4th February 2016, Duncairn Arts Centre
Anyone who has grown up in Northern Ireland is no stranger to political debate, so when Thursday night’s event confronted head-on this well-known method of getting the point across, it was always going to be intriguing.
The setting for the evening was the Duncairn Centre in North Belfast, a welcoming space, purpose built to share art and culture, making them accessible to the local community. The proceedings: a dramatised debate on the Easter Rising and The Proclamation it was centred around. The questions: what part does our past play in our present and how do we best acknowledge its impact?
Stormont House Rules was written by the writer and historian, Philip Orr for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, along with a companion play, Halfway House. As he introduced the drama, he advised us to think about whether debate can truly promote reconciliation, to what extent the past should be honoured, and how our use of language can dictate the outcome of a situation.
The play takes the form of a political debate between a Unionist politician and a Republican politician, both of whom see the events of 100 years ago in very different lights. They passionately debated the contents of The Proclamation andThe Ulster Covenant, the situation of Ireland before, during and after British rule and the events surrounding the Great War, during which many Irishmen fought for Britain.
The language was emotive; it was about sacrifice and liberty and equality and persecution and toil. The opponents conveyed their sides of the argument with only vague regard for what the other was saying, responding to it with a resolute mindset: what was said by the adversary was there to be contradicted.
After 45 minutes of back and forward debate, it was the turn of the audience. With the people around us, we discussed whether debate was the best way to deal with our history, and if not, what were the alternatives? Many in the crowd felt that this was a well-timed piece, wondering if we would see this debate played out in Stormont during this centenary year. There was much discussion about reconciliation, one audience member suggesting that we need to stop trying to reconcile the irreconcilable and accept that while there are issues that can never be reconciled, that doesn’t mean that individuals cannot be reconciled.
There was some disagreement on the usefulness of debate about history, some feeling that dragging up the past would never resolve a thing, others feeling that the mythology of the past was what caused the damage and that it therefore needed to be discussed.
One thing is for certain: if the purpose of Stormont House Rules was to spark rich and meaningful discussion, it succeeded in its goal.
Words by Pip McCracken (@pipmccracken)