Festivals of Reconciliation? Opportunities for Uncomfortable Conversations

corrymeelafestivalThis weekend sees the start of two festivals – one well-established and one brand-new – which feature a variety of discussions, talks and events related to reconciliation on this island.

West Belfast’s long running Féile an Phobail and the first-time Aperture Festival at Corrymeela in Ballycastle provide plenty of opportunities to reflect and debate on the possibilities for reconciliation.

Fr Martin Magill, a parish priest in North Belfast who often contributes examples of ‘ecumenical tithing’ on this blog, drew attention to some of these events in a recent post on Eamonn Mallie’s blog, aptly titled ‘It’s not all hopeless.’

Magill also assisted me in compiling a list of all the reconciliation-related events from Féile an Phobail and Aperture, which are listed on the calendar feature of my blog. Magill summarised some of the events this way:

… there will be events which will allow people to hear and engage directly with a variety of well known people in our society today. We will be able to hear from and learn about the Orange Order, Loyalism, Republicanism, the Church, the Media, the PSNI. People such as Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Gavin Robinson MP, Steven Agnew MLA from the Green Party, Peter Osborne, formerly from the Parades Commission, Alan McBride from WAVE are amongst those taking part in some of the summer time festival events.

These events in different festivals will be opportunities to hear and engage with people we may not often encounter beyond the media.

Dave Magee will be facilitating a “perspective on loyalism” as part of the Aperture Festival in Corrymeela in Ballycastle. Féile, the West Belfast will be hosting a number of reconciliation events including one in which Chief Constable George Hamilton discusses with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness “will the questions of the past be answered?”. The festival also includes input from Orange Order chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson and Presbyterian elder, Dave Thompson who will be reflecting on the Proclamation in what he has titled: “The Proclamation for Prods”.

Full details are available on my calendar, or of course on the festival websites themselves.

There is a limit to what stage-managed festival conversations can achieve — and I write that as someone on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival, one of the main purposes of which is encouraging people to cross boundaries, thus promoting reconciliation. But I am heartened to see reconciliation being put on the agenda and hope it can inspire further attempts to build relationships and address the social and political structures that divide our communities.

A recent example of this type of attempt at relationship building comes from Fr Magill in the form of his visit to a loyalist bonfire in advance of the 11th night, which Jamie Bryson described on his blog. Bryson wrote:

Father Magill came to engage with me in a human conversation because he feels that reconciliation can best be built by having genuine dialogue and seeking understanding by engaging with people on a human level. He sought no publicity from his visit and nor was there any alternative agenda or Trojan horses at play. His uncomfortable conversation with me was not for the optics or to promote or advance some political agenda- I had to ask the Fathers permission to even publicise the fact he had taken the time to visit.

… A lot of people, especially within the republican and nationalist community, can take a lesson from Father Magill. I am overtly hostile to the Catholic Church; I despise their doctrine and have previously described the Pope as the anti-Christ. I am also unashamedly anti-agreement and an outspoken opponent of mandatory coalition power sharing, yet I found myself having a very human and sincere conversation with a Catholic priest and coming away from that conversation feeling that if there were more within the broader Catholic, Nationalist and Republican community with the attitude and genuine sincerity of Father Magill, then perhaps better relationships could be fostered- even with those who are diametrically opposed.

The sign over the front door at Corrymeela reads: ‘Corrymeela begins when you leave.’ Similarly, when I ask if better relationships be fostered through these festival events, I can only conclude that it’s possible if reconciliation begins (or continues) when the festivals are over.

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