Peter O’Neill is the director and founder of the Imagine Festival of Politics and Ideas.
Politics in Northern Ireland has had a tough year. With no Executive since January 2017, an election that changed little just over a year ago and the prospect of our departure from the EU firmly on the horizon, you could be forgiven for thinking that ideas on how to overcome these challenges are in short supply.
One of the victims of the political impasse has been the arts, with funding cuts leading to a sector on its knees and relying on an understanding of its value by politicians in order to survive and thrive. The lack of support for the industry suggests that this is not a relationship of equals, the arts being viewed by decision-makers as peripheral, a luxury even, rather than something contributing to the discourse.
But the Imagine Festival of Ideas & Politics, which rolls into Belfast next week, is set to recalibrate how we participate in debate and how the arts plays a central role in challenging our ability to engage. Now in its fourth year, the festival aims to push back against cynicism by exciting minds and passions, and by providing a space for performance and discussion.
With apathy the enemy of ideas, a packed programme is set to provoke thought and deliberation on a wide range of subjects, from Brexit, poverty, inequality, and fake news.
Against a backdrop of political paralysis, with four rounds of talks failing to produce a resolution that would restore Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions, coupled with a reluctance by the UK Government to implement direct rule (full fat, diet or otherwise), there now exists a real need for citizens to find ways of taking part in political debate, listening to each other and test themselves to do what the Imagine festival asks of them: to engage with the power of reason.
Could a Citizens’ Assembly energise a disillusioned public and help politicians make decisions on difficult issues, as has been the case in the Republic of Ireland? What were the books that opened minds, bridged divides or inspired new possibilities amongst loyalist and republican prisoners? What can we learn from the Women’s March on Washington as a movement signifying a key moment in women’s rights?
Political debate need not be the preserve of politicians inhabiting a toxic, adversarial environment. It can be brought to the people. Imagine hopes to spark a fresh approach on politics and culture, and reframe the discussion, exploring the art of the possible.
Activists from across the globe will inspire audiences with stories of social change by ordinary people, empowering citizens to consider how they can play a role in moulding Northern Ireland’s future. We are delighted that so many individuals and groups submitted ideas for events this year, particularly from young people. The Artivist Academy, for instance, will be running in May to support skills development for new event organisers. In addition, our public participation project for this festival asks members of the public to send us 1-2min films describing the change they want to see in the world.
With over 80 events – most of which are free – spread across 30 venues throughout Belfast, from 12-18 March, there’s something for everyone in our eclectic programme. As we try to make sense of this volatile world, we invite you to come along and plot a new course that challenges us all to engage with the power of reason.
Full programme of events can be found on the festival’s website: