Imagine! It’s been 10 years

A reflection by Peter O’Neill, festival founder and director, marking the 10th anniversary of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics.

You know it’s an amazing thing to have been involved in creating a popular project that has engaged thousands of people in hundreds of performances and discussions on contentious issues over the last 10 years. It’s particularly gratifying to think back on how risky it was to create a  platform for discussion about politics in such a contested and often volatile place like Northern Ireland. Mind you, I do remember when I first mooted the idea back in 2014 many people warning me to expect lots of trolling and suspicion about motives etc.

However I’m glad to say that after a decade of organising 1,060 events involving over 3,000 artists & speakers with over 200,000 audience members, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of complaints or abusive comments received – which is quite an achievement in this increasingly fractious world!

So I think we have a proud record of achievement and made a modest contribution to promoting constructive political debate and education in the past decade. We have tried to provide a high-quality showcase for the discussion of new ideas on politics, culture and activism and our objectives have included:

  • Organising an inspiring programme of performance, discussion and debate
  • Encouraging the participation of under-represented groups in political/cultural debate and discussion
  • Stimulating reflection and discussion on difficult and controversial issues, and
  • Promoting free speech, good relations, cultural diversity and equality.

In the course of this work we have brought thousands of people together from many different backgrounds to discuss those issues that divide them or are usually excluded from our rather tribal political discourse. Through hosting events we have supported follow up activities such as helping to establish campaign groups and networks that have made a wider impact. Part of this process has involved organising training conferences for inexperienced event managers through an Artivist Academy and special workshop events including annual celebrations of the UN International Day of Democracy. With our partners we have helped support new local and international festivals and highlighted the threats to democracy on the global stage as recognised by recent award nominations and our current role as vice-chair of the International Democracy Festivals Association.

Our unique festival has provided a platform for leading thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Ignatieff, Francis Fukuyama, Helen Thompson, Bonnie Greer, Bill McKibben, Charles Leadbeater, Angie Drobnic Holan, George Monbiot, Gavin Esler, Carmen Perez, Owen Jones, Mary Harney, Geoff Mulgan and many leading artists such as Medbh McGuckian, Michael Longley, Michelle Shocked, Colin Davidson, Rita Duffy, Lionel Shriver, Robin Ince and Bridget Christie to name but a few.

We have also supported young and emerging artists to explore ‘difficult’ issues and commissioned new work including the hosting of many premieres. Through blogs, podcasts, media coverage and online discussions we have stimulated a wider appreciation of the importance of civic activism, deliberative democracy, voter registration and the presentation of complex ideas in a fun and accessible manner.

The sceptics among you may think ideas and politics are mutually exclusive! But we think there has never been a better and more urgent time to discuss innovative ideas and ways of bringing these into the mainstream of our political and cultural debates. In the face of public apathy and disenchantment with the formal political process, the very legitimacy of our political institutions is threatened as public confidence in our systems of government and local politicians has ebbed away. We risk a low voter turnout in the forthcoming general elections, particularly from younger people who appear to be increasingly alienated from party politics, and a wider community disillusionment with our devolved political institutions.

However, it’s too easy to blame the politicians for all our ills – now’s the time for ordinary people to set the agenda and spark some new ideas on transforming the way we live together. Across the world, citizens are taking control of their political destiny by coming up with new ideas and ways of implementing change and I’m delighted that our forthcoming 10th anniversary programme of 132 events taking place 18-24 March 2024 has received such an enthusiastic response with many events sold out.

 

How we started

It seems opportune then on this anniversary to review the development of this particular festival before I retire as festival director. Ten years ago I was already running a comedy arts festival in Belfast and had learned a lot from colleagues such as Gerard Sheppard and Graeme Watson. I had always enjoyed attending festivals such as the Belfast International Arts Festival and Edinburgh Fringe and greatly valued the sense of community and the role of the arts in bringing people together. Although I was working in a voluntary role as the Director of the Belfast Comedy Festival, I felt I had extra capacity to run another festival – this time devoted to stimulating debate and discussion on the moribund state of our local politics in the run up to the 2015 UK General Election. I had been inspired by the outpouring of passion and level of community engagement associated with the Scottish Independence referendum when thousands of ordinary people across Scotland, including its influential arts sector, had enthusiastically come together to debate this critical issue (still to be resolved).

In Northern Ireland at that time, we were stuck in our usual tribal and conservative political stasis with very few new ideas percolating in the public sphere. There were few forums, think tanks and opportunities for constructive debate and not many artists and performers felt able to interrogate issues relating to the legacy of our conflict and other controversial topics. So with the support of friends and colleagues, I thought we should pilot a week-long festival in 2015 to provoke a consideration of new ideas for the betterment of society and the way that politics can help implement them. Rather surprisingly many people immediately came on board and critical to the early success was the involvement of senior academics such as Sally Wheeler from Queen’s University Belfast and Cathy Gormley-Heaney at Ulster University who generously offered seed corn financial support and the use of campus facilities to showcase academic research and other expert contributions. As well as involving university staff in presenting events on social and economic issues, we were also keen to invite proposals from artists and campaign groups for performances and provocations on controversial issues.

Alongside the universities, we were able to recruit a group of approximately 20 partners and we consulted with a wider range of interests. The first formal consultation meeting was held on 2 October 2014 and an advisory group was subsequently set up to provide strategic advice alongside the festival board of trustees and the various members of these groups have greatly assisted the development of the festival over the years (see appendix 1 for more details).  The involvement of these individuals listed at the end of this article has been critical to the success of the project and I would like to thank everyone involved for their assistance over the years.  (Apologies for any omissions).

 

Festival operation

The inaugural festival ran from 9-15 March 2015 with 43 events in 14 venues across the city with small grants received from the Community Relations Council and Building Change Trust. Approximately 2,500 audience members attended our events which, given our first year of operation and relatively limited income of £14,000, was a pretty good outcome (see appendix 2 for details of this and our other annual festivals). We also organised an online Alternative Manifesto submission process in an attempt to inject new thinking for local political parties and other interest groups to consider in the run up to the general election. We were delighted to receive 121 submissions, still posted on our website with many still relevant.

This model of organising our festivals with a public submission process inviting event proposals supported by the curation of headline acts and special participation projects was refined for future festivals. Such projects involved for example, hosting poetry competitions on political themes or asking the public to send us wood pellet sculptures in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

Other public participation projects involved asking people to submit ideas on how to Build Belfast Back Better after the pandemic, how to transform derelict ‘forgotten spaces’ in the city and and a photo competition on visualising the city. We also courted controversy (and prosecution) by running a mock election poster campaign for the fictitious Same Old political party in the run up to local elections in 2019 which provoked a huge discussion on why people vote.

Generally we were keen to stress that the festival was not aligned with any political party or particular interest group and, although politicians were welcome to attend events, we refrained from normally booking them as speakers or panellists in order to promote new voices in political debate.

Another constant feature was the involvement of our design agency RV, led by Al Reddick and Beth Van Sistine, who developed a distinctive branding for our festivals and helped manage our attractive website. We also developed close working relationships with venues such as the Crescent Arts Centre and a range of contractors and partners such as Northern Vision/NVTV, Slugger O’Toole, Alan Meban and Richard Lavery & friends at Accidental Theatre to develop streaming and other broadcasting activities.

Over the years, we have expanded this network (we currently have 64 partners) and have worked with over 3,000 different artists and speakers both locally and internationally. New funders have come on board such as the Arts Council NI. Belfast City Council, Open University, VSB Foundation, Community Relations Council, Future Screens NI, National Lottery Community Fund, Linen Quarter BID, and the Irish Government’s Reconciliation Fund.

In the early stages we were hampered by having no paid staff, limited funding and low ticket income. We took an early decision to try to run as many free events as possible in order to encourage people normally not interested in politics or with low incomes to attend as many of our events as possible. Typically 50% of our events are free with other events subsidised at a modest ticket price with concessions offered to unwaged people. We know that from our audience evaluations that this approach has been successful. In our last festival audience survey in 2023 we found that 36% of our sample described themselves as disadvantaged with approximately 50% of the total attending the festival and venue for the first time.

As you can see from the following graph, we have grown our audience by 1500% with the number of events increasing by 228% in the period 2015-2023.  Our income base is still precarious with a reliance on short term project grants from a cocktail of currently 10 funders, however we were able to raise approximately £120,000 last year – an increase of 756% from a low baseline in 2015. Despite our best efforts we have been unable to pay for an office or a proper salary to pay staff but we have nevertheless been able to pump over £750,000 into the local economy and pay our hard pressed participants and venues a decent return.

 

*2024 data not available at time of writing

 

The graph also highlights the even growth of our festival in terms of audience development and income generation over the years. However we did face a financial downturn in 2017 when we nearly closed and of course we were badly affected like the rest of the community when Covid struck just two weeks before we were about to launch our 2020 festival. We had originally organised 92 in-person events however we had to cancel these because of the pandemic. Of course, we could just have walked away from the project and saved ourselves a lot of work and hassle! However, having invested so much effort in preparing for the festival and listening to the views of our stakeholders, we enlisted the support of funders and key partners such as RV, Accidental Theatre and Alan Meban and managed to quickly pivot to broadcast 40 online events during 27-29 March 2020.

Thankfully we were able to resume our normal operations in the subsequent years with our last festival in 2023 consisting of 141 events and 257 speakers & performers attracting a record audience of 37,397 online and in-person attendees – an amazing increase of 306% from the previous festival. Nevertheless the challenges for the festival have remained the same and these include a lack of funding and corporate sponsorship; a reliance on limited project funding due to a reluctance of funders to provide multi-annual support; the impact of the cost of living crisis with audiences facing reductions in their disposable income; a lack of festival staff resulting in an over-reliance on volunteers and freelance staff; the impact of Brexit on networking and attracting international artists and speakers; no office or box office facilities; and difficulties in managing succession planning and long term sustainability.

Be that as it may, we approach a new decade with much optimism and the valued support of our audiences, participants and funders. We look forward to imagining a better future and hope with your support that we can continue to entertain and promote new ideas of culture and politics.

Peter O’Neill, March 2024

 

Appendix 1: People

Early days

The first formal consultation meeting investigating the setting up of the festival was held on 2 October 2014 in the Black Box with the following in attendance, many who became longstanding festival supporters: Denis Stewart, RSA Ireland/Celt Associates; Caoimhe Moore & Tommy McDonald, Stakeholder Communications; Paul Braithwaite, Building Change Trust; Jenna Maghie, NICVA; David Phinnemore, QUB; Quintin Oliver, Stratagem & Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Lisa Thompson & Claire-Anne Mills, University of Ulster; Susan Picken, Queens Film Theatre; Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International; Rosie Pelan, actor/trainer; Brian Spencer, freelance; Padraig O’Tuama, Corrymeela & Tenx9 and the late Glenn Jordan, representing Skainos.

Advisory Group (November 2014)

The first advisory group for the Imagine! Festival included Brigitte Anton – NI Labour Party; Paul Braithwaite – Building Change Trust; Eva Grosman – Centre for Peace & Democracy; Fergal McFerran – NUS-USI; Ian Williamson – NUS-USI; Gerry Carroll – NUS-USI; Ken Fanning – Tumble Circus; Katie Hanlon – BCDA; Keith Acheson – Crescent Arts Centre; Fintan Brady – Partisan productions; Jenna Maghie – NICVA; Cathy Gormley-Heenan – University of Ulster; Patrick Corrigan – Amnesty International; Rosie Pelan – Actor/Trainer; Beth Van Sistine – RV; Creative;  Al Reddick – RV Creative; Lynn Carville – Women’s Tec; Pádraig Ó Tuama – Corrymeela & Tenx9; Caoimhe Moore – Stakeholder; Dennis Stewart – RSA Ireland, International Futures Forum & Celt Associates; Sally Wheeler – QUB;  Quintin Oliver – Stratagem & Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Chris Browne – QUB.

Current Board members

Don Leeson, Ian Fraser, Ciarán Hanna, Martin Magee, Paul Maxwell, Paul Mulgrew, Julie Taylor, Julie Williams-Nash

Former Board members

Donal McBrien, Laura Conlon, Lindsey Mitchell, Liam Given, Fiona McLaughlin, Paul Braithwaite

 

Appendix 2: Festival history

First festival

The inaugural festival ran from 9-15 March 2015 with 43 events in 14 venues across the city. Approximately 2,500 audience members attended the events. The line-up of speakers included Steve Richards, BBC presenter and political commentator; Philip Coggan, author and columnist with the Economist; leading artist Rita Duffy; and local professors from Queen’s University and Ulster University such as Dave Archard, Arthur Aughey; Derek Birrell; John Brewer; Yvonne Galligan; Dagmar Schiek; and Peter Shirlow. Other contributors included Lord Alderdice, the late Liam Clarke, David Grant, Margo Harkin, Tom Kelly, Paula McFetridge, Susan McKay, Duncan Morrow and Nicholas Whyte.

The festival covered a wide spectrum of issues such as Voting and Identity; Dealing with the Past; Immigration; Gender Quotas for elections; Faith & Politics; Young People & Democracy; Public Sector Reform; Charities & Politics; the post-election political landscape; and Peace Building & the Arts. Other events examined wider themes such as the threats to democratic processes; the right to have children; the public value of universities; the tension between free trade & social rights; and issues raised by audiences in a series of informal Café Conversations across the city.

The media launch of the first festival was held in Belfast City Hall with the then Lord Mayor, Nichola Mallon and long standing supporter Nuala McKeever.

 

 

2016

The second Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics proved to be a very successful offering encompassing 82 events in 28 venues during 14-20 March 2016. Approximately 4,500 audience members attended the events which attracted very positive media and audience feedback. The programme included the award-winning journalist Owen Jones on The Politics of Hope and leading comedian Bridget Christie. Other high profile speakers included Geoff Mulgan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Jo Wolff, Avi Shlaim, Cathy Gormley-Heenan and John Higgs.

Topics for discussion also included: What is the State of Democracy in NI?; What is Progress?; Towards a People Powered Politics; Editing the Genome; 1916: A Political Reflection 100 Years On; Brexit; the first world war; abortion; and the legacy of the conflict.

In addition, the festival presented the Start Making Sense series of talks, which included Making Sense of Poverty, Making Sense of Youth Justice, Making Sense of the 20th Century and Making Sense of Elections. Dozens of discussions and workshops covered a wide range of issues and encouraged active debate and participation. Highlights included Are Schools Failing our Kids?; The Suffragettes, 100 years on; Populism and Racism; the Politics of Kindness and One Starry Night. The festival also organised an Alternative St Patrick’s Day with affectionate and irreverent discussions on Irishness and the legacy of St Patrick.

The comedy strand continued with US comic Jennifer Rawlings (I Only Smoke in War Zones) and a night of Electoral Dysfunction from Infinite Jest providing more laughter. Imagine’s theatre programme included the premiere of Accidental Theatre’s Gordon Osram’s Funeral, The Rising at The MAC, Dramatising Political Ideas with acclaimed playwright Jimmy McAleavey and Tinderbox, Deporting Patrick by Kabosh and Tost, from the award-winning Dylan Quinn Dance Company.

We also had a couple of quizzes, film screenings, tours and a photo exhibition with John Baucher on the theme of immigration. Finally we invited the public to send us their images on the future of Belfast. 56 photos were received and a panel of judges selected 12 of these images as part of an exhibition that was hosted by Framewerk Gallery during 16-21 May. During the exhibition visitors were asked to nominate their favourite picture. In the event, two pictures topped the poll so the prize was shared by Sara Trusciglio ‘An Open Challenge to Widespread Apathy’ and Tim K Newell ‘BT3 UFO’.

2017

Our 2017 festival was attended by 4,580 people attending 86 events involving 300 speakers & performers in 35 venues across the city during 20-26 March 2017. We were very appreciative of the funding provided by the Building Change Trust, Ulster University, The Open University Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Belfast, Community Relations Council and Belfast City Council.

The programme included talks by Catherine Mayer, Geoff Crossick and Diana Souhani, as well as a comedy event with David McSavage and a music event with Beyond Skin. The organisation this year of two thematic events on ‘Democracy Day’ and ‘Dialogue Day’ together with a poetry and politics competition was also heartening. In regard to the latter project, we were delighted to receive over 60 entries from a wide range of poets with many entering work for the first time to such a competition. We are grateful to our panel of judges who reviewed all the poems submitted. Our judges included the published poets Pádraig Ó Tuama, and Chelley McLear. The winning poem from Gerard Madden was awarded a prize of £200 with another 5 poems highly commended by the judging panel.

2018

The fourth Imagine Belfast Festival comprised 124 events, 374 speakers & performers in 31 venues across the city during 12-18 March 2018, with 4,699 audience members attending the wide ranging programme. The eclectic week of talks, workshops, theatre, poetry, comedy, music, exhibitions, film and tours included the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked; US Activist Carmen Perez, national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington; and the often-provocative journalist, Peter Hitchens. Satire and political caricature were represented by veteran cartoonist Martin Rowson, and the renowned Oxford Professor Danny Dorling who assessed the extent to which inequality created the momentum behind the leave vote in the Brexit referendum. The programme also featured stand-up comedian Jarlath Regan and other internationally renowned performers such as the conductor Patrick Ayrton, and poet Leyla Josephine, alongside writers such as Eoin McNamee, Michel Bauwens and former politicians Austin Currie and Nelson McCausland

2019

We were delighted to deliver the 5th Imagine Belfast Festival comprising 152 events, 459 speakers & performers in 50 venues across the city during 25-31 March 2019, which attracted an audience of 8,285 people – an increase of 76% on the previous year’s festival. Our audience survey found that 97% of respondents felt the festival satisfied their expectations. It was particularly pleasing to find that 55% of audience members were attending a festival event for the first time and 39% of the sample had never been to a festival venue before, which suggests that we were able to reach new audiences and introduce them to new venues and partners. The programe of events included talks by Anthony Barnett (with open Democracy), Gavin Esler, Mary Harney, Michael Maguire, George Monbiot, Lionel Shriver, Peter Tatchell, Richard Wilkinson, and an exhibition by Rita Duffy. In addition, we organised four comedy shows with Robin Ince, Shazia Mirza, Tim McGarry and Paddy Cullivan and music events with Duke Special and Colin Hassard.

We were also able to advertise our Artivist Academy event management training programme during the festival and organise a number of provocations such a RHI wood pellet model competition, a mock election poster campaign (see image below) which attracted a huge social media response and a street art commission with the Italian/French artist Clet Abraham. In addition, we worked with Framewerk Gallery in recruiting an ‘artist in residence’ this year for the first time – the Cork based artist Vicky Langan. We were also pleased to work with Queen’s Film Theatre  in programming a politics documentary film strand and to present a number of premieres such as the Kabosh production of ‘A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe’. High level seminars and conferences were supported with open Democracy, OUTing the Past LGBT+ history conference, and Belfast City Council. An innovative Participatory Budgeting workshop and small grants scheme supported by Building Change Trust was also showcased at the festival with groups invited to bid for £500 to support local democracy projects.

 

 

2020

This virtual festival took place during 25-27 March 2020 with a packed programme of 40 webcasts examining political and cultural issues, including the threats presented by COVID-19. We had originally organised 92 events for 25-31 March however we had to cancel these because of the pandemic. The webcasting programme included the award-winning journalist and writer Paul Mason; best-selling author and news editor Sam McBride; and open Democracy editor, Adam Ramsay talking about the current threats to democracy across the world. Keynote topics that were addressed in the webcasts include climate extinction; how to combat the Coronavirus; the impact of this crisis on the arts sector, and ‘Is more economic growth the answer?’. Other speakers include Neil Jameson, the founder of Citizens UK; Margaret Henry, the then Director of Thrive; Allison Morris, then Irish News security correspondent; Grainne Walsh, Director of Stratagem public affairs consultancy; Professor John Barry responding to the planetary emergency; and Robin McAlpine on the future of the UK.

Leading local film-maker Nicky Larkin also previewed the world première of his documentary exploring the creation of The Belfast Ensemble’s provocative Abomination: A DUP Opera and we were delighted to partner with Film Devour in showcasing a number of short films from local directors. In addition, the festival organised a number of events interrogating aspects of local history with a talk by leading historian, Barry Sheppard, on Bicycles and Protest; a book launch by Fergus Whelan on Belfast United Irishman William Drennan and the history of Whiskey and politics in Belfast with Martin McAuley. Poetry was also represented with a special reading by the award-winning local poet, Chris Agee. We also had music from local artists Joby Fox and Emer Maguire.

2021

Despite the ravages of the pandemic, the 7th annual Imagine Belfast Festival included 115 online events, 356 speakers & performers, 57 partners, and several special projects during 22-28 March 2021. The festival attracted an increase of 133% in viewers from the previous year.  The virtual nature of the event allowed us to attract leading global figures and experts from around the world including Noam Chomsky, renowned playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer and a host of local talent. Other headliners include Bill McKibben, Angie Drobnic Holan, Paul Mason, Claire Fox, Gavin Esler, Roman Krznaric, Neil Hegarty, Sinead Gleeson, Charles Leadbeater and Senator Eileen Flynn. Working with 57 festival partners, events were organised, for example, with the British Academy, the Belfast Ensemble, Ulster Orchestra, Ballet Black, the Chilean arts group Memorarte, open Democracy and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The programme marked the first anniversary of the UK Covid lockdown on 23 March and a special ‘Democracy Day’ programme took place on 26 March.

Not content with managing 115 events, we also organised and supported a number of special projects during the festival including the award of  a bursary of £3,000 to support new work on political art. Funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities in response to Covid-19 and the devastating impact the pandemic had on the arts and cultural sectors in Northern Ireland, we were delighted to make this award to Cat Barter.

Also, as a special project for the 2021 festival, we invited people to send us their top three proposals for change. In this project, we examined how placemaking can promote thriving communities in Belfast as we looked towards a post-pandemic recovery. We were delighted with the response as the public enthusiastically took up the challenge with over 300 ideas received in March 2021. The campaign also attracted lots of media coverage as we encouraged policy makers to consider these proposals. All of the submissions can still be viewed on our website.

2022

The 8th Imagine! Belfast Festival involved 147 events and 359 speakers & performers during 21-27 March 2022.  The eclectic week of talks, workshops, theatre, poetry, comedy, music, exhibitions, film and tours attracted an audience of 9,210 online and in-person attendees. Most of the events (82%) were free as the festival returned to live events after two years operating online. Although Covid continued to impact on our programme with 17 events cancelled due to illness, we were still able to roll out a huge range of events including headliners such as Michael Ignatieff, Tom Robinson, Helen Thompson, Michael Longley, Ece Temelkuran, Bill Neely and a host of exciting arts and cultural events – with many sold out or oversubscribed.

In addition, we commissioned the International Peripatetic Sculptors Society from Glasgow as artists in residence who worked with us on a number of projects during the festival week. Other place-making events included three community installations and a range of innovative workshops with Limin-Alley, the Ring of Steel project with Kabosh, and Peace Wall Stories with Stephen Wilson at the Cupar Way interface. In total, we supported 11 exhibitions with Second Collective, Loving Earth, the Marie Curie Day of Reflection and Open University Northern Ireland. We were also delighted to co-produce This Sh*t Happens All the Time with the Lyric Theatre – a powerful new one-woman play from Amanda Verlaque, which used personal experience to explore misogyny, coercive control, and queer-baiting.

2023

The 9th festival consisted of 141 events and 257 speakers & performers during 20-26 March 2023. We attracted a record audience of 37,397 online and in-person attendees – an amazing increase of 306% from the previous festival. The festival explored the theme ‘Brain Food: A Feast of Ideas for A Better World’ with an attractive range of food related events and visual assets designed by RV.

Most of the events were free as the festival rolled out a huge programme including headliners such as the world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky; American political scientist Francis Fukuyama; British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt; author and transgender activist, Shon Faye; campaigner George Monbiot; visual artist Colin Davidson; journalist Sally Hayden and satirist Oliver Callan and a host of other exciting arts, heritage and cultural events with many sold out or oversubscribed. Musicians included the legendary performer, John Otway; alternative punks, Wood Burning Savages; the acclaimed Australian song writer, Robert Forster; and a special politics and poetry event with leading politicians taking to the stage. Comedy was well represented with Tiff Stevenson and Fin Taylor alongside poets such as Henry Normal and Medbh McGuckian and cabaret performer, Paddy Cullivan.

The unique festival also examined the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the run up to the local government elections with the premiere of ‘Agreement’ a new play by Owen McCafferty at the Lyric Theatre. A special ‘Democracy Day’ strand on 24 March focussed on citizen activism and the role of local changemakers. We also commissioned a large scale public participation project examining the ‘Forgotten Spaces’ in the city and Stephen Beggs, as our artist in residence, to deliver a humorous provocation encouraging voter registration.  Other events discussed touchstone issues such as how to stop violence against women; climate change; the prospect of a united Ireland; Scottish Independence; regeneration initiatives and poverty themes. Leading commentators such Professor Linda Bauld considered how to prepare for the next pandemic and Professor Jon Tonge discussed why we have so much political instability in Northern Ireland. In addition, we even had a quiz and a special poetry and politics pub crawl to whet the creative appetites.

We were also delighted to work with Meadhbh McIlgorm in launching a special place-making project ‘Forgotten Spaces’ which invited the public to identify and record neglected or derelict places in Belfast which could be transformed for community use.

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