Winston Returns to Paradise

In 1912 'Belfast confetti' reigned down on Churchill here to argue for Home Rule. This 2012 commemoration is more civilised

Unionist Minister, Danny Kennedy, thought he had ‘died and gone to heaven’ at this event. After all the rostrum in St Mary’s main hall was bedecked by a gigantic union jack and there was actor, Alan McKee, giving us a very credible young Winston Churchill as orator.

The ground of the famous Belfast Celtic football club is also known as Paradise. In 1912, 100 years ago, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty in the Liberal government, arrived at this unlikely venue to deliver what he hoped would be a mould-breaking speech in favour of Home Rule.

He and his supporters in the Ulster Liberal Party, and their Irish Nationalist allies, had been forced to abandon their original chosen venue, the Ulster Hall, due to vehement Unionist opposition. On February 8, Churchill was mobbed and subjected to a hail of ‘Belfast confetti’ (rivets) by angry shipyard workers as he left the Grand Central Hotel in Royal Avenue on his way to Paradise.

To mark the occasion – which is, perhaps, little-known in Northern Ireland – the Belfast Celtic Society have  specially-commissioned a play by playwright and sports journalist, Padraig Coyle, which is tonight book-ended by a two talks before and a panel discussion after.

First up, Coyle describes the football scene that year, including at least one major riot between Celtic and Linfield supporters. Next, historian Eamonn Phoenix eloquently provides the political scene setting. It's useful to remember how Churchill was perceived as a double traitor by Unionists, having defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904.

Worse still, Churchill then proposed to desecrate the Unionist shrine of the Ulster Hall by giving a pro-Home Rule speech there; the very hall given talismanic Unionist status in 1886 by Winston’s own father, Randolph, when he famously declared that ‘Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right’.

What a coup for Irish Nationalist leaders, John Redmond and Jo Devlin, also speakers at Paradise 100 years ago, to have a Churchill on their side!

Phoenix points out that Churchill was a late convert to Home Rule, and that, as a Liberal-imperialist, he advocated it to strengthen the empire. He might have achieved some traction with Unionists if it had not been for the powerful alliance between Edward Carson and the Conservative Party, then led by Ulsterman, Bonar Law, and both prepared to engage in unprecedented resistance.

Belfast actor Alan McKee does a good job as Churchill in Padraig Coyle's Home Rule?. Coyle has effectively reduced the yards of Edwardian newsprint to manageable proportions, and this is Churchill's original speech delivered in bite-sized chunks.

Churchill opens with a slightly laboured joke about his great welcome from the shipyard workers. Nor can he make Home Rule sound exciting. Mention of Ireland as a nation creeps in, but there is much more about making Westminster more efficient, and ‘imperial need’. In today’s parlance it is ‘devolution lite’.

Unionists are reassured that an overwhelmingly Protestant Westminster Parliament retains the right of veto. An ultimate rhetorical flourish is necessary. Churchill has to lay the ghost of his father. Ulster will be right if it fights ‘for the dignity of Ireland’ and for reconciliation, charity and tolerance.

Heckling from two suffragettes, Hannah Coyle and Anna McKiernan (played by Hannah Coyle and Anna McKiernan), helps to break up the speech. Curiously, Churchill seems most confident in dealing, outrageously, with them.

Next is the panel discussion with Eamonn Phoenix, Queen's University history professor Brian Feeny and former independent MLA, Dawn Purvis. Purvis wouldn’t have been a suffragette then, she says, because they were ‘too middle-class’, but women’s issues still takes second place here to the main contest.

Phoenix and Feeny disagree as to whether Churchill made a reasonable offer to Unionists, and one they could have accepted. Feeny is firmly in the ‘no’ camp, and there are no Unionists present willing to suggest that there were other possibilities in 1912.

In the light of what actually happened, latter day Redmondite what-iffery about the ill-fated Home Rule Bill seems pointless. Although the subsequent chain reaction of events was, arguably, ultimately disastrous for Unionism.

After all, that massive Union Jack on the rostrum is true to the original event, as were the Union Jacks that bedecked the Falls Road. Phoenix reminds us that Devlinite loyalty to empire and West Belfast constitutional Nationalism was only finally defeated with the election of Gerry Adams in 1983.

Now, perhaps, in more generous times that constituency is back within the pale. Carál Ní Chuilín, as Sinn Fein Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure, is on hand to shed light on a coming decade of commemorations in which we can aspire to ‘shared history’.

Purvis suggests that our problem is that ‘we have commemorated without looking at history’. Winston Returns to Paradise certainly achieves that in an illuminating way, and makes the case for mixing performance with talking heads.