The need for new politics in NI

23 Mar 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Peter O'Neill with Belfast Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon
Peter O'Neill with Belfast Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon

This month Belfast hosted Imagine! - a "festival of ideas and politics". Scope speaks to director Peter O'Neill about why he thinks it was important and his hopes for making it an annual event.

Northern Ireland is in a political rut – an observation that will surprise no-one and, for numerous and conflicting reasons, with which few will disagree.

The noise and heat generated in public discourse and within the House on the Hill is growing but – coincidentally or not – interest amongst the people for the goings on in Stormont is in decline.

Participation has declined in each of the Assembly elections since the first that followed the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998.

Ennui and a feeling of disconnection between citizens and politicians can drive people away from the polls.

However, lower voter turnout risks an even greater gap between the views and desires of the public and the policies that affect their lives.

This month saw a new “festival of ideas and politics” held across Belfast; Imagine! aimed to inspire and provoke an interest in public affairs beyond those with an established interest.

Did it work? Director Peter O’Neill thinks so. He told Scope: “A group of us were inspired by the Scottish referendum, where there were record levels of political participation, with some electoral turnouts of over 95%.

“We decided to look at a vehicle in Belfast in which citizens could engage with each other and get beyond hashtag activism to encourage people to come to public events and engage on a face-to-face basis in discussion of very difficult issues we have here.

“They may not have reached agreement on these difficult issues, but it was certainly an opportunity to have very frank and very difficult conversations.”

Imagine! used a variety of fora to address politics or more general ideas, from straightforward debates to more artistic events, such as film showings and theatre, and political quizzes.

Peter said the attempt to highlight and draw out tough topics proved a success – and also that many of the participants would not be those who regularly engage in local public debate.

“That has certainly been the experience of some of our partners, for example the two main universities have reported that brand new audiences were coming to the events on their campuses.

“They think that an important outcome of the festival was demystifying of the colleges and the fact ordinary people can come off the street and join in a seminar. These are people who wouldn’t have done this in the past.”

The range of issues covered was wide – Scope wrote previously about a discussion on gender quotas in politics – ranging from a humorous “Rock’n’Roll Politics Election Special” to much more serious matters.

“Many of the themes in our programme were those likely to be touchstone ones in the forthcoming general elections.

“[Queen’s University academic] Peter Shirlow debated migration into Northern Ireland and people said they didn’t engage with new immigrants, found it difficult and didn’t feel the need to welcome new arrivals into our country.

“People opened up and admitted to prejudice and admitted they weren’t comfortable with our new arrivals.”

He said other events also dealt with troubling matters, including the Israel/Palestine conflict and also physical abuse – with debates including first-hand accounts of sexual assault.

Declaring the festival a success, Peter says he “does not want to pre-empt anything” but is speaking with its various partner organisations about making it an annual event. Keep an eye out for Imagine! 2016.

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