Sunday, November 18, 2012

Three Days in Belfast

Two Roads West -  Kabosh
I've been in Belfast for three days, at the Platform for Intercultural Europe's Practice Exchange.  Two years ago, we hosted this event, with guest speakers representing a range of different cultural backgrounds and arts practices within London. To take the same concerns to Northern Ireland drastically shifts the nature of the debate: interculturalism there is not a matter of dialogue between established populations and migrant communities (although there are migrant communities, and they seem to be making a very positive contribution), so much as an element in the incredibly complex process of conflict resolution.  As always with the Platform, these few days have been exciting because of the genuine interaction they've facilitated between cultural practice and policy.  We've been working with the Northern Irish Arts Council, meeting artists and cultural managers; but we've also met Belfast City Councillors and MLAs from a range of persuasions and communities, and visited Stormont Castle itself, on the eve of its 80th anniversary.

Stormont is one of those mythic place-names which echo in the mind of anyone who grew up in these islands during the 1970s and early 80s; the sites of rancour and violence which dominated news coverage and emerging political awareness in the era of the Troubles.  Falls Road, Shankill Road, the Divis Flats.....  On Thursday afternoon, I was able to see the others, thanks to a remarkable tour with Paula McFetridge and Lawrence McKeown of Kabosh - a theatre company which makes work outside conventional spaces, interacting with and intervening in the urban landscape.  They showed us several samples of their work - including a monologue spoken at the Orwellian-named Peace Wall, in the character of a young Catholic girl who dares to venture through the iron gates to see the young Loyalist man with whom she is in love.  But it was Two Roads West that really struck me as extraordinary theatre.  For us, a section of the play was performed on our bus by Vincent Higgins: the full version is performed in a taxi, driven by Vincent, with another actor and an audience of five.  The play is a dialogue around the tourism of terror, as the taxi travels through the Falls and Shankill Roads, encountering the sectarian symbols that still dominate these spaces - the tricolours and the Union Jacks, the murals of Bobby Sands and King Billy on his white horse.  Paula tells us that the audience for this play don't look at the actors at all - they look at the city.

I had not realised how very close to one another these two legendary roads are.  As the driver explains, you turn right out of the Falls, you pass through the gates in the Peace Wall that are still locked every night, you turn right again, and you are in a totally different territory.  Even today, 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the city is edgy and disturbing, unsettled, insecure.

We watch the last piece at the Cultúrlann - an Irish language cultural centre on the Falls - and sit down to discuss what we have seen.  Our hosts tell us a little about themselves: Lawrence joined the IRA at the age of 17, and remained a member for thirty years.  He was a prisoner in the H-blocks, and took part in the hunger strike, when he came very close to death.  It was while he was in prison that he started his creative work, which is sophisticated, deeply intelligent, poetic and humane.  You could not get further away from the trite, conventional view of "a terrorist".  And this is true on the Loyalist side too - I came away with a set of pamphlets published by ACNI around their Troubles Archive, including (to give just one example) an essay on Transcendental Art and the Conflict in Northern Ireland by the convicted UVF paramilitary Billy Hutchinson.  Like Lawrence, he comes across as articulate, sensitive, even gentle. 

Our role as a Platform is to provide some kind of European perspective on what is happening in this place.  It's tricky: the reconciliation of Catholic and Protestant remains such an obsession that work beyond the province, or even with other communities within it, seems irrelevant to many of the artists here.  And yet the experience of stepping outside the space, which Lawrence records vividly through the characters in Two Roads West, is one which can put the conflict in some sort of wider context; and the experiences of others (for example the delegates from former Yugoslavia) can offer points of comparison, however specific the Northern Irish situation may be.  Europe has had a role in moving Northern Ireland to its current position, which is hopefully a lasting truce.  Because both the UK and the Irish Republic are members of the EU, borders are not so monolithic as they once were, and nationhood seems a more outmoded aspiration, or at least a different agenda.  The emerging European models of multi-ethnic, intercultural spaces problematise nationalism and religious exclusivity. 

My own feeling, looking at post-conflict situations across the world, is that the process that is needed in Belfast is one of Truth and Reconciliation on the South African or Rwandan model.  Some of what we heard about seemed to me to be aiming towards Reconciliation without its necessary precursor, Truth.  In order to heal the wound you must first expose the poison. That is very challenging: perhaps impossible at this stage in history.  But until it happens there will not be a lasting peace.  Artists like Kabosh are there to tell the Truth, however disturbing it may be: and that is why they are the healers of the current time.

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