“Your head is the pinball” – but things don’t have to be like this

29 Mar 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jun 2019

Everything is breaking. It’s easy to feel despondent but, if you want to fix anything, it’s much better to be calm, think about the good that can and is being done, and have some positivity. Scope tags along to the Imagine Festival.

For people who believe the state can do good and great things, times are especially dispiriting.

Here in Northern Ireland, we sit under three layers of failure in governance.

The Executive collapse at Stormont continues, long after NI set an (unofficial and unrecognised) world record for the absence of a government in times of peace.

Westminster is chaos. Brexit has wounded the UK’s two biggest political parties – which, in essence, comprise the current government and opposition – and these wounds may prove fatal, having left enormous splits in both the Tories and Labour.

Moreover, the norms and procedures of parliament itself are under strain. The very mechanisms by which statutory functions are supposed to be directed are struggling.

The third failure is broader, harder to pin down – but no less important. Global stability and structures are themselves feeling the pressure. The turbulence in NI and UK is mirrored around the world.

The EU, including major countries like France and Germany, is beset with problems. The USA is in the middle of a comprehensive reckoning with itself. China has manifold issues. Russia, to some degree a dormant power, wields growing power but primarily as an agitator while the nation itself has massive internal concerns.

Meanwhile, the problems of the day carry on and mostly get worse: underemployment, wages shrinking in real terms, growing inequality, struggling health and education systems, the possible collapse of social care, pollution, the rising issue of plastics, climate change, and more.

No-one expects the state to solve all their problems - but it is fair to expect greater things than we see at present.

All this is true and the picture it paints is desperate. But desperation (without action) is of little use and, given governments were not a cure all in better times, perhaps the best reaction to the above is simply to provide a bit more impetus for us, as individuals and as citizens, to take on the problems we face as people and as a society.


The Imagine Festival hit Belfast this week with an extraordinary number and variety of events aimed at encouraging participation, conversation and activity around the ideas and politics of the day.

The slogan for this year’s festival, the fifth in an increasingly rich tradition, is “you head is the pinball” – a nice way to capture the bewilderment of 2019.

Yesterday Scope went along to a discussion in Ulster University organised by Collaboration for Change, a citizens’ initiative that began in L’Derry last year and which aims to build links between groups, projects and movements across NI that, broadly, come under a progressive banner – whether concerned with rights, environmental concerns, or building a more cohesive or prosperous society.

The event had a couple of speakers outlining some great work in the community, including Tiziana O’Hara, from Co-operative Alternatives.

Ms O’Hara spoke about how there are many good local organisations doing solid work, praising the strength of the third sector, in particular. She outlined how she was drawn towards the potential for a co-operative sector that is underdeveloped but has historic strength and room to grow:

“What interested me was the principle of one member, one vote. It seemed to me like that was a structure where everybody could be the same as everyone else and be a part not only of the creation of something but also in decision making a sharing of the profits – all of which are so important and which people feel alienated from.

“Northern Ireland has a great tradition of cooperatives, including the credit union movement that, from the 1960s on, was a way of democratising loans. Credit unions are not banks, they are cooperatives in action.

“We are also looking at growing the number of workers’ cooperatives. Very often in our society, workers are exploited by those who own [companies] and those who get the profits. In workers cooperatives, workers are at the centre of what they do, how they do it and how they share profits.

“It is a very interesting model and we see them increasingly often in Northern Ireland. We have a great tradition of cooperatives from the past until now, but also have emerging cooperatives that should spur everyone into looking at alternative ways to do work, to do housing, even farming.”

Ms O’Hara cited a number of successful ongoing local cooperatives, including Jubilee Farm near Larne, Loveworks, the Creative Workers Cooperative, NI Community Energy Co-operative, and the Lúnasa coffee shop.

Building a future

Most of the Collaboration for Change event was taken up by discussion between the few dozen attendees.

Although people came from disparate backgrounds, they mostly seemed to share a sense of calm positivity about what is possible for our future.

That is despite, or perhaps because of, a consensual acceptance that Northern Ireland, the UK, and the whole world are all in difficulty right now,

Denis Stewart, who is part of the initiative, opened up the event by saying: “This initiative came about from conversations between folk in Derry some time last year, wondering how we are responding to the challenges we all face in these troubled and turbulent times.

“The foundations of our democratic institutions are being undermined. This is an initiative, not a project or a programme, it’s a bunch of people trying to find a way to pool resources and ideas in order to make a difference.”

If progressive ideas are something you support, in whatever capacity, and whether you are part of an organisation or simply a concerned citizen, maybe involvement with Collaboration for Change should be of interest to you.

Certainly, a calm head and a bit of conviction to try and do something useful – in this case, tie together work that is already happening or that might happen in the future – is an achievable and useful goal.

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