A more inclusive and mature public discourse – Imagine!

25 Feb 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Feb 2016

Actress Nuala McKeever supports the festival
Actress Nuala McKeever supports the festival

The Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics returns to Belfast next month for its second year. Scope speaks to organiser Peter O’Neill about the gap it fills in public debate.

Politics is often light on ideas in general and, all too often, policy in particular.

Here in Northern Ireland it has a Punch-and-Judy reputation, there is a significant voter split on sectarian lines, and much of the public discourse focuses on a violent past rather than a future we are yet to shape.

That doesn’t mean things are much better elsewhere. David Cameron left his dignity at the door before PMQ’s in Westminster on Wednesday, resorting to inexplicably stupid and funny-free banter about Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn’s choice of clothes.

Thanks, Prime Minister.

Little imagination is required to see why voting rates in NI are so poor.

However, it’s not all hopeless. Last year saw the first ever Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics in Belfast. After an apparently great reception it returns again this year, much bigger, and with the intention of providing a forum for people who are truly interested in civic affairs but turned off by the frequent boorishness of politics.

The Festival has been organised again by Director Peter O’Neill, who also looks after the Belfast Comedy Festival

“I suppose its roots are in the comedy festival. There we tried to promote satire and also looked at the relationship between conflict and comedy, and it struck us at the time that there wasn’t that much space in the festival period for a substantial examination of politics and big ideas.

“Last year about 42% of people here in Northern Ireland didn’t turn out for the Westminster elections. Two thirds of people under 30 did not vote. I suspect, coming up to the Assembly elections, that those figures will be lower this year.”

Arts and minds

“So we thought there was a chance of working with the arts to encourage debate using more imaginative and creative methods, rather than the traditional ways – old-fashioned public hall debates, confrontational formats with for and against, usually middle-aged men behaving with formality.

“That doesn’t resonate particularly with younger people, women, and people who come into politics from a less ideological position. If you look at our programme most of the events are conversations, discussions - we use quizzes, we use drama.”

It is a huge year for public affairs in Northern Ireland.

Assembly elections, rationalisation of government departments, centenaries that will test relationships, and there’s also the matter of the EU referendum – the consequences of which for Northern Ireland, are difficult to unpick but potentially enormous.

It’s all worth talking about, and the festival has a number of events that deal with these issues.

If they are up to the same standard as last year – Scope attended a discussion on gender quotas in politics that, whatever your thoughts on that, was informative and interesting – this could be the place for the seemingly large number of people keen to discuss the major issues affecting Northern Ireland and the world.

Different approach

“We very consciously used theatre and drama as a means of addressing and approaching political issues, are trying to soften the nature of political discussion here and are looking at bigger ideas, more rounded topics that don’t normally get much coverage in our normal news-based programmes.

“One other aspect is that we don’t really involve politicians generally as speakers or panel members. The idea for this week is to encourage new voices to articulate themselves and contribute to political debate.

“That then creates an atmosphere that doesn’t feel intimidating or too confrontational to discuss issues – and some of the issues that we tackle are very difficult: abortion, dealing with the past, Israel/Palestine. There are big issues there that we don’t shy away from – but we think we provide a forum that people can engage with in a polite and sensitive way.”

Many of the events at Imagine! are free, and can be found here. It wasn’t just Scope who enjoyed themselves last year, as the growth in the festival shows.

“We had an amazing response to what we did last year. This year it has doubled in size, we have 82 events whereas last year there were 40, and last year around 3,000 people attended and we expect a significantly higher number this time.

“Already a number of events are sold out. There’s definitely a gap in the market for a thoughtful and more positive approach, and to do things in a more respectful way.”

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