Singing the (Good Friday) Agreement: peace in 4/4 time … only at the Imagine! Belfast Festival (POSTPONED)

“singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird”

We’ve implemented it, ignored it and extended it, but never before in Northern Ireland has it been sung!

But on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics, you can settle down to hear singers from Spark Opera perform the local première of a choral setting of the Declaration of Support at the start of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement text.

The doors of Accidental Theatre in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square (under the big screen) open on Monday 23 March at 6.30pm for a 7pm start, and the Book Bar will be open to quench your thirst. Unfortunately the performance and panel has been postponed – though there are plans to restage it later this year.

The Good Friday Agreement: peace in 4/4 time is a somewhat unexpected work was composed by Clare Salters, who worked in the Northern Ireland Office and was involved in the negotiations.

Alongside the musical performances from our talented choir who will bring to life a number of other appropriate choral pieces alongside the Agreement, I’ll be in conversation with a former politician who was inside the talks in Castle Buildings as well as a journalist who anchored hours and hours of the rolling late-night TV coverage that accompanied the negotiations. An evening of nostalgia and reflection.

So why not join us on Monday 23 March for an hour of music and talk with Spark Opera’s performers and our panel of guests. Tickets for this Imagine! Belfast event are available from the Accidental Theatre website.

The negotiations concluded in April 1998 – or entered their next phase – and when I caught up with Clare recently, I asked whether she’d immediately sat down to set the Agreement to music?

“[It wasn’t] really until 2018 when I became involved in the iPlay4Peace initiative. That was mainly focused on WW1 and the centenary of the Armistice, but it was obviously also the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and I’d been struck by how many people – particularly in Great Britain, though not only there – had forgotten its significance, what it covered, and why it was still relevant. So when the call came out for entries for the iPlay4Peace 2019 compositions I thought I should give it a go.”

The composition includes the opening declaration rather than the 30 or more pages of the Agreement!

“I’d really wanted to do the whole thing, but quickly realised that would make for too long a piece, and would be too difficult to sustain the opening cryptogram for the entirety of the piece without being monotonous. Plus singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird. But I realised that so much of the spirit of the Agreement was encapsulated in that opening declaration, so I focused on that.”

Clare is no stranger to choirs, having sung in the Belfast Philharmonic for a number of seasons “before work took over my life”. But while she was familiar with orchestrating for instrumental ensembles, the former civil servant hadn’t tried her hand at choral writing since school days.

Her early days at the Northern Ireland Office were as “a very junior cog in the wheel”.

“Graduate trainees in the political directorate were part of the department’s note taking rota, taking it in turns to trot round after the Secretary of State to record all his – later her – meetings. It was a fabulous opportunity to be part of genuinely historic developments at a very early stage in my career. I was really lucky.”

Subsequently roles in the NIO included working on human rights and equality, the Patten reforms of policing, the legacy of the past, the St Andrews Agreement and restoration of devolution, the devolution of law and order functions and – latterly – Brexit”.

The choral piece has been performed in England, with a few familiar NIO faces in the choir, and will now get its Northern Irish premiere on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast festival in March.

How does Clare feel about the work being heard for the first time in the city where the words were crafted and negotiated?

“I’m really delighted. They’re words that need to be heard elsewhere, but they belong in Northern Ireland. The nerdy constitutional equivalent of ‘football’s coming home’!”

Presented by Slugger O’Toole in association with Spark Opera as part of the Imagine! Belfast festival.