Take Back The City – 20 years of Post-Ceasefire Songs

Take Back The City – 20 years of Post-Ceasefire Songs

It was a very special night. I don’t mean subjectively, just because what I had wanted for a few festivals finally came about and I had on the stage four great songwriters with the wonderful Stuart Bailie. No, it was more than that. There was something in the room. The power that I believe song has, giving us an evening of insight, lament, catharsis, imagining and hope. 

The respect and trust that Stuart Bailie has with Belfast songwriters and his conversational style had tonight’s singers sharing in a warm and casual style. Tony Wright waxed lyrical about County Derry and working with Iain Archer who talked about a bomb going off as he set up to play with Brian Houston outside Dr Robert’s Record Store. 

Joby Fox spoke about the early days of Energy Orchard and recreational rioting growing up in West Belfast. Ursula Burns also spoke about growing up in West Belfast and how looking back at what was normal was of course not normal at all.

The songs, four each, two in each half, were personal, rooted in the space of our city or country. They were honest, vulnerable and always hopeful.

Tony Wright formerly of And So I Watch You From Afar and now VerseChorusVerse is all about hopefulness. Tony has this infectiously positive disposition that came through in the line “Live your life in awe and wonder/the only comeback is joy” from No One As Lonely. Hope as a “she” took on the darkness in We Spoke With The Night and Sudden Song had us all wanting to move to Country Derry – a Springsteen-esque praise for place song.

Ursula Burns, “The Dangerous Harpest” as her most recent record id called, is part Kate Bush, part comedy which she beings out even more at the Edinburgh Festival. What she really is, above all, is an artist. The thought processes into tonight’s songs were so imaginatively crafted. Heartbreak Was Heartbreak reminded us that heartbreak was real on both sides of our conflict, her new song that took twenty years to write, Summer Dress, had her trying to make pretty our ugly violent city. Being Born had us laughing out loud with the humour of her row with God that she should have been born on the Falls Road but Honolulu! “I am going to be twenty five before I find out I don’t have to be plastered!” This is social comment of the highest thought and quality.

Joby Fox played in one of my favourite bands Energy Orchard but is now as human rights activist who has been raising funds for and working himself for refugees in Lesbos. Tonight he blew us away with the wow moments. The first Energy Orchard single, Belfast, that he wrote got a re-arrangement and new verse for post conflict days. A boy from West Belfast then sang Maybe I Am, Maybe I’m Not for the kids of East Belfast. Republicans and Loyalists, quite a title, then took us into the forgiveness that Gordon Wilson sent out after the death of his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bomb and, in some way, for all of us. Joby had an EP awhile back that was dedicated to John and Yoko. Tonight I saw him as our very John Lennon but, forgive me Yoko, with more authenticity! It was powerful stuff.

And there is still Iain Archer. Not as well known as the Morrison or Lightbody or most of those lauded in the rock star filled museum cabinets around the Oh Yeah Centre, where this gig was, he has had a Grammy nomination for James Bay’s Hold Back The River as well as strong songs on number 1 albums by Jake Bugg, Liam Gallagher and Example! He’s one of our very best ones!

Tonight Iain drew us into lament in the sublime Holywood Seapark, about losing his Grandfather, that touched on all our Belfast loss. Everest took a hopeless situation and like a Psalmist sang “Some other day when my morning comes/I’ll be the one that waited all night,” with a Northern Irish resilience. When It Kicks In was a frustration with the slow process of our peace but hopeful that the day will come. The day that comes will have us all singing and living the chorus of his final tune, a new one, “See the good in everyone/and let go of the bad”. Oh my!

Throw all of those songs and the conversation with Stuart in between, set in the historic Oh Yeah Centre during a 4 Corners Festival and there was a unique energy in the room. The past was held up, we looked into the darkness but somehow shone a light on it. We celebrated the transformation of the past twenty years but the power of song fuelled a celebration of our place and inspired the desire to move on… “to see the good in everyone.”

Thank God for our songwriters and these songs of cathartic redemption. More of this kind of thing!

 

This article was written by Steve Stockman and was first published on his blog ‘Soul Surmise’.

‘On behalf of churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims, “you must forgive.” ‘

The 4 Corners Festival hosted a discussion last night about why churches have not done enough to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation since the Belfast Agreement – and what Christians can do to change that.

During the question and answer part of the evening, Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankill bomb, asked a question about forgiveness. Rev Karen Sutheraman, pastor of the Down Community, responded in this way:

‘On behalf of churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims, “you must forgive.”’

Churches have come in for criticism for pressurising people to forgive or, worse, to ‘forgive and forget.’ Sutheraman’s apology reminded listeners that the churches have not always handled forgiveness well. And if churches are to engage constructively in the public sphere, a measure of humility about their past mistakes can go a long way.

The panelists for the ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ event were Sutheraman, whose Down Community is influenced by the Celts and Anabaptists and promotes the values of love, grace, acceptance, hospitality, influence, creativity and risk; Fr Brian Lennon, a Jesuit priest and a founder of Community Dialogue; Rev Dr Heather Morris, former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and currently secretary of home missions; and Rev Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and a founder of the 4 Corners Festival. (Disclaimer: I chaired the event, and I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival.)

Lennon, who has written a book on forgiving (he emphasised that it is about forgiving, not forgiveness), said that for some people it is helpful to reframe the question from ‘Can you forgive?’ to ‘Would you like to be free?’ But he also admitted this does not work for everyone, and affirmed a comment from McBride: that forgiveness is not absolutely necessary for society to move forward. (McBride and Stephen Travers, who was injured in the Miami Showband attack, will discuss ‘Life after Death: Living Today with a Legacy of the Troubles,’ in another Festival event on Thurs 8 February at 7.30 pm, St John’s Parish Hall, 444 Falls Road).

It is well worth reading McBride’s 2007 article in the Belfast Telegraph about the difference between forgiving and letting go.

So rather than getting hung up on forgiveness – especially if forgiveness depends on someone else repenting for their sins – church leaders at national and grassroots levels might contribute to current debates by starting different conversations. Conversations that ask us to consider what our society would look like if we acknowledged each other’s suffering and how we have contributed to it; and encountered each other with mercy, compassion, empathy, and grace.

Or, Christians could start more sensitive conversations about forgiveness – something the Festival aims to do in its final event, ‘Forgiveness Remembers,’ Sunday 11 Feb at 7 pm at Knock Methodist.

This event was inspired by Rev Harold Good’s suggestion that Northern Ireland should have a day of acknowledgement to reflect on the Troubles. It is focused around conversation with Paul Farren and Robert Miller about their book, Forgiveness Remembers, chaired by Rev Cheryl Meban, and will conclude with an act of acknowledgement and a commitment to reconciliation.

During the Troubles, the churches’ most significant contributions to peacemaking came from courageous individuals like Fr Alec Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev John Dunlop, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Roy Magee, Rev Lesley Carroll, Sr Geraldine Smith, and groups like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), among others. The contributions of the institutional churches, by and large, were limited.

Church leaders made statements together; and some denominations initiated peacebuilding projects – like the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel or the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking programme. But my research (and that of others) shows that these statements didn’t really reach the people in the pews, let alone those outside them; and the peacemaking programmes weren’t taken up enthusiastically across the denominations.

This pattern continues in the present. There are individuals and small groups carrying forward the work of the courageous individuals of the past. The institutional churches continue to struggle. Even the Irish Churches Peace Project (2013-2015) – which involved the four largest denominations and some smaller churches – seemed to function by putting peacebuilding activities in a box for some people to do, rather than impressing upon Christians that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility.

Lennon cited the Presbyterian Church’s ‘Vision for Society’ statement, which was approved at its 2016 General Assembly, as a good example of a church prioritising peacebuilding. The statement is admirable: it includes confession for ‘our failure
 to live as Biblically faithful Christian peacebuilders …’ and affirms that ‘ Christian peacebuilding [is] … part of Christian discipleship.’ Yet I am willing to wager that Lennon, a Catholic priest, is more aware of this statement than thousands of Presbyterians across Northern Ireland. Even when institutional churches make statements like this, they are often received with opposition and apathy — if anyone notices them at all.

Morris spoke about how a vocation for peacebuilding should be central to Christians’ identity in a divided society like Northern Ireland, rather than a fringe activity. As an example, she mentioned the well.com, a Christian centre for psychological and spiritual well-being, a group for which ‘reconciliation is fundamental to who they are.’

Clearly a huge challenge for the churches remains making peacebuilding and reconciliation fundamental to who they are. Illustrating the difficulty of this task, some panellists shared how their commitments to peacebuilding had taken years to develop. Stockman recalled how, as a young, naïve 18-year-old Christian, he had written a letter to the Ballymena Guardian about how Christianity should be about loving your enemy – and in his context, that was Catholics. He was rebuffed by friends and family; and also by counter-letters in that particular local press. He said it took him 30 more years before he had enough courage and conviction to become an active peacebuilder.

Sutheraman described how her upbringing in East Belfast meant she had to undergo a process of ‘re-learning’ about her faith, which was sparked by a spiritual mentor from England advising her to read about St Brigid. Brigid, of course, is a Celtic saint whose popularity, it must be assumed, is minimal in East Belfast. But Sutheraman was inspired by St Brigid’s peaceful example.

Sutheraman also said that her theological and pastoral training did not prepare her for ministering in a divided society. This is a problem that also has been recognised by the 4 Corners Festival, which organised an invitation-only event that was designed encourage seminarians and young clergy to think about this issue.

‘Talking it Over,’ held last week, was a lunchtime discussion where seminarians, young clergy, and Theology and Conflict Transformation students from Queen’s talked about what they had heard at an event in the festival the next before,  ‘A Conflict Frozen in time?’, about political loyalism. It emerged in that conversation that some seminarians feared that many of the congregations in which they could be placed would not support them in peacebuilding and reconciliation work.

But 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, the institutional churches are not the only institutions to have fallen short in promoting peacebuilding and reconciliation. To paraphrase Morris, the challenge remains for all citizens to find creative ways ‘to make reconciliation fundamental to who we are.’

 

This article was written by Gladys Ganiel and first posted on Slugger O’Toole here.

Breige O’Hare’s address from the BBC Radio Ulster Sunday Service

Breige O’Hare, Spiritual director at well.com, the Christian Centre for psychological and spiritual well-being
Your talk, I said is surely the handwork of wisdom
because not one word of it do I understand.

This from Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer, offered with the reassurance that what I have to say is simply put, more in keeping with the advice of Paul gives to the Corinthians. Today, I feel as if I’m standing in the threshold, that special place in Celtic spirituality – the past is at my back, the future at my face. This is a place all of its own. I want to speak from this place, offer some contribution to the ongoing reflections on NOW-HERE-THIS in the Four Corners Festival. I’ll set out my stall a little first, and then keep the focus on Jesus. Some years ago I  listened to her story. Let’s call her Julie, though that is not here name.

She told of the mistakes…the people she hurt….those who hurt her. How she tried to make a better life for herself. How much she wanted to be loved by someone. How terrified she was of trusting again…

 

…Her body shook as she sobbed, arms wrapped tightly around her, her only comfort in a life of loneliness and dreadful sadness

I feel tears well up in me, burning the back of my throat. God with us, for sure: God crying too. A small part of me was picking up on a big part of her….the part that wanted to run away, not be here…not now, the part of her that didn’t want to be… this. 

It’s not easy getting a glimpse of pain, our own or someone else’s. Notice how you felt listening just now. Comfortable? Uncomfortable? Nothing?  While wonderfully life-giving to be attentive to the present moment, such attentiveness invites awareness of the full range of our experience- the full range – the experiences we keep handy and those we’d rather forget.  And in Belfast we have plenty of both.

There is great value in attending to the present moment. It reduces stress and helps with the management of anxiety. For those of faith, the relationship with God and others is more open and free, more life-giving. In business, noticing what is really going on now – operationally and emotionally – increases the chances of successful negotiation of change.

It also helps access the thing we hear so often from the mouths of our politicians: “The reality is…” It takes our eyes of the shiny perfect version of ourselves that we think we should be and instead encourages us to see who we really are, what things are really like.

Who we really are: we are a strong people, we have suffered and survived great tragedy. There’s more healing to do.

It’s hard for people who have been hurt to trust again and we are mistaken if we take for granted that we trust God simply because he is God. As this piece unfolds, I want us to see the Jesus who stops and hears Bartimaeus, to appreciate how this crazy beautiful God-man is able to be free enough to do what he does, and how because of it, we are safe with him, NOW-HERE, in THIS place.

…and I want us to pick up clues so that we might recognise where this Jesus is present and at work in us as we go through this week of the festival.

A tale of not stopping: A group of students in the seminary of a leading theological college in the US were asked to prepare sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help. They were told that their sermons would be filmed in another building on the campus. They were given directions and individually sent on their way. 

They don’t know that they were part of a carefully designed experiment and were being monitored. On the short trip between the two buildings each one comes across a man (actually an actor) slumped against a doorway, head down, eyes closed, clearly needing assistance. When the trainee minister passes, the actor gives a well-rehearsed groan and two coughs.

More than half of them walked straight past the man. Some of them stepped over him. Using another group of students and adding in the pressure of time – they were told they had to get to the building as soon as possible – the number stopping to help dropped to 10%

When we think about Jesus stopping, it’s easy to forget that he is human and subject to the same daily pressures as his peers.  He was coming out of Jericho, with a crowd, and probably with plenty to do. And yet still he stops. He’s done the same thing a few chapters back when a woman touches his gown. He’s on the path to somewhere and he lets himself be diverted. He lets himself be stopped, be present to the NOW-HERE-THIS of another human being, someone who would miss the cut for the wise, powerful or high social standing club Paul highlights for the Corinthians….someone to be stepped over on the way to somewhere more important.

And that word IMMEDIATELY crops up all over Mark’s gospel…the immediacy of Jesus’ presence to people, the urgency of his attention to them, his willingness to be of service to them.

It would be tempting, and possibly a relief, to imagine that when Jesus goes off to be with the Father he practises a series of techniques that make him more available to the present moment. He might have a meditation DVD or a colouring book to keep him grounded. The truth is much simpler than that and much more challenging. Jesus is able to stop in the moment, and to stop with Bartimaeus, because he is operating out of a different set of values to those in the culture. Jesus is living a life that is radically different to those around him.

Jesus walks away from a trade that would have seen him as poor as most Galileans but at least with some chance of income. He’s free to say what he wants about Caesar’s head on a coin because he’s not paying taxes – he’s not earning. He relies on help from others. He doesn’t look for a wife. Odd.

He walks away from a home-place he knows and into the desert…and nothing. Nothing. Whatever happens in there, it’s clear that he has no interest in the kind of power that the movers and shakers at the time think is important. He is not interested in money. He doesn’t care about where his next meal is coming from.

…and he doesn’t care what people think of him. Take a photo at any stage along Jesus’ journey in Mark’s gospel and you’ve got him in the frame with one of the untouchables. Every one of them fits the description Paul holds up as the antidote to the surrounding culture in Corinth – God chose what the world thinks is nothing to destroy what the world thinks is important. The nonsense, the weak, those looked down on….are God’s holy people….are set free….

No ties to money, no concern to please others, no need for status or security. Jesus has the serenity of not caring – not caring about things that don’t matter to God – because he has given up everything and is free to be wildly disturbed by and passionately present and involved in the lives of his people.

This is where we find ourselves challenged in the Four Corners Festival. We are challenged to stop, to listen to the cries of others, to be of genuine service, as Jesus was to Bartimaeus – Jesus treated him as equal, involved him in his own healing –  to learn from them, to be present to the moment and all that brings.

 But we know that’s not to be had in any technique or talk.  That’s a challenge us to live as Jesus did…to live a radically different kind of life

 and to risk appearing crazy….

…..just like Jesus…

No trying to impress others

No people pleasing

No clinging on to power

No playing it safe

No fear of those who differ from us

No ache for things than do not lead to God

Free to forgive, free to be helped by the very people we think we’re there to help.

There’s an expression for members of my own tradition…we’re called “practising Catholics”. I think it’s time that Christians stopped practising and got on with doing the real thing. Just look how our churches have managed to survive and do good limping along, not really taking Christianity out of the packaging. John and Charles Wesley lit the touch paper back in the day. I think Pope Frances is doing the same today. Could you imagine what things would be like if we unleashed Jesus’ craziness properly into the world? 

To see such in evidence is surely to see where the Risen Jesus stops and dwells in our midst. I invite you spot and celebrate this craziness…encourage it as you go through the festival in the coming days.

And as we stand on the threshold between past and future let’s not fall into the trap of thinking, crazy or not, we move forward under our own steam. Son of David have pity on me. The blind beggar is the teacher in this tale – the need for absolute and desperate dependence on Jesus. All our planning and strategizing mean nothing. Unless we know our need of God. We’re still blind. We just don’t realise it.

I believe that it is vitally important we reconnect with an experience of Jesus of the gospel, especially at this time in our history. The pain and hurt of centuries flow under this land like poisoned streams surfacing and seeping into the soil beneath our feet, in whatever place we stand. I think all of us carry the trauma and the impact of such and while we have dedicated and skilled counsellors we also have people in our society who encourage the telling of stories and the holding of hurts in ways that only serve to re-traumatise rather than heal the wounds inflicted by past violence. We’re still trying to ‘carve tomorrow from a tombstone,’ as Paul Brady sings. It begs the questions: Who benefits from keeping us in the pain? Is this what Jesus wants for us?

The threshold place is a place of waiting. Are we stopped or stuck? Do we feel safe enough to move….together….it seems to me that we need to know not just intellectually but to experience in our hearts the NOWness of this Jesus of the gospels who has walked away from everything society holds dear just so that he can be there for us. When we know we are safe with him – know in our hearts – perhaps we can be a safe place for others.

This is a threshold place,
a place between the past and the future

The Jesus who heard Bartimaeus’ plaintive cry is with you now.

He stops. You have his full attention.

What are you crying out for?

What is he asking you to let go of, to leave behind?

Bartimaeus opens his eyes and the first thing he sees is Jesus gazing at him. How could you look into the eyes of this amazing beautiful God-man Jesus and not want to be with him sharing his crazy life?

He gazes at you, at me now.

 

This Sermon was preached by Breige O’Hare at the 4 Corners Festival BBC Radio Ulster Sunday morning service on 4 February 2018.

A City united in Song – Festival of Choirs

A City united in Song – Festival of Choirs

The previous night people had gathered in the Oh Yeah Music Centre in the Cathedral Quarter to hear songs of the ceasefire, expressing some of the hopes and frustrations of the years since Troubles… then on Saturday a larger group gathered in that quarter’s eponymous Cathedral, St Anne’s for a different set of songs “Hear Us Now! – A Festival of Choirs…” compered by UTV’s Jude Hill.

Some of those there had moved not from the Oh Yeah Music Centre, round the corner, but the other cathedral in this divided city, St. Peter’s off the Falls Road, sharing in a tour of the two cathedrals and a walk between them, taking in the St Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre en route, and at the end of the festival of choirs the Schola Cantorum from St. Peter’s brought things to a close leading a sung Compline.

But before that the audience enjoyed 5 other choirs performing a wide range of music and reflecting both the diversity of our city and the unifying, healing power of music… ParSonik, a singing group set up to support those living with Parkinson’s Disease, Feile Women’s Singing Group, made up of women from across Belfast and beyond; Hill Croft Senior School and Makaton Choirs, Harmony North, an inter-denominational choir of post-primary school students and Sing For Life, a choir set up in partnership by Cancer Focus and the Crescent Arts Centre for those affected by cancer presented a programme of 26 pieces drawn from folk, pop, musical theatre, gospel, and classical sources, starting, on a cold winter’s night, with the ParSonik Choir singing “Bring me Sunshine” by Sylvia Dee and Arthur Kent, made famous by Morecambe & Wise, putting a smile on the face of all there. And that smile remained firmly in place throughout the evening, even when a number of songs prompted a tear or two.

Hope and Joy were recurrent themes throughout the evening with ParSonik’s version of Ode to Joy, the Feile Women’s assertion that they “Still have Joy… Hope… and Peace”, Sing for Life’s version of Labi Siffre’s “Something inside so Strong” and Harmony North’s “The Storm is Passing Over” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Perhaps some of that hope and joy simply comes through the solidarity that such choirs engender… 

The very existence of the Harmony North Choir speaks of that, embodying a unity of purpose despite coming from a highly divided corner of our city and what many argue is not only a divided but a divisive education system. In the repertoire of the other choirs were other echoes of solidarity, with ParSonik affirming in the words of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” “I’m on your side”, and finishing with Abba’s “The Way Old Friends Do”, the Feile Women singing the Liverpool FC favourite “You’lll Never Walk Alone” in a powerful performance, and Hill Croft’s Makaton Choir signing to Bruno Mars “Count on Me”.

So this was not just an exercise in musical excellence or entertainment, but a glimpse of what this city might be when it comes together in a common cause.

Or in the word of “One Voice” by the Wailin’ Jennys as sung by the Feile Women:

This is the sound of all of us

Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us
This is the sound of one voice


One people, one voice
A song for every one of us

Shalom

 

This was originally posted on David Campton’s blog Virtual Methodist and can be found here

Seminarians, Young Clergy and Graduate Students Talk it Over at the 4 Corners Festival

Seminarians, Young Clergy and Graduate Students Talk it Over at the 4 Corners Festival

Seminarians, young clergy and graduate students gathered for lunch today at Queen’s University to discuss issues raised by the first event in the 4 Corners Festival, last night’s public event about political loyalism, ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’

This invitation-only lunch event was designed to provide space for seminarians and young clergy from the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations; and Queen’s graduate students from the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and Theology, to talk about the relevance of what they learned the previous evening for their future vocations as clergy or as engaged citizens.

At ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’, several panellists spoke about how both Protestant and Catholic clergy engaged with loyalism during the key period 1994-1998. Those attending the lunch broke into small groups for informal discussion, and were prompted to ponder one or more of these examples from the previous evening. They were asked: ‘Put yourself in the shoes of the clergy – what do you think made them act like they did? Was what they did right or wrong? Would they have faced opposition from people in their own churches?’

Participants also were asked: ‘For seminarians and young clergy, did you learn anything that can help you in your ministry in what is still a divided, post-conflict society? For theology and conflict transformation students, did you learn anything that can help you live more constructively in a divided, post-conflict society? How can clergy, laypeople and/or theologians work together to contribute to conflict transformation and social justice in an unreconciled, divided society?’

Among the insights and perspectives that emerged from the conversations were:

  • Even today, clergy may face opposition if they try to engage with loyalism or republicanism, and/or promote reconciliation more generally;
  • Clergy, lay Christians and other concerned citizens need to support each other in peacebuilding work – you cannot do it on your own;
  • The Gospels and the examples from the past like Fr Alec Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Roy Magee, Archbishop Robin Eames, and Rev Chris Hudson teach us that peacebuilding is not an optional extra in Northern Ireland – it is an essential part of the vocations of all Christians.

Participants also observed that much of the discussion at ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’ had focused on the past – and they were hungry to think more about the future. The 4 Corners Festival is providing another opportunity to do just that, with a free, public event this Sunday, 4 February at the Skainos Centre, 239 Newtownards Road, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers.’ This event will explore the part the Churches can play in society to promote reconciliation, to heal division and to end sectarianism. The contributors for this event include Rev Dr Heather Morris, Rev Steve Stockman, Fr Brian Lennon SJ and Rev Karen Sethuraman. The event will be hosted by Dr Gladys Ganiel and include musical performances. There will be a Q&A afterwards. Refreshments will be served from 7 pm with the proceedings at 7.30 sharp.

The lunchtime event was supported by the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University.

‘The Loyalism of 1994-1998 Needs to be the Standard for the Present’: 4 Corners Festival Opens with Panel in St Michael’s on the Shankill

‘The Loyalism of 1994-1998 Needs to be the Standard for the Present’: 4 Corners Festival Opens with Panel in St Michael’s on the Shankill

This article by Dr Gladys Ganiel was originally posted on Slugger O’Toole and is available here

The 4 Corners Festival opened last night with a panel discussion in St Michael’s church hall on the Shankill,  billed as ‘20 Years On: A Conflict Frozen in Time?’ In light of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it promised to reflect on how loyalism contributed to peacebuilding in the past – and to ask how loyalism might move forward into the future.

Journalist Barney Rowan summed up the evening as the discussion was winding down: ‘The loyalism of 1994-1998 needs to be the standard for the present.’

The 4 Corners Festival runs 1-11 February and is focused on the theme ‘Now. Here. This.’, a phrase intended to encourage people to focus on the present moment and take the next step towards a better future, no matter how big or small.

The church hall was filled to capacity to hear a panel consisting of Rowan; Prof Monica McWilliams, a founder of the Women’s Coalition and former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; Rev Ken Newell, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who has been engaged in reconciliation work both publicly and behind the scenes for many years; William McQuiston, who served over 12 years in prison and was a prison spokesperson for the UDP; and Martin Snoddon, who served 15 years in prison for UVF activity and now has been heavily involved in grassroots peacebuilding. The discussion was chaired by Jackie Redpath.

The speakers focused on the period between 1994-1998, which included the ceasefires and the 1998 Agreement. They praised loyalism’s constructive role in the peace process and lamented current portrayals of loyalism as backward, criminal or opposed to political progress. Such stereotypes mean that loyalism’s contributions have been forgotten, and that their potential for further contributions has been dismissed.

During contributions from the floor, Chief Constable George Hamilton said that he was fascinated to hear the living history recounted by the panellists, but somewhat disappointed that more had not been said about the future. He added that he was willing to engage in dialogue about his own organisation’s role in inhibiting progress. Hamilton also said that the people who use the ‘flag of loyalism’ to discredit their community need to be ‘called out’ by their own community.

All the speakers highlighted the positive contributions of people like the late David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods; McQuiston and Snodden also recalled some of loyalism’s significant political documents like ‘Beyond the Religious Divide (1979),’ ‘Common Sense’ (1987), and ‘Shared Responsibility’ (1985). Loyalists regard these as precursors to the Belfast Agreement and indeed, there are certainly family resemblances between these documents and what resulted from the Agreement negotiations. Snodden directed listeners to University of Pittsburgh historian Tony Novosel’s excellent 2013 book, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, which offers a comprehensive analysis of progressive loyalist political thinking during the period.

There were also moments of fascination and inspiration.

McWilliams displayed old newspaper cuttings and passed a personal photo album from the period around the hall as she described how the Women’s Coalition (WC) would not have made it into the talks, had it not been for loyalism. The system the British Government devised to include small parties in the negotations was designed to accommodate the small loyalist parties, but the newly-formed WC benefitted from it. Recalling that she had pushed for this proportional representation system to be the one adopted for the Assembly, only to be rebuffed by the larger parties, she said: ‘To be inclusive, you’ve got to be creative.’

Once the talks started, the WC worked closely with the PUP and UDP. McWilliams recalled how ‘the UDP and the PUP were the gentlemen of the process. When we were being verbally berated and physically pushed by other parties, they stood up for us.’

She said that one day after Ervine had observed her being physically pushed, he told the offender that, ‘if you touch those women again, forget about the ceasefire!’ McWilliams laughed and said, ‘I told David, “We’re not worth it!” But those men gave us confidence to find our own voice when we were being silenced.’

Newell described secret, behind-the-scenes talks during which clergy met both loyalists and republicans – which resulted in some unlikely friendships. When Smallwoods was killed by the IRA in 1994, Redemptorist priests Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds visited his wife in a loyalist estate in Lisburn, and later walked in his funeral procession. Newell said: ‘[People] were wondering why they were there. They were there for friendship and because Ray included them in his vision for the future.’ Newell also said that his friendship with Ervine ‘changed me’, and that ‘David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods showed me what a better way of living looks like.’

There were even opportunities for historical clarification. Rowan said it took him a long time to figure out how loyalists had known that the 1994 IRA ceasefire was coming. He now knew that the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds had received a document about it from Fr Reid, and that Reynolds had then rung four people to give them advance warning: Bill Clinton, John Major, the late Presbyterian minister Rev Roy Magee, and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister Rev Bill Hudson. Rowan said he figured either Magee and/or Hudson told loyalists, but he wasn’t sure how. Hudson was in attendance and was able to describe how Reynolds had Dick Spring get in touch with him, urging him to talk with loyalists about how this signalled the IRA’s commitment to democratic principles – and assuring them that it was not a pan-nationalist front.

Rowan also read from a handwritten note he had received from Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames, explaining that he had decided to talk with loyalists. Eames said he couldn’t allow himself to condemn deaths, and then refuse an opportunity to speak with the people who could change the violent situation.

But still, there was a sense that the optimism of 1998 had given way to disillusionment. Newell expressed his ‘regret’ that ‘hope and confidence’ had been lost. Rowan remembered how Gerry Adams had attended Ervine’s funeral on the Newtownards Road, but said ‘I don’t think Gerry Adams could walk down the Newtownards Road today.’ Redpath warned that ‘there is no future without dealing with loyalist educational underachievement.’

The event had opened with a short performance by  local Shankill drama troupe, the Heel and Ankle, which depicted three loyalists discussing how to move forward during the 1994-1998 period. Among the lines were:

‘They labelled us terrorists, and washed their hands of us … Reconciliation and negotiation will take courage – but that’s something we have no shortage of.’

This 4 Corners event captured something of the spirit of that more optimistic time in loyalism. It should remind us that pessimism is not inevitable and that people do have the power to change their future for the better.

Click here to see the full programme of Festival events.

Disclaimer: I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival, and work at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University, which supported this event.

Photos by Bernie Brown, www.bbphotographic.co.uk

Recent Articles in the News

Recent Articles in the News

With the 4 Corners Festival opening evening on the 1 February not far around the corner, there has been some traction in the press aroud the 4 Corners Festival and our first event ’20 Years On: A conflict frozen in time’. Take a look at some the articles published over the last week:

Practicing What He Preaches – Northern Slant – 29 January 2018

Reverend Steve Stockman is the Minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. In 2013, along with Fr Martin Magill, he founded the 4 Corners Festival, which seeks to encourage people across Belfast to move from their own “corners” of the city to encounter new places and perspectives.

Ahead of this year’s festival, which runs from 1st-11th February, we asked Rev Stockman about how it has developed over the past few years.

The 4 Corners Festival was originally founded through your relationship with Martin Magill. How have your personal experiences and perspectives informed its creation?

The genesis of my friendship with Fr Martin and the founding of 4 Corners Festival is a story in itself, so let me keep it brief. Martin and I had become friends and one afternoon over coffee we brought three strands of our conversation together.

Firstly, we were aware that we lived in a very divided city where people stuck to their geographical corners. Many, including ourselves did not know all of OUR city. We wondered if we could bring people across their boundaries to explore other geographical parts and in doing that could they then meet people from other communities that they were not engaging with. That might then help us humanise those we have only stereotypes and caricatures of because they are distant from us.

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Bringing the 4 Corners of Belfast Together – Northern Slant – 28 January 2018

It’s that time of year again – time for the sixth 4 Corners Festival, which runs from Thursday 1 to Sunday 11 February with the theme “Now. Here. This.” Originally conceived by Presbyterian Minister Steve Stockman and Catholic priest Fr Martin Magill to celebrate Christian Unity week, the Festival aims to encourage people of all faiths and none to visit different churches and parts of the city they might never have been. It has expanded in scope and ambition from half a dozen events in 2013 to nineteen this year including debates on the peace process, music and theatre, prayer and theology.

I have my own fond memories of the 4 Corners Festival, which is a unique and remarkable initiative promoting peace and reconciliation in a divided city: Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poetry reading at Cultúrlann, and the prayers at peacewalls in 2014. That was also the year that riots broke out outside Skainos on the Newtownards Road as Brighton bomber Pat Magee, and Jo Berry, daughter of Conservative MP Antony Berry, who was killed in the 1984 blast, engaged in a powerful dialogue with one another and a packed audience.

To read the full article, please click here.

 

We have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people’ – Slugger O’Toole – 26 January 2018

One might even be tempted to say that we have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people’ – Rev Norman Hamilton

Those are strong and sobering words from Rev Norman Hamilton, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Convenor of the church’s Council for Public Affairs, speaking at a prayer breakfast last week in advance of Belfast’s 4 Corners Festival (1-11 February).

With talks resuming in Stormont yesterday about restoring power-sharing, Hamilton’s comments raise serious questions about the ‘Christian or gospel values’ that motivate the politicians who identify themselves as Christians – and, of course, about the values of the Christians they represent.

To read the full article, please click here.

 

A conflict frozen in time? – Irish News – 25 January 2018

Ahead of its 20th anniversary, the Good Friday Agreement is under renewed scrutiny – not least because of continuing political deadlock. The opening event at the 4 Corners Festival will explore how the loyalist communities whose support was key in the 1998 referendum have since been left behind. Reconnecting with a spirit of respect and partnership can lead to a better future, explains Winston Irvine, one of the organisers.

ENCOUNTERING, understanding and accommodating different perspectives and experiences is at the heart of conflict resolution and peace-building.

Last summer, as part of Féile an Phobail, I was involved in organising an event in which a short film about different aspects of Protestant marching band culture was screened.

It brought together people from Catholic and Protestant communities, including members of marching bands from both communities. It provided a context through which different attitudes, perspectives and cultures could be engaged with and interrogated.

The success of the event – there was a palpable positive energy in the room – was that it changed the tone of engagement; it allowed things to be seen differently, in a way that was non-confrontational and through which genuine dialogue and exchange became possible.

To read the full article, please click here.

We are raising money for lives transformed by Organ Donation!

We are raising money for lives transformed by Organ Donation!

Our 4 Corners Feast, now in its 6th year, will once again be a partnership between the 4 Corners Festival and the Lord Mayor of Belfast. The aim of this special meal has been to honour and acknowledge people who, often out of the public eye, have made a significant impact on the life of our city and beyond. This year’s banquet, on Tuesday, 6th February in Belfast City Hall, will focus on those whose lives have been transformed through organ donation, either as donors or recipients.

We are providing our guests with a memorable evening of lovely food prepared by Root Soup (a social enterprise that involves people who have learning difficulties and people who are homeless working together to learn and grow, part of an overall ‘field to fork’ initiative) along with contributions by local musicians and opportunities to meet new friends and hear life transforming stories.

The cost to sponsor one 4 course meal is £20. (To sponsor half a table, it is £100 or a full table is £200). However, any contribution towards this special banquet will be deeply appreciated. Contributions to the 4 Corners Feast can be made by way of the following:

  • Through our Just Giving page
  • Transfer into 4 Corners Festival Account 60125628 (Sort Code 950679) reference ‘Banquet’
  • Cheque to ‘Four Corners Festival’ and posted to: 4 Corners Festival, c/o Clonard Monastery, 1 Clonard Gardens, Belfast BT13 2RL

 

Thank you for all your support!

4 Corners Festival Launch at the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade

4 Corners Festival Launch at the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade

We were very excited to be invited by the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade to launch this years Festival Programme to the Press and distinguished guests at Notting Hill. A great evening of promoting, exchanging, networking and relationship building.

The evening was opened by the Joint Secretary Kevin Conmy with a very warm welcome and he expressed his admiration and support for the Festival, before handing off to Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill.

Steve explored what this Festival meant for our city and what it’s purpose is. The Festival grew out of two strangers coming together and not knowing each others parts of the city, not even knowing what was going on in each others churches. Out of the desire to work together, they started to think about whether ‘we could take what was happening inside our churches outside of our buildings? Could we explore more of our glorious city outside of our own corner?’

For Martin, the Festival is about bringing people together and making connections that would otherwise not be probable, even possible. What excites him most is to gather people together in room and to see contacts made and details exchanged. The Festival is about ‘building bridges, bringing people together and to enable friendships.’ 

But both agreed, that this Festival is about telling stories. We tell stories through song, through drama, through poetry, through conversation. We want ‘rehumanise’ each other through hearing our stories.

We invite you to be a part of that narritive. Join us for the 4 Corners Festival 2018, 1 – 11 February, all over this great city. For the full Festival Programme, please click here.

All pictures were taken by our official photographer Bernie Brown.

#4Corners2018

Now. Here. This. – Ideas for bringing the 4 Corners of Belfast together 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement

Now. Here. This. – Ideas for bringing the 4 Corners of Belfast together 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement

Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, true reconciliation still seems a distant prospect. Next month’s 4 Corners Festival features events to help ‘Bring Belfast Together’

AT the beginning of every new year, we look back and reflect on the year we have just had.

A year of political resignations, two snap elections and eventually the collapse of Stormont; a year of public inquiries into government schemes, royal visits and nearly being able to go to the World Cup – twice.

We also look ahead to what 2018 may bring us. Will we be able to put our political differences aside? How will the Brexit negotiations affect this island?

We are constantly shaped by our past and our future. But we often forget the most important aspect – the present.

How we deal with the present will affect how we view the past and shape the future.

The 4 Corners Festival in Belfast – now in its sixth year – has always sought to bring together people to live in our present.

This year marks 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Not only did political representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups take part in peace negotiations at the time, but their buy-in helped boost the ‘yes’ vote supporting the 1998 peace agreement.

Our first event on February 1, ’20 Years on: A Conflict Frozen in Time?’, will be a panel discussion reflecting on the experience of loyalist communities during the past two decades.

We also want to explore the role that churches can play in society to promote reconciliation, to heal division and to end sectarianism.

‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ (February 4) seeks to explore that very question. Contributors will include Rev Dr Heather Morris, secretary of home missions and former Methodist President, Rev Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian and co-founder of the 4 Corners Festival, Fr Brian Lennon SJ, one of the founders of Community Dialogue and Karen Sethuraman, pastor of the Down Community. It will be hosted by Dr Gladys Ganiel with musical performances from Caroline Orr.

‘Those You Pass on the Street’ (February 5) is a hard-hitting play that explores the legacy of the conflict; when Elizabeth, an RUC widow, walks into a Sinn Féin office seeking assistance with anti-social behaviour in her area, she strikes up a friendship with community officer Frank.

This friendship challenges their personal preconceptions and beliefs as well as their family and political loyalties.

The play contrasts political positioning with individual’s needs, challenging the view that any mechanism for dealing with the past is simply about ‘whose side gets what’.

The performance will be followed by a panel discussion with playwright Laurence McKeown, Debbie Watters of NI Alternatives, SDLP assembly member Claire Hanna and PUP spokesman Winston Irvine.

‘The Boy Who Gave his Heart Away’ (February 7) is a must-see event.

Award-winning author Cole Moreton will be reading from his book of the same name which tells the true story of two families who are drawn together when one son becomes the heart donor for the other son.

Moreton is also guest speaker at the 4 Corners Banquet for organ donors and those living with transplants.

Do consider coming along to support the festival, which is going to be our biggest yet.

There are musical contributions from Iain Archer, Ursula Burns, Joby Fox and Ricky Ross, discussions with authors including Tony McAuley and Philip Orr, incredible life stories from Alan McBride and Stephen Travers, as well as discussions with Monica McWilliams, Rev Dr Heather Morris and Fr Brian Lennon SJ.

 

This article was first published in the Irish News on 18 January, 2018 and can be found here.