Ideas? Politics? The two together, side by side? In these gloomy days of political stalemate in the North, the very notion registers as an alien concept. With the much talked about democracy deficit causing untold uncertainty and pessimism, and with the Brexit conversation becoming more divisive and embittered by the day, was there ever a time when the introduction of new ideas, fresh thinking, imagination and reason into the broader political arena felt more necessary?
The inaugural Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics took place in 2015. It was, and still is, very much a one-man show, the brainchild of Dungannon-born Peter O’Neill, who, in 2011, established the Belfast Comedy Festival of which this is a sister event. That festival was set up to showcase the vitality of the local comedy scene in Belfast and to celebrate what O’Neill calls “… the natural wit and humour of the city.
“Our starting point was the notion of comedy and conflict. Comedy is part of conflict, in that it can open up debate and offset ingrained prejudice. It was a multi-genre event whose programme was aimed at analysing and looking at comedy in a variety of ways. It was also important to me that it represented great value for money in straitened economic times.”
That same spirit of openness and engagement pervades the Imagine Festival, whose strap line reads: “Engage with the power of reason”. Its content and agenda have evolved organically out of the background and professional life of its creator, a human rights lawyer and a former president of Queen’s University Belfast’s Student Union, director of the Northern Ireland Student Movement (NUS-USI), policy officer with Housing Rights Service and chief executive of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Describing himself as ‘a political geek,’ he explains how, like the Comedy Festival, Imagine took root during a period of political stagnation.
“It was 2015, in the run-up to the general election,” recalls O’Neill. “The atmosphere here was flat and negative, the public just was not engaging in the debate surrounding the campaign and voter registration for young people was way down. In contrast, the Scottish independence referendum was creating vibrancy and public debate, there was widespread engagement, the women’s movement was participating. It was very exciting.
“I thought, let’s start up a festival of politics and ideas that would galvanise interest in the election. Four years on, with a team composed entirely of volunteers – myself included – and with a budget of just £20,000 we are still going and are getting bigger all the time.
“The festival has been successful in merging arts and politics. I saw early on the power of performance to communicate with people in an impactful and emotive way and engage them in political themes. This year there are over 80 free events in over thirty venues across the city, encouraging people to lock into the big issues of our time, like Brexit, poverty, inequality and fake news, as well as marking centenaries like the ending of World War I and voting rights for women.”
In the line-up are Grammy-nominated singer songwriter Michelle Shocked; activist Carmen Perez, national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington; veteran political cartoonist Martin Rowson; controversial journalist Peter Hitchens; Kildare comedian Jarlath Regan with his stand-up show Organ Freeman; and Oxford Professor Danny Dorling, who will examine the effect of inequality on the leave vote in the Brexit referendum.
The programme is a stimulating rattle bag of talks, workshops, theatre, poetry, comedy, music, exhibitions, film and tours of little known areas of Belfast. One tour comes in the form of Dominic Montague’s Quartered, produced by Kabosh and premiered at the Outburst Queer Arts Festival in November. It takes the form of an audio-guided stroll though the Cathedral Quarter in the shoes of a gay man, pausing at spots which may hold little significance to most casual passers-by. It perfectly fits O’Neill’s philosophy of reimagining the city and using theatre as a means to open up dialogue on perceptions of space and personal politics.
Accidental Theatre contributes two provocative new productions, as well as a video-linked debate and Q&A session with France-based writer Paul Cudenec, who will put forward his theory that anarchy is a good thing.
Patrick Ayrton, conductor, harpsichordist and professor at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague joins with German violinist Dnaiela Helm and the Cormeen Rising Sons of William flute band for an evening of music and friendship.
Writer and co-founder of Macha Productions Fionnuala Kennedy, in partnership with Participation and Practice of Rights and An Culturlann, will invite three actors to read assessments for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), based on real life accounts. A panel discussion on this uncompromising process follows.
Off piste, the Festival Club in the Crescent Arts Centre offers a nightly bring-your-own bottle gathering, with opportunities for convivial chat and banter, punctuated by short musical and theatrical performances. And on 17 March, the Public Pulpit in the car park of St. Anne’s Cathedral will “… transform a powerful and authoritative architectural typology into an open platform for discussion in the contemporary city.” It will be free for use by all. Hecklers welcome.
Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics runs from 12 to 18 March. Full programme on imaginebelfast.com
This article was first published in The Irish Times on 3 March 2018