Saturday, February 23, 2013

Planet Belfast – politics, conception and GM crops – on stage at The Mac

Planet Belfast is a new play by Rosemary Jenkinson (White Star of the North, Basra Boy) produced by Tinderbox Theatre Company with a cast of four that runs in The MAC Belfast until March 2.

Alice (played by Abigail McGibbon) is the only Green MLA in the NI Assembly, and [suspending disbelief for ninety minutes] is a minister in the Executive. She’s a moody, fiery, workaholic, vodka-drinking politician who is willing to entertain all kinds of extreme dietary measures in pursuit of a baby. She’s struggling to build support for a GM bill with the help of Sinn Féin and an independent unionist. [Thank goodness for independent unionists, eh?]

Her husband of thirteen years Martin (Paul Kennedy) is not enjoying his fertility-enhancing diet of blueberries. And he’s not convinced about the eco measures that surround him at home. He published a controversial book on the Irish Famine a few years ago but now has writer’s block. Looking for inspiration, he takes a job in the Trauma Centre, transcribing victim’s stories and filling out funding applications.
“Keep it live. Keep it living. Keep it up so we keep our jobs” (Danny)
Danny (played very straight by Conor Grimes) runs the Trauma Centre complete with its story rooms, facials, and an emphasis that everyone is a victim and everyone has to have a story. A slippery character with his own part in the conflict, victim-speak flows smoothly from his mouth. Yet while the centre is imbued with “an atmosphere of mutual regard” Danny is quite racist, misogynist and passive aggressive to the point of threatening.

Into this mix of GM crops, conception and victims comes an old school friend and PR professional Claire (Tara Lynne O’Neill). She brings both friendship and conflict to Alice and Martin’s already tense marriage and professional lives as she uses all her powers to get what she wants.

The play has a very contemporary feel. The costumes are high street – there’s more than a touch of Arlene Foster in Alice’s wardrobe – and the issues are real. There are references to watering holes in Belfast as well as the foibles of current Executive ministers.

A bed of ambient music runs underneath most of the scenes. Ciaran Bagnall’s set is incredible with its sliding walls made of transparent fishing line. Imagery (designed by Conan McIvor) projected onto the walls seeps through onto the surfaces behind. The multi-layer set matches the multi-layer plot.

At times I felt that the play was being acted out in the dark, though the gloom certainly matches the melancholy feel of the play as the characters live with regrets about their past and face up to their uncertain futures.

A bit like a Bond film, Planet Belfast too seemed to have a whole succession of endings. If there’d been a power cut at any point in the last ten minutes, the current scene could have served as the last. And when the finale was reached, perhaps the dark tale deserved a darker conclusion.

Strong performances from the cast, many laugh-out-loud moments (if you dare), a fantastic set and great use of the word “langered” make it a play worth seeing. As part of the Backin’ Belfast campaign, the promo code ‘Planet’ may reduce ticket prices down to £10.

Planet Belfast has strong language throughout and more than a flash of thigh at one point. Less-than-liberal DUP supporters may find it neither comfortable nor funny; Green Party supporters may wonder what happened to Steven Agnew; and victims’ groups may be offended by the characterisation of their ‘industry’.

But the issues are real, even if the drama is fictional.

(Photos by Neil Harrison.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

(t)wittering [constructing a tagcloud of all your tweets]

Just short of 20,000 tweets, Wordle shows what it's all been about ...

If you want to reproduce this for your own tweets, go to the Twitter website, Settings -> Profile, scroll down to request a download of all your tweets (feature being rolled out gradually across Twitter users), you'll be emailed a link after a few minutes, open the .CSV in the zip file, copy the column containing your messages, go to Wordle and paste in to the text field, wait a while, click Go, wait a while longer and then tailor your word cloud.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Belfast Children's Festival (8-15 March)

Belfast Children’s Festival is back at the beginning of March for its fifteenth season.

I spoke to festival director Ali FitzGibbon after the programme launch earlier this month.

She was enthusiastic about the need for the festival and its value, and picked out some of her highlights.

Giant inflatable Space Pups will be suspended from the ceiling of the Ulster Museum. Every couple of minutes the dogs inflate and deflate. Call into the museum and see if the canine breathing brings you “into a calm understanding of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth within nature”! Entrance to the museum is free. Tuesday 5-Sunday 17 (closed on Monday). There are also free Drop-In Pup Art Workshops running for free in the Ulster Museum 10am-4.45pm, Friday 8-Friday 15 March.

Open House is a free creative open space in the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus. You can drop in any time and listen to take part in the art workshops. And the bean bags and books are back: boxes and boxes of books, and storytelling every hour in English and Irish. Free! 3pm-6pm Friday 8 and 11am-6pm Saturday 9-Friday 15.

The New Rope String Band are described in the programme as maniac minstrels. “Elements of circus, slapstick and inspired silliness are spliced with beautiful acoustic music from world traditions: from Celtic, bluegrass and Cajun to old-timey, boogie-woogie, and Dixieland.” Sounds good. 7.30pm Saturday 9 at Crescent Arts Centre. Children £6, Adult £10.

The Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University is a magical place with truly surround sound (including above and below you). They’re running a day long Big Ears – Sonic Arts for Public Ears workshop for 7-13 year olds (booking required) on Sunday 10. During the day the children will learn about digital sound design and composition, before presenting their original pieces at a showcase even at 7pm. £10 to participate in the workshop; showcase tickets £3.

Hop! follows “father and son Daedalus and Icarus trapped on an island because they know the big secret about King Minos”. Desperate to return home, Daedalus has a plan to fly away. Theatre and dance by Belgium performers (in English). Suitable for 4 year olds and up. The MAC at 10.30am and 6pm Monday 11; 10.30am Tuesday 12. Tickets £6 each, or £20 family.

Pre-booking is required for thirty minute Introduction to Digital Arts sessions in the Digital Arts Studio on Hill Street for 8-14 year olds. 11.45am and 1.15pm, Wednesday 13.

A Swiss company perform Wolf Under the Bed is based on twelve stories written by school children for the Swiss theatre company. Three lonely Finns sit in a snowy forest one night telling stories. “Some are funny, others are exciting, but as the night wears on, they get scarier and weirder and more and more outrageous.” The Baby Grand, 10.30am and 8pm Thursday 14 and 10.30am Friday 15. Tickets £6 each, or £20 family.

And the Andy Warhol exhibition in The MAC is pretty child friendly. Free. 10am-7pm, 8-February-28 April.

And lots, lots more including the annual Baby Rave and Build Your Own Comic workshop. More details on the Belfast Children’s Festival website as well as updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Talking to Conall McDevitt about what a new united Ireland might be like?

(This should have appeared early on Friday morning - until the gremlins got in the way.)

Last week, before the release of the BBC NI Spotlight poll, I talked to a local MLA about the concept of a new Ireland. Over the last few months there has been an increasing level of chatter analysing the mechanics of calling a border poll and interpreting census results.

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to delve under the instinctive longing and loathing that is so often associated with the notion of a united Ireland to explore what the new state might look like if the conditions could ever be met to have a poll.

Much – though not all – of the commentary comes back to promoting a nationalist ideal of an El Dorado paradise or declaring the unionist nightmare of forcibly cutting ties to the British monarch.

Intellectually it’s a lot more interesting to get beyond the emotion and wonder … What if? What might be the shape of this potential state? How might the population in the north east corner relate to those in the south west? What governance arrangements might be put in place, or indeed left in place? What parts of Northern Ireland’s public sector and civil society would survive, or even thrive? How would the six counties integrate with the twenty six?

And while a poll may be a distant prospect, grasping the Presbyterian principle of ‘not refusing light from any quarter’ I wondered whether a Northern Ireland that is still settled in the Union had anything to learn from new Ireland thinking.

I’d heard Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for South Belfast, talking about the importance of region at an election event a couple of years ago, so I met up with him last week to pick his brains. We talked about identity, economy and his opinion of Sinn Féin’s “flag-waving” activity around the border poll. But first I asked about his vision of a united Ireland.

I think one of the great issues with the debate around the a border poll and in fact one of the great issues within both Irish unionism and Irish nationalism is that we have an awful habit of wanting to either remain in the union or to be in a united Ireland. But if we’re honest with ourselves we haven’t done a huge amount of work in trying to work through what that would look like (if you’re thinking about a united Ireland) or to consider the practical issues around it. How would you pay for it? What system of government might be best? Would it be a unitary state? Or would you have a federal Ireland?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

In conversation with Presbyterian moderator designate Rev Rob Craig

Rev Rob Craig was elected last night as the next moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He’s termed “moderator designate” until he takes over at the opening night of the General Assembly in June.

In a process that sometimes reminds me – admittedly in some small ways – of the election of a US President, only two ministers were put forward for the vote this year, so the 19 Presbyteries (groups of ministers and elders in different geographic areas) had a straight choice between Rev John Dickinson and Dr Craig. [Presbyteries end up like a US state, each with only 1 vote in the electoral college.]

For nearly twenty years, Dr Craig has been minister to the congregation up in Kilfennan in Derry’s Waterside. It is undeniably symbolic that a local minister was chosen as moderator (17 out of 19 presbyteries) in the year the General Assembly will escape from Fisherwick Place in Belfast and be held in the Millennium Forum in Derry.

The tweeting moderator previously worked in Clough and Seaforde congregations as well as his assistantship in Glengormley. He’s a past pupil of Armstrong Primary School in Armagh and Wallace High School in Lisburn.

I spoke to the new moderator designate today at lunchtime and he explained to me what his role would entail and what had gone through his head when he heard the result last night. He spoke of the opportunity that the out-of-Belfast General Assembly offered delegates in June and hoped that many would choose to stay overnight in the area and change of atmosphere would be reflected in the nature of the debates and discussions.

Asked to rate the health of the denomination he would shortly become the figurehead of, he said that statistically there are signs of “ailing” when you look at the declining numbers of members, baptisms and new young communicants. However, he also recognised that “those who have stayed, stayed because it matters to them, because their faith is a living thing and in that sense the church may be more vibrant than it has ever been”.

He said that “the foundations of Christendom have crumbled and that means the church now finds itself in a new situation” no longer holding sway over Western Europe. He added “there are competing voices – the church is just one of those voices – and we must learn to listen, to respect, to engage and then to present our case”.

He described the denomination’s need to be “salt of the earth and the light of the world” and to have an impact on the world. I suggested that perhaps the church was better known for being salt than light with recent media coverage noting the denominations’ anti-same sex marriage, anti-flag protests, and anti-abortion statements.

Dr Craig said that the church “is responding to these ethical issues that present themselves”. However, he countered that
“…if, for the sake of argument, the church is seen as against abortion we also want to say that is because the church is for life. If we say the church is against same-sex marriages we want to say no the church is for marriage and a much richer and deeper understanding of human sexuality.

And also I would want to say alongside that that the church is for compassion, and for caring for people, and sometimes when statements are made which are true and to which we sign up, it’s not possible to show that human face and caring dimension of the church which I know is there … I hope that’s the kind of ministry I’ve had and I don’t want to [as moderator] be any different.”

Dr Craig takes over from the current moderator Rev Dr Roy Patton on the evening of Monday 3 June.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Youth Film School at the Crescent Arts Centre

The Crescent Arts Centre is offering opportunities for folk of various ages to get practical experience and learn about film-making.

Starting on the 10 February and running for three weeks, a Youth Film School course is running between 10am and 4pm for 13-18 year olds.
Want to be the next James Cameron? or perhaps you're walking around with a great idea for a film and have never known how to develop it?

If so, then this is the course for you.

Through practical demonstrations, with broadcast equipment, tuition in story and character, this is a great opportunity to unfurl the magical world of filmmaking.

They're also running a Making the Documentary course for bigger children. It started a couple of weeks ago, but if you're lucky it'll tun again later this year.

This course will teach the fundamentals of documentary and generic filmmaking.
It will guide the student through recognising and developing a story, teach camera skills, sound skills, composition, lighting and editing.

The relaxed, informal atmosphere of this course provides an excellent introduction to those who are curious about the film making process but with more than enough content to fulfill those who would wish to pursue it further.

Good to see such good openings locally. If only I had the time ... or the lack of years!

"an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence"

Over the last few months I've been reading Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland which is based on interviews given by republican Brendan Hughes and loyalist David Ervine about their experiences and actions in the Troubles. The interviews were given as part of the Belfast Project, an oral history of republican and loyalist paramilitaries that is archived in the Burns Library at Boston College.

(Coincidentally I spent time in Boston College in September, part of an e-Governance exchange trip organised by the college and sponsored by the US State Department. More about that in posts later this month.)

To get beyond the 2-3 minute media soundbites that tend to sum up the latest status of the project and to take a look at the project as a whole, I spoke last week to Anthony McIntyre (who conducted many of the republican interviews) about the original purpose of the project, the subpoena requesting access to Brendan Hughes’ and Dolours Price’s contribution (later extended to include “any and all interviews containing information about the abduction and death of Mrs Jean McConville”) and the resulting appeals in the US and UK courts.

You can listen to the whole edited interview (download as MP3). The major quotes below are labelled with the time [minutes:seconds] to allow you to just to that point in the interview. [Update - a full transcript of the interview has been posted on the Boston College Subpoena News website.]

[We were] starting out on a journey of bringing voices in to the overall historical narrative. I have a view of history – given that I’ve done some historical training and have an interest in it – I have a view of history that one history becomes dominant to the extent that it manages to suppress or marginalise another. Therefore I think it is very important to have as many voices in [a] historical narrative. It adds more colour, complexity, the shading to the tapestry that is history.

Over the course of decades we have been moving history away from the kings and queens, the generals and prime ministers, the politicians and judges. We’ve been getting the history of the subjects rather than their ruler, the prisoners rather than their jailers, the voter rather than the voted. I’ve always thought that it was very important to get voices out that are different from what the norm is.
Twenty six republicans were interviewed covering “all manner of republicanism”. Anthony McIntyre says he “interviewed people primarily for their knowledge of republicanism and not for their gripes or their animosity”. With a “criterion of confidentiality” to protect the project so interviewees wouldn’t blurt out about their participation, he says it was “difficult to get as many Sinn Féin people as I would have liked to have got”. However, whenever the archive comes out “people will be pleasantly surprised at the range of views enlisted”. (In contrast the UVF gave approval for their members’ involvement in the project.)

Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland was published after the death of republican Brendan Hughes and loyalist David Ervine. I asked Anthony McIntyre whether this was intended to be the pattern following other contributors deaths. [04:07]
Brendan Hughes had insisted while he was alive that he wanted his interviews published then. Now that would have seriously jeopardised the project, I thought. So we had to persuade him to hold his wish and we promised him that at some point we would do our utmost to get his story out there … And then Boston College in the interests of balance – and also to promote their own image of being a mediator/bridge-builder in what they liked to refer to as the two sides in the northern conflict – it was their idea to publish the David Ervine narrative as well.
So if there wasn’t to be a succession of books, how did Anthony McIntyre imagine the oral history archive would be used and released? [07:16]
It’s safe enough to say now that some of the people who have been interviewed for the project are dead … Simply because a person dies does not mean – nor never meant – that their material was going to be published in book form. Ed [Moloney] was involved, independent of myself, in negotiations with Boston College – shortly before the subpoena was issued – for the conditions whereby people would have access to the interviews upon the death of people. He was determined to ensure that it would be for a bona fide research exercise that people could not simply walk in and say well let’s have a look at it.
There were discussions about whether the archive should be digitised, published online in transcript form, but “no hard and fast rules” had been agreed. [08:30]
But there’s no point in gathering an oral history if at some point it is not made available to the public. This is the whole point of doing it … It was a truth recovery process and we were trying to bring as much truth and honesty to the republican end of the war narrative as was possible. There was no point bringing out this truth if people weren’t going to hear it at some point.
The stability of the Belfast Project changed in March 2011 whenever the British Government (on behalf of the PSNI) requested help from the US Department of Justice to access the archive. Anthony McIntyre explained his view of the timeline and the argument in Ed Moloney’s affidavits suggesting that catalyst for this action was a report by Allison Morris in the Irish News based on an interview with Dolours Price, followed three days later by a more detailed report by Ciaran Barnes in the Sunday Life. [10:52]

Anthony McIntyre described his disappointment with Boston College’s initial legal reaction to the subpoena and the subsequent action and appeals lodged by himself and Ed Moloney. They have applied to have the case heard in the Supreme Court and “one of the justices put a stay on any handover of the archive until the Supreme Court make a decision on hearing the case”. And recently
… Boston College has appealed to the First Circuit Court to drop the case given that Dolours Price has unfortunately died. They said that the whole issue is now moot and that there should be no further action.
Anthony McIltyre speculated about who wants the information and for what purpose. [18:59]
The PSNI are certainly pushing for this with a vigour and it seems to go the whole way up. It may have bypassed the NIO at the start and then was handled by the Home Office. But certainly between the PSNI and the Home Office – and I imagine the NIO by this stage – are all on board and determined to get this material.

Are they risking so much good will, are they risking annoying the academic establishment just for the sake of having a read of what is there when it will come out eventually? Or do they want it for prosecutions.

I believe they want it for prosecutions and I believe that they also want it for the purposes of – some of the elements anyway want it – for the purposes of embarrassing [Gerry] Adams who does seem to be under pressure these days in relation to many questions that take us back to the past …

You can never really move away from the conflict while people who were central to the past remain central to the present. And I think this sort of thing is always going to dog us. For that reason I think maybe had Mr Adams and company not been around the determination to get these archives would not have been as great as it is.

At various points in the interview, Anthony McIntyre points out that he does not control the archive: the completed interviews rest under the control of Boston College.

Destroying the archive would not be as drastic as “the PSNI getting their hands on it [early] and turning it into evidence”. [20:26]
The task of researcher is to protect those who participated in the research from any harmful effects. That’s your first objective. That’s the ethical imperative. After that the interviews don’t really matter in comparison to the welfare of the interviewees.
I asked Anthony McIntyre whether he wished the project had been undertaken with a different college or carried out under different rules? [23:13]
I have stated on record before I regret that I got involved in it simply because of the harmful effects it could have on other people. The project is eminently defensible. It was simply done with the wrong university. Both ourselves and the loyalists relied on the word of the university that had a law school, that was prestigious and was well regarded in Ireland, that had set up its stall in terms of having helped the peace process. We relied on that university with its array of lawyers, the wealth to have done the homework for us. Turned out that it hadn’t and we have had to pay a terrible price for that. So in that sense, I regret getting involved with Boston College. Yes, very much so. It was on American soil and we would have never done it had somebody had said put it in Queen’s. We wouldn’t have felt that it was safe. Boston College led us to believe it was absolutely safe in an American university. Unfortunately we fell for it and unfortunately for our research participants, we believed Boston College and we’re now paying the price.
A few hours before the interview, Senator John Kerry was approved by the US Senate as the next Secretary of State. He has subsequently been sworn in as America’s top foreign policy official.

An alumus of Boston College, John Kerry wrote in January 2012 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to “to work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request” in light of “the impact that it may have on the continued success of the Northern Ireland peace process” as well as “implications for the confidentiality of other research projects of this nature”.

Now that John Kerry is sitting behind the Secretary of State desk, does his previous intervention offer the researchers hope? [24:37]
He will be reminded about it. Then we move into realpolitik. Then we will really see what happens, just how strong the British desire is at the top to get this. If John Kerry allows this to be handed over then we know that the opposition he faced to his motion to quash was very, very strong and he didn’t feel that as a diplomat he could resist it.
He added:
I do have a view that one of the motives – I can’t stand over this obviously, because we never know these things – but one of the motives is that the British want something strong to bargain with while Sinn Féin and others continue to shout about the past in this one-eyed game of truth and recrimination that they sometimes call truth and reconciliation.

Truth here is we want to tell the truth about you but we don’t want to hear your truth about us. And I think that with Sinn Féin demanding the likes of prosecutions of the soldiers in Bloody Sunday and saying that any soldiers convicted will not be afforded the two year maximum jail term, I think the British state are going to make it very clear that they too have a card to play here and that if the past isn’t addressed in a proper way puts it to rest then there’s trouble for all. And we’re caught in the middle. That’s my view and how sustainable it is? I’m certainly open to persuasion on it.
If the subpoena is blocked and the interviews are released to academics and ultimately the public, in ten or twenty years time what does Anthony McIntyre think the public will have learnt from the archive? [28:05]
Without revealing anything in the interviews, I do not think that people will come away with the view that war is something that should be glorified or conflict is something that should be glorified.

People talk at times about this archive as if it is some sort of true detective novel and they’re all waiting to get it so they can look from one page to the next [to see] the gory details.

This project was probably at its root an invitation to people to engage in deep moral reflection on the consequences of war and political violence. That’s probably the most important point about it. How people who saw conflict, were involved in conflict, who experienced conflict, how those people came to see it. How they actually seen it at the time and how they’ve come to see it later in life.

I think there are great lessons to be learnt from that. It is always important to ask people to ethically reflect on the actions that they have been involved in. It always serves as a means to help protect future generations from going down the same path. We very much have to understand why people who would normally run about a life like yourself or your next door neighbour end up coming involved in serious political violence.
You can follow developments at the Boston College Subpoena News website and catch Anthony McIntyre's blogging at The Pensive Quill.

(Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.)