4 Corners Festival –Questions Raised & Stories Unheard? An invitation to share your Stories with Us …

4cornersThursday’s Irish News featured a glowing review of Belfast’s 4 Corners Festival. Written by Jim Gibney, it praised the Festival as a hopeful sign of Christians “contributing to healing the wounds of the people of the city, wounds inflicted by the conflict and other maladies arising from poverty and excess.”  

As a part of the organising committee of the Festival (albeit one who I fear made limited contributions to it!), such words are gratifying. But they don’t definitively answer two key questions the Festival raised for me, namely:

  1. Is the Festival merely “preaching to the choir” – Christians and non-Christians alike who are already committed to working for healing and reconciliation?
  2. Did the “Listening to Your Enemies” event at Skainos, the focus of violent protests by loyalists angry that one of the Brighton bombers, Patrick Magee, had been invited into the area to speak, go “too far”? And following on from that, could or should the Festival have been able to create a peaceful space in which those who felt it necessary to protest such an event could be heard?

I don’t have ready answers to those questions. Any readers who do are more than welcome to leave their comments on this blog post!

But to move forward and to live up to its vision, the 2015 version of the Festival will need to start answering them. In his article, Gibney describes the poem from which the Festival draws its name, “Four Corners of Belfast,” written in 1998 by Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian. Gibney writes:

“The poem is a wry look across the city at its inhabitants experiencing unemployment, domestic violence, child abuse and teenage crime and asks of those who work for their people inside and outside the church to bring ‘tangible support’, dignity and love to those in need.

To the affluent, comfortable and well off, and those in the church who service this community, the poem reminds them of Christ’s radical ways urging that the naked be clothed, the hungry fed and the prisoner visited.

The poem warns against the abuse of power by those privileged with a university education and the use of knowledge to exploit other people and the dangers for young people becoming victims of overindulgence in alcohol and drugs.

It calls on Church and political leaders to be fearless in pursuing social justice and to advocate reconciliation.”

Of course, a Festival – in and of itself – is an obviously limited vehicle for creating the lasting change that Stockman’s poem envisions.

It might provide support and comfort to people already engaged in reconciliation work – including those who faithfully attended a range of events, as well as the community and political leaders who received special and focused prayers at the Prayer Breakfast at the 174 Trust.

It might inspire people who had previously not thought about how their Christian faith could or should impel them to become involved in reconciliation work, to begin to see reconciliation as fundamental to living faithfully as a Christian in a society divided along sectarian lines. My own and other academic research has confirmed that the vast majority of the people in our pews have not yet caught this vision.

It might prompt those who have previously judged Christians and the churches as irrelevant and ineffective peacemakers to sit up and take notice that this is not necessarily the case, paving the way for cooperation in reconciliation across sacred and secular divides.

It is too early to know if the events of the Festival have had such effects, although Gibney’s overwhelmingly favourable review could perhaps be considered evidence that such inspiration and prompting could be beginning to happen.

But the inspiration will, of course, fizzle out if we sit around waiting for the next Festival.

“We” includes not only the Festival organisers, but everyone in the four corners of the city who is saddened that we remain a wounded, segregated, unreconciled society.

Some months ago, the Irish News published an article by Fr Martin Magill (another of the Festival’s organisers) suggesting a range of small steps that people could take in their own lives to start subverting sectarianism and modelling new ways of living together better.

Those small steps, like the 4 Corners Festival, are steps across traditional boundaries. This year’s Festival has gained a significant amount of publicity. But most small steps go unnoticed and unrecorded.

So to any readers out there stepping across boundaries, I invite you to share your stories with us. Post a comment on this blog or, if you feel more ambitious, email me a longer, more substantial blog post telling us what you and your friends are up to, and I can post it.

Sharing our stories of crossing boundaries just might inspire others to venture out into four corners of the city – before the next Festival comes around.

2 thoughts on “4 Corners Festival –Questions Raised & Stories Unheard? An invitation to share your Stories with Us …”

  1. There was a packed house at the Skainos centre last week for the Four Corners event, which featured Patrick Magee and Jo Berry talking about their experiences after the Brighton Bomb in 1984. There may have been even more there but for the ‘protest’ that was taking place at the front doors. There were many different people from all backgrounds in the audience and this came to the fore during the Q&A session afterwards.
    One woman, Mary Brady, stood up holding a picture of her husband. She told the audience that her husband, Patrick Brady, was killed ‘in retaliation’ for the 1984 bombing. It brought to me the tit for tat, cycle of vengeful violence that has traumatised our community for years. Killing after killing after killing.
    Thankfully, to some degree this has ceased. There are still families out there who are suffering and will continue to suffer until violence is seen as having no place in our society and in our body politic.
    Another speaker that night was Jim Wilson who is well known in East Belfast and makes frequent appearances on the Nolan Show. He had said that he came along on the night to confront Patrick Magee and all that he represents. He came to challenge the Republican justification for ‘the war’. He did this in the face of a very vocal, aggressive and antagonistic crowd of masked and abusive protesters who had gathered outside the event.
    Looking back on his question and observations, I feel that he may have had other motives than just confrontation. I feel like many others who were there that night that he had come to listen. He had come to hear the other story. He had come to pose himself questions. Not just about how the IRA decided that violent armed struggle could be justified but how could loyalists justify their armed actions. The dialogue between Jim Wilson and Patrick Magee was one of both men looking in the mirror and seeing each other. Wilson asked Magee to justify the war, Magee responded that he could see no other way at the time. The same questions could have been asked of both men and both would have given the same answers. Jim Wilson stated that there was no justification for the IRA campaign but I think that he failed to recognise that this could be true of the loyalist justifications for their war.
    Nevertheless, they were there in the same room, together. They may not agree with each other on their political identity but they were talking. They had entered into dialogue. They were in a room in East Belfast talking about the past, present and future.
    I was there too. That is the purpose of the Four Corners Festival. To bring people from across the four corners of our city to the other corner. To places they have never visited before. To take them out of their comfort zone and to meet new people. To open our city up. To hear the difficult conversations and to ask the hard questions. I felt good that I had been welcomed into the safe place that was the Skainos centre. The same could not be said of the perimeter.
    When my girlfriend and I left the building we met Mary Brady. She was attempting to get back to her car. It was parked beside what was now the scene of a riot. We took her in my car past this scene. Riot police on one side of the Newtownards Road and a screaming torrent of abuse and missiles on the other side. When Mary got out of the car there was questioning and suspicion of who were were and whether we had been in the Skainos Centre but we were able to evade and make our escape back to the relative safety of the West.
    This will not put me off visiting all parts of my city to engage in reconciliation and peacebuilding and I hope that others will do the same. Furthermore, I hope that those who are engaged in peacebuilding and dialogue in their ‘own’ parts of Belfast are undeterred by those who would try to silence them with fireworks, bricks, kicks, intimidation and abuse.

  2. Is the festival preaching to the choir? A lot of the time, yes. But that’s not a bad thing in itself. LIke a tetinus booster jab, it’s an encouragement to people to keep on the road of healing and reconciliation, renewing their vows (as the National Marriage Week organisers would suggest people need to do), Coverage of the event – and the reactions to it – also cast light and shadow onto people not in “the choir” and that wouldn’t happen without the festival.

    Was the event held in Skainos a step “too far”? No and yes. t didn’t occrur to me as I looked through the programme and typed up a preview blog post signposting some of the events that Skainos would be vulnerable to ugly protest. It was pretty obvious afterwards – in hindsight – that tensions in Inner East over the last 14 months have been very tight and that it would be easy for some with local influence to make little-healed wounds sting and provoke a reaction. It wasn’t a bad idea. It wasn’t a bad location. It wasn’t too far. But I think a lot of us had forgotten just how sensitive communities can still be, and how much ground work needs to be done to make sure individual events aren’t hijacked or threatened, It certainly put the festival and its aims on the map: salt and light, with added heat.

    Congratulations on the second year of the festival. A big step up from the inaugural year. And a good mix of participants – not all people of strong faith – who were able to share their stories, and hopes and fears with those who attended.

    See you again next year,

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