Minister asks Belfast Festival for balance

BBC applied for Freedom of Information material about politician

March 31, 2011

Northern Ireland's Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asked for a "pro-Israel" speaker at this year's Belfast Festival, to compensate for the withdrawal of an invitation to Professor Geoffrey Alderman last year.

His initiative came to light after the BBC filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, about communication between Democratic Unionist Mr McCausland and Graeme Farrow, director of the festival at Queen's University.

The BBC said Mr McCausland "demanded" that Mr Farrow programmed "a view sympathetic to Israel in any relevant talk or debate."

Mr McCausland said he thought some of the outraged reaction in the Belfast media to his suggestion was "particularly ill-informed and illiberal."

His suggestion came after JC columnist Professor Alderman, known for his outspoken pro-Israel views, was dropped from a panel discussion at the 2010 festival on "Conflict in the Middle East."

Mr McCausland said: "The issue is very simple. It's about fairness and equality and inclusion. There have been many speakers at the festival over the years from a pro-Palestinian perspective. To disinvite someone as prestigious as Professor Alderman was particularly discourteous."

Professor Alderman said: "Mr McCausland is a wonderful man who was extremely supportive and understanding about how I was treated in Northern Ireland. He is also the culture minister, and the festival is run by Queen's University and funded in part by the Arts Council in Ireland. Why shouldn't he have asked for the festival to be more balanced? It's absolutely right. I see nothing untoward. If the festival has a problem with there being a balanced panel, then they should say so."

He added: "If they were to ask me to come again, I would. But I have not been approached yet."

A spokesman for the festival said no invitations had been issued to this year's festival yet.

Last year's invitation to Professor Alderman to take part in a panel discussion was withdrawn after Mr Farrow said he had not consulted the other panellists, Professor Avi Shlaim, of Oxford University, a leading academic critic of Israeli policy, and Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards of Queen's, the author of several books on the Middle East including a recent study of Hamas.

Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University Professor Peter Gregson offered a "full and unreserved apology" to Professor Alderman, who is a guest professor at Ariel College in the West Bank.

Last updated: 11:05am, March 31 2011