Politics and ideas. Cynics would suggest that these are mutually exclusive, that the latter is largely absent from the former. With a general election approaching, such theories are set to be tested and, in Belfast, a bespoke festival of arts will seek to bridge the divide between two points.
The Imagine! 2015 Festival of Politics and Ideas runs from 9-15 March in venues throughout the city. Its week-long schedule of lectures, seminars, films and comedy is dense and ambitious, its aim somewhat more grounded than a simple celebration of creativity: a recognition of the citizen’s role in society. Even Stephen Fry has endorsed it on Twitter.
A political quiz will test grey matter and the premiere of Arrivals 2, Terra Nova Productions’ sequel to its racism-challenging theatre piece Arrivals, should reinforce the drama. In a more general sense, however, the programme wishes to fire the concepts necessary to progress Northern Ireland’s political discourse.
Peter O’Neill is the director of Imagine!, the first festival of its kind to have been organised in Northern Ireland. ‘As the name suggests, we’re trying to stimulate people’s ideas and creative energy in terms of looking at local politics and culture,’ he says. The project is designed to foster engagement, he adds, with those ‘who normally don’t get involved in these types of discussions to come to a range of events, different art forms and different ways of delivery, in a sense, to discuss the big issues that impact on our times.’
While a number of universities in Great Britain have used this particular format to induce conversations around particular expertise, O’Neill refers to the unique character of Northern Ireland’s newest iteration. ‘We wanted to take that a step further,’ he says, ‘to broaden the mix and provide a platform for arts organisations, community groups, students and youth bodies, as well as our universities [Queen’s University and Ulster University serve as festival partners] and think tanks, so that we would have a wider range of contributors really trying to share ideas in an accessible way.’ Groups that are ‘hard to reach, that don’t normally get involved in these types of conversations’ are just as important a target audience.
The prospect of May’s election should concentrate minds, as well as shape the overall tone. With less than two months until the vote, O’Neill suggests that feelings of disenchantment can be addressed and vocalised during Imagine! ‘The reason we decided to develop this came from a sense of frustration with our current political process,’ he says.
‘Our view was that in the run-up to the election, this type of festival could be a useful mechanism for encouraging interest and debate around politics in this way and encouraging, particularly, people who feel alienated, not engaged, with politics and cultural discussion. It could be a means to elicit their interest, it could translate into voter registration. It could encourage groups uninterested in the local political scene and give them a platform to discuss their ideas with the wider public.’
Of the pillars that prop up Imagine!, the notion that meaningful ideas could spring from it is especially compelling. Innovation and forms of creatively tackling longstanding problems in Northern Ireland’s society appear to have stalled, contends O’Neill. ‘Recent public opinion surveys indicate that people here have relatively little trust in our political classes,’ he says.
He continues: ‘They aren’t confident that the Executive, Assembly, local councils are effective in dealing with their concerns. We’re inspired by the Scottish independence referendum, where huge numbers got involved. What we’ll try to do is learn from that experience, to pick up more creative methods for people to discuss big issues impacting on them.’
Indeed, as the era of austerity rumbles on, the necessity of creativity, in all its guises, is ever more obvious. With funds scarce and the establishment less likely to give of its time, discovering what O’Neill describes as ‘creative entry points’ seems increasingly important.
‘If politicians want to introduce new policies, new programmes, it’s important they have some traction with the public, a sound evidence base. The mistakes that have been made with policies that aren’t fit for purpose, or in tune with the needs of Northern Ireland, must be tested.’
Perhaps the most unusual strand, then, is the series of public civic conversations that will take place in various locations around Belfast, all of which, O’Neill hopes, will facilitate courteous debate in a café-style environment. The agendas are flexible, the attendees unhurried. Discussion between peers is the focus, not argument. Such civility is missing from politics — one reason, arguably, for the stunted ambitions that bedevil leadership at present.
‘What the festival tries to do,’ he concludes ‘is to offer a way through so that people can give their views… We want to work with as many partners as possible, to encourage that cross-pollination of ideas.’
Imagine! 2015 Festival of Politics and Ideas runs from 9 - 15 March.
By Matthew Coyle