The Role of the Arts in Northern Ireland in Peace & Reconciliation
Extracts from Burning Issues, a short, 28 page graphic story on the issue of contentious bonfires. The project was lead by Eamon Baker and Towards Healing and Understanding, a peace and reconciliation project in Derry/Londonderry, N.Ireland. The graphic novel was later given free to many schools throughout N. Ireland. The project also involved local artist, Joe Campbell. The script was developed by young people from both sides of the cultural divide and features some of those who took part, and who posed and modelled for the story.
There’s little doubt that the whole business of addressing legacy issues here in Northern Ireland has been problematic. In my opinion, the problem may be that any ‘legacy’ initiatives seem not suit politics, politicians, the military mindset and the hierarchies of civil servants into whose hands, so much is placed here. Segregation breeds not just, paranoid reactions but also, inaction. It’s about holding cultural ground. It’s about entrenchment, and like all trench warfare can only be breached by fresh thinking and innovation. Like the cold war situation, walls only tumble when intransigent ideologies crumble without either side feeling that a change in their position is viewed, not as progress, but defeat.
I know I can’t speak for every artist, musician, actor, dancer, poet, writer (and all those in between) But, personally, most artistic projects require fresh thinking and innovation. It’s the nature of the beast. Most good arts practitioners approach problems in a different way. First, there is no insistence on doing everything along traditional lines. Secondly, there is no problem adapting to new circumstances and changing plans accordingly and third, we have the arts and artistic practice as common ground and it’s a global community. It’s a different mindset, more suited to solutions as opposed to retention of doctrine. That is why, again in my opinion, the arts and ‘creatives’ are more suited to the business of solutions to difficult problems such as post-conflict legacies. And, finally the arts has people and humanity at its core.
For myself whenever I am presented with a difficult artistic project I have learned (through 40 years of artistic practice) to apply certain methods and ways of thinking.
My first thing is to stand back and seek an overview of the entire problem. What does that entail? Well, first steps – overview the problem to better understand what needs to be done and what does not need doing. So, step one is
Put a fence around what needs to be done. Everything outside of that fence is irrelevant, needless and a waste of time and money.
- Work and think ‘broad to narrow’ This is something I learned from complicated painting. The more difficult a thing is to do – the more method is required. After, analysis, work on the broad areas with big brushes. Block in rather than getting caught up in detail. As you progress, you can concentrate on smaller and smaller areas until, at the final moment you are adding in the little dots on the eye with a tiny brush.
- People are human with human emotions. One of the reasons why some are attracted to artistic pursuits is it helps them connect with those other internal aspects of their lives that contemporary life seems to miss: Mindfulness; good health (both physical and mental); switching off from too much input and information; a reclaimation on the person within; expression of self, character; pride in making and achievement; socialising with other like-minded people; feeling part of something wider – a treatment for isolation.
- Avoid labels. Avoid lumping people in together with labels on them. For instance: ‘victims’ ‘Catholics’ ‘Protestants’ left-wingers’ right-wingers, ‘British’ ‘Irish’ ‘Loyalists’ ‘Republicans’ etc. Whereas some may identify strongly with one or two of these and are quite entitled to, for me, personally I can’t identify so fundamentally (or impose those labels upon someone else). We are many faceted diamonds. Much to the disappointment of some there is no such thing as ‘Catholic art’ or Protestant art’.
5. Find Common Ground: we are all, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandparents etc. We all have likes, hobbies, pursuits outside of politics and religion. Some love exercise, running, swimming, music and some like drawing, painting, creative expression of one type or another. These things are not tribal. No-one (in their right mind) will tell how to run like a Loyalist or swim like a Republican. In my experience most people are good. They love their children and want them to have opportunities, good educations and happiness. I certainly would not describe myself as ‘Catholic’ and leave it at that. I’m a painter, digital artist, poet, writer, musician, Sci-Fi fan, fantasy art fan, I love electric guitars and I also game on a Playstation (at 61!)
6. It’s Nothing to do with Ownership, segregation or control. Labels and viewing people as big groups of like-minded people make them easier to control. Control over others is seldom for their own good but more for the good of those who seek control over others. Nor, will it work financially, If we have to keep on building two of everything. Just like the entire world now has a mobile phone and (thanks to good old American marketing) Netflix, it is actually possible to interest people in other things. John Lennon was right when he said that the Beatles were “Bigger than Jesus” and today, Kim Kardashian is bigger than us all.
So, what actually can the arts do in terms of peace building and reconciliation in Northern Ireland? Well, first step put all those highly qualified, starving artists to work. Create real (Monday to Friday) jobs for creative people/workers within communities all across the North. Most artists are often unemployed for long periods or on short contracts. The contracts are horribly competitive and very low-paid. An ‘ACE Scheme’ or something similar should be introduced for artists here guaranteeing decently paid jobs for artists within communities. So many times I have seen well-meaning people using artists as teachers, child-minders, project managers, accountants, project developers whilst saying ‘it’s not about the artist’ and contributing very little to the project themselves except strict rules and regulations.
The role of these artists should be to provide an expressive outlet for people in communities all across Northern Ireland. They should seek to create common ground outside of labels, politics or religious affiliation. mainly involvement in absorbing, engaging artistic projects.
They should strive to give traumatised people a voice, to tell stories and to allow those stories to be broadcast globally to give others access to ‘lessons learned’. They should be digital and communication savvy. They should open up people’s lives to the world. They should be places of solace, of comfort, of company. They should appeal to the young and the old. They should mix young mothers with older mothers, young fathers with older fathers. They should provide role models, learning and allow for personal development, environmental projects, enhancing the areas where people live. They should host, bands, concerts, comedians, poets, artists, writers etc and be places where the artist is always given her or his due.
They should have well-equipped studios and workshop facilities. They should be about laughter and a problem shared. They should be about someone sitting down to paint a picture not a Protestant or Catholic picture but a painting with merit with skills based on good historical practice. Art ‘teachers’ should be professional teachers whose subject is art, not artists with little formal teaching qualifications who have to teach on the cheap to get money.
Of course, all of the above requires that little four-letter word that is so sadly lacking in the Northern Irish vocabulary – will. Chiefly, political will. Would it get past the gatekeepers? Would it get past the ‘I’m only at the wicket for my own and myself’ that has characterised politics, not just here, but in many other places? Probably. I have a feeling that any ground-up initiative is always suspect. Look at, for instance, one of the most successful carnival initiatives in the world the Derry Halloween Celebration. It started in a pub. Then spread to another and another. At its inception, It did not involve any of the following: Funding, planning, workshops, local authorities, regional authorities, national authorities, blue-lamp meetings, health and safety officers, police, ambulance service, fire service, priests, vicars, rectors, bishops, organising committees, the civil service, traffic control, licences, permits, nor an appearance by the Red Arrows or the Avengers, chip-vans, ice-cream vans, costume designers, art directors, floats, choirs from Belfast or reggae bands from Jamaica. (but it does now) Rightly, the council and anyone else with the slightest bit of civic pride (on all sides) got behind a populist event. All it was all started by everyone contributing individually by dressing up and having a bit of craic.
But, perhaps, maybe, that’s a model for integration and desegregation , isn’t it? Finding out what people have in common and giving it to them? Historically, what did happen in the past was local people hiring a local artist to create something beautiful for their area, street, home etc. Recently, during the lockdown, working-class areas hired musicians each house in the street paying a fiver towards the fee. At its core, this is an example of ordinary people helping artists whose livelihoods were decimated by the virus. Again, this did not require, feasibility studies or permissions. It came from people, empathising with other people. In my view this is the kind of high ground we need to occupy, to succeed.
Medieval Florence was based entirely on this kind of citizen as patron. ‘A florin for the city’ was the way in which most citizens contributed to the fabric of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It wasn’t just the Medicis who masterminded and funded all the adornments, sculptures, tapestries, paintings and small works of art in Florence it was everyone, no matter how poor. Small sacred statues were commissioned by streets as thanks to God for having survived a plague. But, it was part of a bigger objective, to make Florence the most beautiful place on Earth. For me it’s about everyone buying into the one space just like artists do with art itself and rowing in the same direction.
Artists and the arts needs to claim space here. We needs to flourish to enable healing. The arts need to be put to work, bringing contentious spaces into a global conversation. I am now a grandparent. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I teach my grandchild love and understanding of what is good and what is bad. We have lost that objective somewhat after conflict, but it’s never too late to get back to fundamentals never mind what divides us focus on what we share.