Gauntlet thrown down to Custodians of Arts in Northern Ireland – By Winston Irvine

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I was involved in an event at Feile An Phobail last week, principally about marching bands and understanding Unionist and loyalist marching culture, to which people from both communities in West Belfast were in attendance.

The success of the event, unexpected to some, was that different perspectives were presented to allow things to be seen differently, increasing awareness and empathy, opening understanding and positively affecting attitudes and changing the tone of engagement.

A short film, Traditions and Transitions , (, was shown at the event, which engages with different aspects of culture associated with Protestant and loyalist marching bands – band practice, music tuition, instrument making, banner painting, community development, story-telling and heritage and history.

The film documents the social and economic impact that marching band culture makes locally, from engaging mainly working-class people, to exporting instruments internationally, and the indisputable economic and cultural benefits of The Twelfth.

Art forms such as theatre and drama help to better explore controversial issues without tearing off the scab of past injuries – delicately treating unhealed historical wounds, as well as engaging with people’s hopes and fears.

The Easter Rising and Somme re-enactments allowed for the non-threatening expression of strong feelings of national pride and national sacrifice as opposed to simply organising mass rallies.

Another event at Feile an Phobail 2017 saw the playwright Beano Niblock and painter George Morrow, both former loyalist combatants, read poetry and exhibit.

The use of documentary with Traditions and Transitions helped to demystify some of the negative myths around marching band culture, and to counter the stigmatisation and vilification of a large section of the community.

There are many other examples, on a small scale, of where the arts have contributed to increased understanding and improved relations between working-class communities and people affected by the conflict.

A number of recent dramatic productions such as Phil Orr’s Halfway House, engaging with two women’s reflections on the events of 1916, and Laurence McKeown’s play Green and Blue, about An Garda Siochana and the RUC policing border areas, show the ability of the arts to accommodate complex and competing narratives.

They also provide a space and opportunity to bring people together and provide an arena in which individuals and groups can encounter one another in discussion, and conversation helping to develop new reference points for better and clearer understanding.

Given the complexity of conflict and its legacy, our approaches to building relationships, addressing the past and embedding peace must be equally complex.

We must be able to accommodate competing narratives of the past, countless stories of hurt, loss and disruption, as well as supporting those who feel they have no voice or are unable to properly articulate or convey what they have to say.

The creative arts have a significant and undoubted role to play in achieving this – saying this is nothing new, the arts have been used in our recent context here for decades, and globally for centuries after countless conflicts and wars.

Who can fail to be touched by Colin Davidson’s powerful and haunting portraits as part of his Silent Testimony series, capturing the loss and suffering of victims of the conflict.

Regardless of the background of the victim or the observer, the portraits succeed in uniting people in an understanding of the pain and despair of so many.

Colin Davidson perfectly demonstrates the power of the arts to unite.

However, before we can talk about the power of the arts to unite, we must also consider that for many people, particularly from working-class communities, there are significant barriers to accessing the arts.

Again, saying this is nothing new. If we want to fully realise the potential for the arts to unite communities that have been divided by conflict, then we must firstly address the social inequalities that marginalise people from the arts in the first place.

How we achieve this is multi-faceted and both strategic and practical – it is about providing support, recognising people’s rights, and allowing for the legitimisation of art forms that are important to a large section of the community.

This should include representation from working-class communities on statutory or public bodies responsible for the arts as well as properly resourcing art forms that reflect and represent the authenticity of the lives of communities.

Only in this way can truly open up the arts (especially in working-class communities) as a way to assist society in recovering from conflict, division and hurt.

While people feel they do not have ownership of the arts, they are unlikely to engage with exhibitions such as Colin Davidson’s Silent Testimony in major arts venues.

Because of this something important is being lost – art forms, like Davidson’s paintings, mediate a power that sometimes discussion alone cannot achieve, providing an alternative language through which new relationships can be developed and new ideas discussed and explored.

The complexity of art forms, whether they be film, drama, painting, story-telling, music, literature allow for complex issues to be articulated, shared, analysed and interrogated.

The documentary short film shown at Feile an Phobail is evidence of this.

Here we had authentic voices engaging with their own history, their own participation in culture and the importance of that culture to their community.

Just as importantly, this experience was shared with people from other backgrounds and traditions, encouraging mutual understanding and respect – the foundations of any lasting resolution to conflict.

Engaging in the arts alone will not transform conflict and sustain peace.  However, the arts can act as an incubator for ideas, new connections, networking and relationships and stimulate new ways of thinking and talking about difficult issues.

They can also help to develop a new fabric across communities, a fabric that makes them more robust and interconnected, particularly as challenges may appear unexpectedly in the future.

Healing is a difficult and convoluted process which involves many stages and which takes many forms.

The arts should be an integral part of this process, open, accessible and available to all.  It should also be a process through which everyone’s experience is recognised as valid and their chosen form of expression tolerated, encouraged and given the legitimacy that is afforded to others.

We all bore witness to the legacy of intolerance, exclusion and cycles of violence.

The arts can help us to create and bear witness to a better future.

Interpreting people’s experiences and stories is vital to healing trauma and mending communities.

The arts can give voice to marginalised and stigmatised groups and help to foster empathy and tolerance.

Arts provide a positive mode of expression and an alternative to threatening and destabilising actions. They humanise rather than dehumanise and provide a language that we all can share in.

Returning to the showing of the short-film at Feile an Phobail, and the unprecedented presence of loyalist bandsmen from around the Shankill and its surrounding areas in the room, one couldn’t help but notice the nervous energy of everyone there.

Yet at the same time there was an atmosphere of respect, an atmosphere in which people wanted to understand and learn more, and a kind of co-operation for mutual and equal benefit.

Art has the power to transcend division and become an agent for change, enhancing peace building efforts and contributing positively to reconciliation and lasting peace.

Emerging peace building approaches must embrace the opportunity to develop new forms of artistic expression which explore questions of identity, culture and the Past – embracing these as inclusive as opposed to divisive and controversial.

The Polish poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska in her biographical poem, The End and the Beginning, provides an illuminating example of wisdom and meaning through her artistry:


After every war someone has to clean up.

Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all…

Those who knew

what was going on here

must make way

for those who know little.

And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown

causes and effects,

someone must be stretched out

blades of grass in his mouth

gazing at the clouds.


Regardless of our differences and histories and aspirations, the one thing we all share in common is the desire to ensure that we create something better for our children, our families, our community and the society in which we live in.

So let us ponder what role the arts can play in helping us overcome our ancient quarrels, present difficulties and future challenges and realise a future that we can all prosper and equally share in.



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  1. Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

    suimiúl. interesting. is mithid dúinn aithint ar achán taobh go bhfuil níos mó le gnóthú ná le cailleadh san mhalártú cultúrtha. time to engage methinks.

  2. Gerard McCabe on

    And let’s start by pondering how we can get Arts funding up to an acceptable level.. too many cuts have arts in NI at very critical point

  3. Winston – we have been at events over the past short number of years which have become safe spaces for the most difficult conversations. Republicans don’t become loyalists and loyalists don’t become republicans, but they hear each other. That has to be a good start. In north Belfast we heard people in the audience speak with Laurence McKeown after the play Green and Blue, some of them having the confidence for the first time to attend and speak at such an event. And we have heard Colin Davidson speak about Silent Testimony and heard also the responses to that exhibition – how it became this quiet space for remembering. You were part of a panel with Kim Mawhinney of the Ulster Museum, the republican Eibhlin Glenholmes and Chief Constable George Hamilton when Kim spoke of the thousands of visitors to the exhibition and the written feedback given by many. The past cannot be undone, but spaces can be created for debate and discussion – conversations in which people can agree and disagree. These rarely become headline moments, but they are an important part of developing better understanding. More of what you write about above is what is needed.

  4. I have 20 yr experience of working within community settings across NI. The issue isn’t engagement per se but the length of engagement. What are termed as “baby sitting” workshops (6 weeks mid week) serve no real purpose in my view. The time periods are far too short. The participants are just beginning to get into it and them are left dangling as the workshops finish. This happens time and time again. Of all the projects i have been involved in, the best are always the ones with longer term engagement. We have to change the duration of engagement and i think embed artists within communities (if they aren’t already there hiding in plain sight)

  5. Learning and hearing are key. What you have said above is required on so many levels. The willingness to have these types of interactions and the hosting of spaces to facilitate such discussions shouldn’t just be by a few. Much more is required.

  6. In reading Winston’s article I was wondering where have people been for the past few years and does anyone ever think of looking outside the great interlectural and cultural hub aka Belfast . These engagements have been ongoing in Londonderry since 2013 with the Marching Bands from the Londonderry Bands Forum playing in the All Ireland Fleadh and local playwrite Jonathon Burgess penning work such as The Pride, The Exodus, Crows on the Wire and Divided by History, United by Music etc. etc.
    The short sightedness of the Arts Council is seen by people in the North West of NI as a natural progression of the We Ourselves Alone attitude that the capital city residents portray. The political football the Bands Culture are mostly used for has been highlighted in speeches to both the main political parties at their annual conferences by the Londonderry Bands Forum, and they have been slow in picking up the gauntlet to remedy complaints. In fairness it should be pointed out that a light is appearing at the end of a long tunnel, but this could be tempered by the fact that it is politically astute to do this at this time of crisis over language and culture.
    Even for some of the contributors and participants of the Traditions and Transitions film the penny has been a long time in dropping. However the fact that it has dropped is to be welcomed and not undermined in any way.
    So i would take the time to ask the people who were so impressed in the Belfast Feile and it’s ground breaking work to look to up this way to Londonderry and to consider what we might have achieved on top of our successes if we had the luxury of the Belfast funding.
    As for the Arts Council the sooner the whole set up is demolished and revamped in its thinking on Marching Bands I fear that views on ideas and funding on a scale encouraged by Winston will be very slow in coming.
    Look online at to guage progress and outlook.

  7. A great blog Winston. Delighted that you draw attention to the important role of the arts in bringing people and communities closer together, it’s something the Arts Council advocates continuously. The object of increasing access to the arts for everyone has also been at the heart of Arts Council policy for quite some time now. Our support for arts and community festivals like Feile and Eastside Arts has been constant. If you would like to see some more examples of how the arts are reaching into communities, please take a look at the constituency bulletin on our website –

    • Can you throw any light on Newton Emerson’s post or tweet on the Arts Council, it said (paraphrased) The Arts Council gets £13 million in funding and distribute £10 million to Art and Artists. That means there is a £3 million overhead. It costs £3 million just to give away £10 million.

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