6th Practice Exchange on Intercultural Capacity-building: Navigating the journey from conflict to interculturalism - The role of the arts in Northern Ireland

15/16th November 2012,
Belfast, United Kingdom
- platform intercultural practice exchange

Belfast 3  Belfast 4  Belfast 5

PIE’s 6th Practice Exchange in collaboration with Arts Council Northern Ireland was dedicated to exploring the role of the arts in bearing witness to The Troubles, in being an antidote to despair, in offering alternatives to sectarian identities and in increasing social cohesion. The programme featured The Troubles Archive, the Reimaging Communities programme, and several prime examples of participatory and community arts from different arts domains. Policies for equality were examined with arts practitioners and politicians.

We had also wanted to know “how the experience of reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland has affected the reception of newcomers in Northern Ireland.” With immigrants making up an estimated 4.4% (around 80 000 people) of the population of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has begun to unroll an Intercultural Arts Strategy (2011-2016), which seeks to increase the access and participation of minority ethnic communities in the arts.  Yet one conclusion of the event was that grappling with the ‘diversity of diversity’ is a field for more work: “‘interculturalism’ – to the extent that it is a policy concept in Northern Ireland, has until recently focused exclusively on addressing the segregation of the two white majority communities - Protestants and Catholics - through intercultural initiatives … Those from minority ethnic and faith communities brought by migration in particular have tended to disappear into a statistical vortex.”

Belfast 1b  Belfast 2

The context of political events in Northern Ireland

When programming for this event was underway, an article in the Belfast Telegraph stated “there are still occasional crises in Northern Ireland, but most of these tend to be political rather than violent and are generally settled by negotiation” (“How a rational politics has finally prevailed”, 31 August 2012). Yet shortly after PIE’s Belfast Practice Exchange was over, Northern Ireland saw riots and arson attacks by hard-line Loyalists (Protestants) – sparked by Belfast City Council’s decision at the beginning of December to stop the permanent flying of the Union Jack on the Council building and fly it only on 17 designated days of the year (which was a compromise motion). Loyalists perceive the ‘attack’ on a symbol of importance to them as unjust when Nationalists (Catholics) insist on symbols of their own, such as naming public places after dead heroes of theirs. The violence over symbols – so hard to understand from outside Northern Ireland - is itself a symbol of a peace and cohesion which don’t yet run deeply enough. On the Loyalist side, where anti-hierarchical tendencies make political representation more difficult than on the Nationalist side, too many people, especially amongst the young, feel left-out, second-class citizens. Their sectarian identity is what they cling on to the more fiercely.

Endorsement of the positive role of the arts

The latest troubles are no attestation of the failure of the arts, but perhaps a sign that the transformative effect of engagement in the arts has not yet reached far enough – and that the arts can only contribute to change, but not affect it alone. The economic inclusion of disaffected people certainly counts, and this does not progress in the current economic situation as news of mid-September demonstrates: Northern Ireland’s biggest remaining manufacturing company, engineering company FG Wilson, announced that it was closing down with over 1 300 redundancies.
Peace-building in Northern Ireland must continue, and despite the flare-up of fresh violence, it does: Long-term participative arts initiatives foster the growth of non-traditional, forward-looking communities – and peace gatherings, which counter the street violence and the damaging disruption of city life, have been organised by people largely from the arts communities.
A new Race Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland – which was referred to as being on hold during the Practice Exchange – is on track to go out for consultation in March 2013.  Finishing touches are also being put to the criteria for the awarding of a Minority Ethnic Development Fund (2013-2015) which will provide three tiers of funding to groups providing services specifically for minority communities.

Read the summary report, the full report, the programme, the reader with background information.

Belfast PE was also reported on the Arts Council's website, see and also.

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Organised in collaboration with Platform member Arts Council of Northern Ireland

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