The State of Us … Previewing the seventh annual Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics (22-28 March)

Back for its seventh year, the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics will run between 22 and 28 March 2021 with 115 events from numerous partner organisations. Practically all the events are free and available to attend online.

Back in March 2020, Imagine! was the first local festival to pivot online, streaming online a remarkable eight hours of talks and events each day for three days. This year, Imagine! is back, bigger and better than ever, with a majority of events going live and inviting audiences to participate.

Under the strapline of The State of Us, there’ll be exhibitions, workshops, lectures, film, comedy, music, spoken word, lectures, theatre and quizzes. Voices from at home and abroad. The festival isn’t afraid to challenge. It doesn’t expect participants to agree with everything that is said. It’s about making people think. Widening their horizons. Broadening their understanding. Developing their empathy. Helping them figure out why – and if – they truly believe the hunches and biases they may have been living with for a lifetime.

While I’ll spotlight some personal favourites below, the rich programme is well worth a read to appreciate the range of topics and events, broad and niche, that have been collated.

Monday 22 March // Hear from a panel of journalists and academics about post-Brexit Northern Ireland, artist Sinead O’Neill-Nicholl who’s been working with the families and relatives of those killed and injured in the McGurk’s Bar Bombing half a century ago in 1971, join Blackstaff Press to celebrate its 50th birthday, help Richard O’Leary search for Ulster’s Lesser Spotted Queer Protestants, and hear Noam Chomsky reflect on the Future of Democracy. Finally, each evening at 9.30pm, join RTÉNI and BBC32 for the evening news, watched through a political lens that’s been polished by Vincent Higgins and Kabosh Theatre.

Tuesday 23 March // Hear about the success of women’s football in Northern Ireland (after such a long wait), women in Parliament, ponder with Prof John Barry why our political leaders (sometimes) listen to and make decisions informed by the science in the case of coronavirus, but not when it comes to the planetary emergency, hear from Belfast, Dublin and London about the threat disinformation has posed during the pandemic, listen to Bonnie Greer’s talk which springboards off her first play based around the 1919 race riots in Chicago, or sit back and enjoy John T Davis’ 2003 documentary A House Divided.

Wednesday 24 March // Join the Transitional Justice Institute as they mull over pluralism, inclusion and planning for a border poll, hear five women’s perspectives on the impact of partition and the future of this island, listen to author and editor Sinéad Gleeson in conversation with Jan Carson, or sit back with Neil Hegarty and imagine the island of Ireland in 2031 where geopolitics, society and the state might have utterly transformed.

Thursday 25 March // Politifact’s Angie Drobnic Holan will join us from Washington to share what it was like to fact check the US election (and its aftermath) while local journalism lecturer Leona O’Neill and former UUP comms director Alex Kane will talk about the local context of policy, spin and distorted truths. Elsewhere in the festival a spotlight will be shone on the management of European bilingual societies, Jan Carson will discuss the right to bear arts and champion the potential of community arts projects, and a short play The Astronaut’s Missing Passport will unpack identity, privatisation and the simple documents that change our lives.

Friday 26 March // Topics under discussion include how museums and heritage sites can use personal stories to engage across time, space and cultures, Adam Ramsay’s pitch to the break up the elitist, absurd UK state, the potential of Citizens’ Assemblies in general, and in particular how one could help NI’s recovery from COVID, former NIO civil servant Alan Whysall on the operation of border polls, and funny man David Hume and historian Tim McGarry wishing Northern Ireland a happy birthday.

Saturday 27 March // What’s changed in the decade since the Arab Spring? Can language and words on a page give insights into the experience of people living with dementia? The old normal wasn’t very fair, so what might make the next normal better, locally and globally? Senator Eileen Flynn reveals the everyday racism experienced by Irish Travellers. Claire Fox promises to provoke as she discusses the threat of cancel culture. I’ll pop up to interview former journalist Gavin Esler who’s just written a book about How Britain Ends.  And Conor Mitchell (Abomination: A DUP Opera) will outline what it means to be a politically-engaged composer writing in 2021.

Sunday 28 March // Church service connoisseur Bronagh Lawson discusses Belfast City of Light, festival stalwart Paul Mason will talk about Storming the Capitol, there’s a talk about extractivism and resistance in north Africa, a panel highlighting the artists who are imprisoned for their activism, and an event that hears from artists in the festival rounds off with a quiz.

Lots to mull over. Register now to reserve your place at events.