My Story: Peter O'Neill...

... is the founder and director of Belfast’s Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics. He is also the creator of the city’s Comedy Festival, now in its fifth year. in his day time job, he is the Northern Ireland manager of the Alliance for Useful Evidence based with Nesta

What’s the idea of the Imagine Festival?
It’s an attempt to harness the cultural and political dynamics of the city and to attract new audiences to new ideas through talks and debates, but also through performance. We aim to bring people together to discuss the big issues of our times in an interesting and creative way. The festival idea was inspired by what happened in Scotland during the run-up to the independence referendum, when there were lots of debates and discussions which involved artists and communities. What we are trying to do is create that more participative and conversational style of discussing contentious issues. When we started we weren’t entirely sure how people would react but Imagine is now in its second year and has doubled in size to 82 events in 25 venues over a 7 day period during 14-20 March.

Some people might say that given its history, Belfast of all places is in no need of more politics. How would you respond to that? 
Yes, people may be surprised to hear that’s not been the case in recent years. I would say there’s been an absence of spaces and places to discuss difficult and contentious issues outside the usual legislative forums dominated by politicians. Belfast did once have a lot of political meetings where community activists could get together and debate with each other but that has diminished alongside a widespread cynicism and disillusionment with our formal political processes. Nowadays political activism seem to consist of pressing a button to take part in an online petition and some people think that’s the be all and end all. It isn’t. For a lot of people, particularly young people, for the first time they are coming to our events to be energised and engaged by face to face discussions in a relaxed, non-confrontational way.

How does Imagine approach those big issues?
Well, rather than having just formal debates and and discussions with speakers such as Owen Jones, we also programme theatre performances, comedy, exhibitions, workshops and other imaginative ways of getting to grips with difficult issues. For example, we have a table quiz about fact or fiction in local politics and satire from top comedians such as Bridget Christie. There’s a play about the Easter Rising in 1916, a walking tour about Belfast and the Great War, a one woman stand up show from US comedian Jennifer Rawlings called I Only Smoke in War Zones, street theatre events and an exhibition of photographs on the theme of immigration.

What does the arts have to offer political debate?
The arts offer a more creative and less confrontational way to examine the big issues that confront us in Northern Ireland such as Brexit, dealing with the past, abortion etc. For many people, particularly women, it’s a more relaxed and inclusive way of dealing with arguments. The programming of film and comedy events is a good gateway to introduce new audiences to new cultural and political ideas. For example, working class audiences might be slightly intimidated by poetry or theatre events but stand-up comedy is more familiar. It’s also important not to shy away from controversy - on the contrary, there will be lots of that in our festival. For instance, for St Patrick’s Day on March 17 we are organising an “Alternative Paddy’s Day”. People are fed up with the whole Paddywhackery tourist vibe and the fact that it’s an excuse for young people to get really drunk. We thought there ought to be more to it than that, so we have organised a series of events from an alternative perspective. The line-up includes academics examining the evidence for St Patrick’s existence and a play by Kabosh which looks at the idea that were St Patrick to arrive in Ireland today, he could end up being deported! We have some fun stuff too - was St Patrick a Prod? - it’s a routine that Neil Dougan, one of our best stand-up comics, is doing in the Black Box.

How did you get into the business of festivals?
I’m employed by Nesta, organising a project in Northern Ireland called the Alliance for Useful Evidence, which champions the use of evidence in policymaking as opposed to ideology, religion or prejudice or anything else that distorts social policy, particularly in this part of world! The Imagine festival and the comedy festival which I also do are hobbies, but they do have a synergy with my job in a way. The Belfast Comedy Festival grew out of the feeling that I had that as a comedy fan, it was odd there was no festival of comedy in Belfast, which  has a reputation for its humour, particularly the dark, edgy humour that comes out of its troubled history. I couldn’t find anybody else willing to organise it, so myself and a few friends got together and set it up ourselves. It’s now in its fifth year and going well. It’s a festival of comedy arts rather than just stand up, so it includes theatre and poetry and film, for example. We like to do things in a different way, like putting comics on the sightseeing tourist buses round the city. Last year we had a fundraiser for a local homeless project and we supported a number of homeless people to perform - everything from telling jokes or funny stories about their experiences on the street to songs. It went down extremely well, and we raised over £1,000 with important life skills and confidence developed by the participants.

How do you organise the Imagine Festival?
Like the Comedy Festival it’s entirely run by volunteers. There are 11 of us and we do everything from organising the venues to collecting tickets. This year we are working with community venues such as the Girdwood Hub in North Belfast (a former army barracks), local cafes in the suburbs and using spaces for different uses like putting on lectures and workshops in bars and clubs. I should add that 67 out of the 82 events are free and the people involved give their services free. People get involved because they like the values of the festival and the opportunity to present and perform to new audiences. It costs about £30,000 to run and we don’t get any funding from traditional funders such as the Arts Council but instead from trusts such as Building Change Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as well as the city’s universities. We hope that about 5,000 people will attend our events during the week. We also take a sample survey of audiences to get feedback so that we can improve year on year.

Is Belfast more culturally alive these days and more welcoming to this mix of culture and politics?
Culture including the arts has improved a lot in Belfast since the Good Friday Agreement. Every week there are multiple festivals and the creative industries are certainly a growth activity but the question is whether they are of a sufficiently high standard internationally to sustain themselves. With funding cuts at both Arts Council and local council levels, you do get the impression that many young artists and performers are leaving Northern Ireland to develop opportunities for themselves in London, Dublin and elsewhere. I feel that in the long term the arts sector has to be developed from the bottom up and funders need to take more risks in supporting performers and groups that challenge and provoke audiences. Belfast City Council, for example, has turned down applications to fund this festival and only supports a small group of core arts organisations that haven’t changed for years.

People were naturally a bit suspicious at first about our idea of mixing culture and politics but now they have accepted that we are reasonably non partisan and have no particular political axe to grind. There was a time when the arts and political sectors quietly despised each other and didn’t mix. Now I think there is a more mature attitude with the cultural sector upping its public affairs game and making the case for more funding for the arts while the politicians have come to realise the power of popular culture in nudging social change. Having said that, however, we do not invite politicians to participate in the festival - not because we have anything against them as such, but we feel that there needs to be a space for other voices and we hope to provide that at least for one week in the year. They are of course welcome to attend as ordinary citizens – mind you, we like to think that anyone who comes to our festival is an extraordinary citizen!

The Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics runs from 14-20 March 2016 with 82 events, mostly free. Further information https://imaginebelfast.com

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