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Aftermath of the Omagh bombing The Bogside Artists Derry, with Sion Mill School, Co Tyrone.

Culture after conflict
Community relations in Northern Ireland

Culture after Conflict:
rethinking the role of art and culture in post-conflict contexts

Introduction:

Regarded as a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process, the 'Belfast Agreement’ invested the Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved legislative powers, and marked a de-escalation of violence in the Troubles. The final draft of the Agreement was endorsed by the voters of Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, in separate referendums. The Agreement, or ‘Settlement’ came into force on 2 December 1999. After ten years of relative stability and a semblance of peace there may now be an opportunity, within the overarching social, health, and economic regeneration initiatives included in the terms of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta), to explore the possibility of taking forward new creative work in the context of conflict resolution, better community relations, and post-conflict community economic regeneration. For Littoral this includes the possibility of applying some aspects of critical art practice (Deep Practice), and an immersive aesthetic, as a research methodology in surfacing structures for arts-led work in this context, which in turn might help to develop more effective conflict resolution initiatives in Northern Ireland.


CultIdentityposter

Widening the context: understanding the role of culture in conflict resolution
The recent increase in terrorist-related violence (the activities of the Real IRA) and other incidences of community unrest indicate that there still remain some fundamental unresolved tensions, and deep divisions in some sectors of Northern Ireland society. There is also a growing concern in some quarters that the Agreement is not benefiting ordinary people, nor is it doing enough to change their lives in any significant way. There is still an urgent need to address the root cause of the communal experience of hurt, economic disadvantage, political grievance, and trauma that contributed to the onset of the conflict in the first place. At this time of review of the Agreement it is important for all sectors of the community, including trade unions, artists and the wider arts and culture sector, to work together and redouble their efforts to find new and creative ways of combating sectarianism, and supporting the implementation of the key benefits promised by the terms of the peace accord. This is what the Culture After Conflict initiative aims to do.

The proposed Culture after Conflict research project, 2011 - 2013
The starting point for the initiative is an examination of arts and culture-led initiatives for conflict resolution developed in similar situations in the EU and internationally: former Yugoslavia Bosnia/Serbia, Georgia/South Ossetia, Tamil/Sri Lanka, Greek/Turkish communities in Cyprus, and Palestine/Gaza. This is by no means a new idea, and elements of international arts-led conflict resolution have been tried out successfully in Northern Ireland before, but documentation and articulation of these in the Northern Ireland context, combined with feed-back from the three proposed Culture after Conflict development strands outlined below, could stimulate new insights in this area of work.

Culture after Conflict: proposed research programme
Littoral’s ‘Culture after Conflict’ initiative grew out of our earlier work funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland aimed at widening arts sector engagement with peace and reconciliation and cross-community relations work in Belfast and Derry. Development of the current CaC initiative is also informed by our experience of working with the bus workers and trade unions in Northern Ireland during the ROUTES programme (1998 - 2002), a transformational project for Littoral that involved us in learning about shop-floor initiatives designed to tackle incidences of sectarianism and intimidation.

Through these and other projects we were able to gain access to a wide range of different communities (urban and rural) and NGOs involved in community relations and peace and reconciliation, and artists and arts groups active in the area. The initial contacts shaped our ideas, and encouraged us to continue with our work in Northern Ireland. Equally, and like the rest of the people in Ireland, we were greatly inspired by the positive outcomes of the Belfast Agreement, and felt that we would like to try and do more to help. The ratification of the Settlement in May 1998, followed by establishment of an all-party Northern Ireland Assembly, and the publication of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry report, and a public apology by the Government in June 2010, seemed to have opened the way again towards a more equitable and peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

A context for creative initiatives
The Trust decided to look again at how the arts and cultural sector might better target, or widen, its critical and imaginative capacities to address these issues, and re-position the idea of cultural intervention as a tool for positive change in the context of other post-Settlement social, economic and health care initiatives. The Culture After Conflict initiative is intended to investigate these ideas through long-term partnerships with a range of arts groups, community development organisations and professionals working in the mental health and trauma counselling sectors in Northern Ireland.

We make it clear to potential partners and funders from the outset that we do not represent ourselves as experts in arts and community relations work, or endowed with particular insight on the causes of conflict. There are many excellent arts organisations, local authority partnerships and NGOs in the country already engaged in this specialised and important area of work. However it could be that some aspects of Littoral’s Deep Practice methodology and long-term engagement could result in beneficial practical outcomes, for example by surfacing arts-led initiatives promoting inter-community understanding, community self-help, and generating local confidence in taking forward grassroots regeneration projects.


Towards a culturally embedded Settlement
We have identified five key propositions for Culture after Conflict that we could employ to achieve cultural re-embedding in practice of the principles regarding social, health and community development and economic regeneration in the Belfast Settlement. These have been simplified to help us identify possible practical Culture after Conflict partnership projects, or case studies.


1. A focus on developing a constructive response to some of the intractable, or disabling consequences for society, the economy, and health inherited by communities (and artists) from the pre-Settlement period of sustained terrorism and intercommunity conflict;

2. Seeking out existing community-led self-help initiatives for positive change, and profiling successful examples of ‘endogenous’ cultural initiatives which seem to us to have the potential for further development or replication to provide new community or artist-led models;

3. Off Register, but On Target: projects that do not precisely fit into the funding criteria governing current community relations, peace and reconciliation and related arts and cultural initiatives, but which could nevertheless provide a challenge to accepted norms, or which, more interestingly, may have the potential to overturn some of the more disabling stereotypes about particular communities, and serve to counter ingrained prejudice against respective community cultural, religious or social traditions;

4. Against the Odds and Against the Grain: examples of communities and artists that show considerable courage and tenacity in facing up to or tackling seemingly insuperable odds in the context of combating sectarianism, prejudice, or intimidation, or that are being marginalised because of their oppositional stance, or disadvantaged by virtue of geographical location, political allegiance, health/disability, or their artistic practice or style;

5. We are interested in projects and situations likely to throw up interesting new intellectual, aesthetic and artistic challenges for artists interested in working in ‘unstable’ real-life contexts, and generating new insights and practical methodologies that could connect arts and cultural policy with mainstream post-Settlement initiatives for economic, social and community development in Northern Ireland.

New cultural partnerships promoting social and economic change
The main arts, healthcare sector and community constituencies that we have been talking to in terms of possible future collaborations include: the Bogside Artists and, possibly also members of the Bogside Community (Derry); the Sion Mills village community and the local Mill Buildings Preservation Trust (SMBPT); the healthcare professionals and counselling support staff at the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma Transformation. Following further consultation with each of the designated communities or professional groups, we will review our position, and decide whether to proceed and firm up an outline proposal for each of the projects.



LITTORAL is a non-profit arts trust which promotes new
creative partnerships, critical art practices and cultural
strategies in response to issues about social, environmental
and economic change.
LITTORAL 42, Lodge Mill Lane, Turn Village, Ramsbottom
BL0 0RW, UK
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1706 827 961
e-mail:
littoral@btopenworld.com
Reg. Charitable Trust No. 1002365;
Pivate Limited Company No. 2526443





 

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