not, reckons Gébler, as there’s no taste for truth.

‘We don’t want to confront the horrors of our world,’ he seethes. ‘It’ll ruin our evening with our Marks & Spencer olives.’

I could listen to this verbal dynamo all day, but alas he has to leave early to go and collect his wife – ending proceedings on a much welcome light note.