Maybe a dose of distance and diplomacy is what the NI political talks need?
Back in the days when men wore hats and women weren’t encouraged to stay in the room after dinner while the men smoked cigars and made serious conversation, country estates like Mount Stewart offered hospitality and privacy to decision makers.
There were no reporters standing at the gates waiting to go live on Facebook or update listeners on the top of the hour news bulletin. Telegram was the fastest mode of communication, and it didn’t allow people in power to broadcast their 140 character nuggets of wisdom to millions of people in an instant. The rumour mill ground slowly.
It was an age of slow diplomacy. Something that the National Trust are celebrating in their second year of hosting the Mount Stewart Conversations at their lough shore property. Sixty to ninety minute-long sessions to listen to and participate in interesting conversations. No glitzy cut-away camera angles or rushed 24 minute interviews that need to leave room for a news update, reading out three tweets and a programme trailer before the half hour is up.
On Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October, the world class gardens and forest trails promise to burst into life with talks and performances that explore topics of global, political and social interest, including the 2018 anniversary of women and suffrage, Brexit and the Irish economy, women in politics as well as myths and legends. Some of the talks are chargeable, others free, but all require pre-booking (and the normal entrance fee to get access to the National Trust site). Dotted across the Mount Stewart property you’ll also find music and crafts and food.
Women’s Suffrage 100 Years On opens the talks on Saturday at 11am with Rachel Johnson, Mary Kenny and Rosie Boycott discussing how far women have come in the nearly hundred years since women’s suffrage was won as well as how far there is still to go to achieve real equality. The session will launch the National Trust’s UK-wide programme that will run throughout the centenary year.
Later on, actor and playwright Tara Lynne O’Neill will take to the stage and take audiences back a hundred years to the moment when Belfast women stepped onto a football pitch in society-shocking shorts and boots, with a ball at their feet and a point to prove.
Alex Kazam is a magician who is fascinated by the art of persuasion. He’s offering his (free) insight into How to use Mind Control like Donald Trump! Attend if you dare to discover how the “orange-faced narcissist” (his words, not mine) used linguistic skills to defeat opponents and capture the imaginations of millions. You too could use confirmation bias to win arguments, make your points visually and embrace insults thrown at you.
Writer and broadcaster Mary Kenny will chair a panel who will discuss The Political Women of Ireland, casting their gaze from Maude Gonne and the Countess Markievicz, to Edith, Lady Londonderry and present day figures. She’ll be joined on stage by author Diane Urquhart and historian Senia Paseta.
Sarah Havlin will chair a free but ticketed debate about the rise of women’s leadership in NI with guest speakers that include Bronagh Hinds (founder of the Women’s Coalition) and Lesley Hogg (Clerk and Chief Executive of the NI Assembly).
While Ian Hislop’s conversation at 4pm about the richest period for satire in living memory (ie, now) has already sold out, at the same time in another venue singer/songwriter and moonlighting scientist Emer McGuire will be entertaining, educating and riffing about Sexy Science Sexy Science and what separates the Romeos from the Tinder turn offs.
Having closed the festival last year with a hilarious conversation with David Aaronovitch, Rachel Johnson is teaming up on a sofa for the last formal event of Saturday night programme with her husband Ivo Dawnay and Mary and Giles Wood from Googlebox. The two pairs of married columnists will discuss on why home is where the trench warfare happens in the battle of the sexes and the hellish aspects of working from home.
Sunday morning kicks off with commentator Fintan O’Toole and academic Richard English discussing the potential impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland in a free session before Ellvena Graham (president of NI Chamber of Commerce and former head of the Ulster Bank) and Angela McGowan (regional director of CBI and former Danske Bank economist) debate Brexit plot a route out of the chaos that is the Irish economy.
Two professors Roy Foster and Richard English will discuss whether we are heading to a New World Order or returning to just another version of the 1930s?
The sight of Kate Adie in a flak jacket on the ten o’clock news was once the confirmation to BBC audiences that a region of the world was in conflict. Her appearance on the streets of Belfast made people nervous and her words were quickly judged by competing viewpoints. She’ll be closing this year’s Mount Stewart Conversations.
And sitting alongside all of this are free sessions on urban bee-keeping, abandoned buildings and a conversation about using music and arts to overcome conflict between Ahmad Sarmast (founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra) and Shalini Wickramasuriya (The Music Project in Sri Lanka).
While all the day passes for Saturday have been snapped up, there are still some all day tickets on sale for Sunday. Day passes are the only ticket have access to the National Trust site bundled in with the talks.
Complementing the National Trust’s own programme of talks and events are a series of ticketed but free conversations organised by the BBC, a festival within a festival. You’ll find Alister McGrath speaking about CS Lewis, Edith Hall and Geraldine McCaughrean talking about the ancient world; author Robert McCrum on life, literature and mortality; John Lloyd on journalism, politics and fake news; Cathy Rentzenbrink on grief and healing; Dan Cruickshank on buildings and architecture; and Natalie Haynes on the enduring relevance of the Classics and the ancient world.
You can still listen to and watch some of last year’s conversations from the inaugural event.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.