Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Northern Visions loses funding for Belfast's community TV station and digital media centre

Northern Visions logo

Northern Visions (or NvTv) is a not-for-profit community community digital media and arts centre. It has an Ofcom license to transmit a free-to-air, analogue television channel across Belfast via a 500W transmitter.

It is very disappointing to learn that at a time when digital media is on the up - and at a time when the barriers of entry for communities should be at their lowest - that two of Northern Visions' normal funding streams (Arts Council of Northern Ireland and NI Screen) have pulled the plug and no longer see NvTv as fitting their funding remit.

Skilling up communities to tell their stories is a key part of a shared future in Northern Ireland. Telling and sharing the stories of marginalised groups, older groups, interface communities, special interest groups should be part of enriching our understanding of each other.

At a time when the UK government is wanting to develop the mostly overlooked community TV sector, it is a disappointing that Belfast's existing community TV station and digital media centre is facing closure.

I hope that the DCAL minister as well as OFMdFM (wearing their Cohesion, Sharing and Integration hat) will work with arms length funding bodies to ensure that no stone is left unturned in assessing whether Northern Visions can be kept going as a viable and increasingly valued community asset.

Northern Visions are collecting statements of support over on their website. Update - their feedback form sends your comment to DCAL and OFMdFM. OFMDFM are replying to say that

"the issue you raise relates solely to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) ... we trust that they will respond to you in due course."

Two and a half years ago, along with a number of other disreputable characters, I took part in a series of Blog Talk programmes - somewhat unusually taking the online world of blogging onto Channel 62 of Belfast television sets! (To be fair, the episodes were also available to view online.) Imagine my surprise when a few months later I met my previous next door neighbour and she said that she'd seen me on television. TV? No, not me. I was flicking channels and there you were sitting on a sofa talking about politics. Ah ... they must be showing Blog Talk again.

One BBC producer even admitted to me that she flicked through the Northern Visions archive to look for potential community contributors.

Northern Visions are not alone. Other arts organisations are in the process of announcing the results of substantial funding cuts. In the current economic climate, with reduced public funding available, it is inevitable that organisations will have to scale back and in some cases close: good organisations as well as bad ones.

Update - Northern Visions have issued a press release along with statements of support.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Dock café opens in Titanic Quarter

The Dock logo

Embedding a chaplaincy in Titanic Quarter is the mission of Chris Bennett, Karen Spence and The Dock helpers and supporters.

Hundreds of apartments have sprung up over the past few years behind the Odyssey. Thousands of people work in the white/glass buildings that stretch from Citi, past PRONI, past the Paint Hall and down to the NI Science Park. Thousands work and study at the new Belfast Met campus. And thousands of tourists (and locals) will shortly embark on a pilgrimage to the Titanic Belfast building to find out about the boat that was all right when it left here.

In the midst of this, a team of Christians representing a wide range of denominations (and none) are working hard to make sure that Titanic Quarter is more about people than buildings.

Photo taken at The Dock's Meet The Neighours night

A weekly Dock Walk (starts at 3.33pm every Sunday afternoon outside the Streat in the Odyssey) and Meet the Neighbours events are some of the first tangible signs.

While the ultimate plan is to be based on a boat moored in behind the Odyssey, The Dock recently got the keys for one of the vacant shop units under the ARC apartments under a 'meanwhile lease' and have opened it as a café. (A meanwhile lease allows a charitable organisation to have the use of a vacant space until a permanent paying tenant can be found.)

The café sources everything as much as possible everything locally. A milk float delivers glass milk bottles. The tea and coffee are manufactured in the city. The buns are from a local bakery. The art on the walls are from a local gallery. Much of the furniture is second hand (with just a little help from Sweden).

Open Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 7pm, and on Saturday from 11am to 5pm. A place to meet, to talk, to work, to think.

Call in and Tegan the barista will brew you up a hot cup and select one of the very fine buns. Given The Dock's lease, there is no price list and no charge. Instead you can show your appreciation by dropping something into the honesty box.

The Dock Cafe bar - honesty box

As you can see from the silent video above, the café officially opened on Thursday afternoon with a packed crowd. You can also catch The Dock in Sunday night’s Songs of Praise from Belfast which is celebrating the Titanic.

Signing up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future?

At Thursday night’s annual Catherwood Lecture, Johnston McMaster covered a lot of ground in his talk entitled:

Signing up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future?

He started by explaining that his grandfather had signed the covenant, and continued to question throughout the talk whether he would have signed it if he’d lived 100 years ago.

Looking back at history and at the same time looking forward from today was a key tenet of his lecture, and mirrored the twin directions of memory and hope that are also at the heart of Christian worship. Back in 1912, some people seemed to think …

… God was an Ulsterman and against Home Rule. There was not a coat of paint between God, guns and politics.

Around 3,000 people signed an Alternative Covenant that repudiated violence, though little is known about the identity of these dissidents. Parallels were drawn between the 1912 Covenant and the 1916 Proclamation. Both documents were “theologically deliberate”.

  • God
  • Militarised politics
  • Equal citizenship (an equality agenda)
  • Civil and religious freedom
  • Self determination

Stephen Johnston - minister of Kilkeel Presbyterian - responded at the close of the lecture with some pertinent questions.

At the start of a season of events that are looking at the signing of the Ulster Covenant, I found it a useful lecture to start to set the scene of a period of history that was ignored in school but will be unavoidable over the next ten years. Update - the text of Johnston McMaster's lecture is available to download.

The Catherwood Lecture is an annual event organised by Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) that looks at issues relating to faith in the public square and Christian worldview.

1912, A Hundred Years On - still from play by Philip Orr and Alan McGuckian

Don't forget another contribution to the decade of political centenaries by this group: the 1912, A Hundred Years On play started its tour on Friday evening and continues at different venues over the next two weeks.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Fancy swapping Belfast for a week-long exchange in Nashville?

Knickerbockerglory TV

TV production company Knickerbockerglory want to recruit fun, outgoing and captivating families to take part in a life swap with families in Nashville for a week this spring. They’re targeting Belfast families (as well as other areas) for their observational series Twinned Towns.

Participating families will get the chance to have an all-expenses paid trip to Nashville in Tennessee. They’ll live the life of the American family that they swap with for a week: swapping houses and sports clubs, trying each other’s jobs, children attending local schools and colleges, and getting the opportunity to meet the local community and experience the culture.

Families volunteering will need to be available for a week between 16 April and 31 June. Twinned Towns is a UK commission and the cultural exchanges will air in the UK and Ireland. Contact twintownsuk@knickerbockerglory.tv for more details.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Shoot the Crow

Owen McCafferty’s play is touring again. First performed many years ago in Galway and only brought north for the first time last year, Shoot the Crow is being staged in a variety of locations over the next month courtesy of Prime Cut Productions.

A team of four tilers work in two adjoining rooms of a Belfast apartment. While set in Belfast and voice in the city’s vernacular, the play avoids the usual forms on conflict. The tilers despise each other, not because of their religion, but instead because one has a big gob and another philosophises too much.

The set is light and minimalist, like so many modern apartments. The partially tiled floor – that becomes more fully tiled during the play – is tilted ever so slightly towards the audience. Scenes looking out towards Titanic Quarter with traffic moving over the M3 flyover are projected against the wall to ceiling windows in the apartment’s back wall. It’s as if the audience is sitting watching the Obel Tower being fitted out. (If you look carefully, you can spot that the film clip is mirrored and there are two sets of Harland & Wolff yellow cranes!)

There’s a touch of the Auf Biedesen, Pet about Shoot the Crow: the play conveys the frustrations of the working man.

A lifetime spent grafting and you end up with a thank you note [from the boss], hand written mind you. (Ding Ding)

Production shot from Shoot the Crow’s 2012 run in the Grand Opera House, Randolph (Packy Lee) and Ding Ding (Walter McMonagle)

Played by actor Walter McMonagle, it’s Ding Ding’s last day and he is about to put down his trowel and pick up a shammy to take on a gentle window cleaning round in his retirement – if he can afford to buy the round off his neighbour.

Young Randolph (Packy Lee) is learning his trade and does the heavy lifting around the site. He wants to save up “a few squid a week” to buy a motorbike, and dreams of riding through France with a girl on the back. Ding Ding has spotted a pallet of extra tiles sitting outside the house and talks Randolph into “tea leafing” them at lunchtime in a bid to get the “reddies” to fund their ambitions.

In the other room, Petesy (Paddy Jenkins) is listening to the latest deep thoughts from pseudo-intellectual Socrates (Marty Maguire), who displays the greatest emotional intelligence of the group. Great minds think alike and Petesy can see an opportunity stacked up on a pallet outside that would pay for his gifted daughter to go on a school exchange trip to France.

Socrates walked out on his family in much the same way his own father did to him: “the same shit goes around”. So Socrates is making tentative steps to restore his relationship with his estranged wife and son. Some cash would sweeten things with his wife. But can he make the jump from words to action?

Production shot from Shoot the Crow’s 2012 run in the Grand Opera House, Socrates (Marty Maguire) and Petesy (Paddy Jenkins)

And so the play spirals towards competing plans for pilfering while avoiding farce. The laughs were sparse at the beginning of the play. Yet by the end of the first half, infectious giggling and guffawing was rippling around the theatre. Some of the silences – prolonged silences – engendered the most mirth.

The shorter second half has a bout of physicality, a breakout of honesty, a discussion about art, and a final twist that reminds the working men just who pulls their strings.

Is it morally right that we only get paid to keep our heads a few inches above the shit? (Petesy)

I noticed a small number of people who didn’t return to their seats after the interval. The Grand Opera House website doesn’t explicitly reference the very frequent use of strong language throughout the play. (Update - GOH website now updated.) When Petesy speaks to the box or his wife on the phone, the F word suddenly vanishes. Context is everything. As Socrates reminded the retiring Ding Ding:

When you’re a window cleaner you can’t be talking like a tiler.

In the end, McCafferty’s play is not about four sweary workmen. It’s very much in line with the current Occupy mood (while considerably predating it). Real people with real pressures, struggling to make ends meet. Struggling to do the best thing for their families. Living and working with other people who have different needs, yet trying hard to fulfil their own dreams and the desires of those they love. Not wanting to ‘shoot the crow’ like the previous generation.

I warmed up to the play as it progressed. At its best, the dialogue in Shoot the Crow is intense and the verbal sparring is so well choreographed and timed. But some of the more sedate parts of the play were less gripping and lacked the adhesion to keep me stuck to the unfolding plot. Others around me laughed and chortled, and everyone I spoke to leaving the theatre loved it. While the Grand Opera House tickets are expensive, the play is a bargain in many of the other venues. Worth parting with some reddies to give it a shot.

(Disclaimer: I attended Tuesday night’s performance using a complimentary ticket.)

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A self sufficient part of the confederation: What might Northern Ireland look like in the future?

Photo by Keith Belfast

The following piece was written last June and published in the latest "Bubbles & Chunks" edition of The Vacuum. Available at all good pubs, cafés and arts venues.

- - -

Utopia arrived in the early 2030s after a number of political twists and societal turns forced old structures and traditions to reform. The first sign of change was the half expected collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly just after the 2021 elections when bitter fighting over what would be an appropriate rate of VAT meant that no party could agree to nominate Joint First Ministers.

The exasperated government in Westminster decided not to repair relationships and head back into the dark tunnel of talks. The skeleton Northern Ireland Office instead announced the break up of the local political scene and started again with a new set of actors.

Jury Service lists were consulted and a new process was kick-started with the appointment of eighty people to form the People’s Assembly. A small number of people refused to cooperate and were jailed for three years – the length of time each Assembly was to operate. Replacements were chosen and the prospective MPAs were locked away in isolation inside the Stormont Hotel to get to know each other and select ministers.

Remarkably the new system worked well, with its mixture of age, background and experience. There was little appetite to reform the old party structures. At the end of each three year stint, MPAs expressed sadness on leaving the ‘house on the hill’ to return to their previous employment.

Meanwhile MPAs questioned why East Belfast should remain the centre of political life and the civil service. They decided to rotate the location of the People’s Assembly around the six counties after each ‘election’.

When the democracy circus came to town, investment quickly followed. Vacant secondary school classrooms were converted into offices, assembly halls fitted out as debating chambers, and kitchens and canteens reopened. With two year’s notice of each new location, hotels sprang up, bus routes bolstered, roads widened, and train lines extended to each new venue.

For a decade, Greater Belfast’s population has declined by around 1% a year as families followed the jobs being created right across the north. A shrinking population and diminished influence led to reduced demand for city centre car parking spaces and hotels. A decluttered Belfast skyline now leaves the stonework and spire of St Anne’s Cathedral visible from right across the city.

The touring People’s Assembly changed citizens’ perceptions of distance. It also sped up journey times: A road and rail bridge now skims the surface of Lough Neagh connecting Crumlin with Coagh. The tunnel under the Glenshane Pass has only recently been completed after three years of boring and a further two years fitting the world’s longest display panels – meeting the planners’ requirement that underground motorists be given the impression of the scenery they are missing.

Recovery from the Irish economic woes of 2010 was a slow process that mainly led to growth around Dublin at the expense of other areas. By 2025, separatist movements in the provinces were challenging this inequality and pointing to the success of Northern Ireland in managing its own affairs.

The results of a hurried referendum intended to quash rumblings of autonomy surprised the Dublin elite. Connacht and Muster set up their own regional assemblies and tax-raising powers were devolved away from the Leinster capital.

The long-time parity between Sterling and the Euro meant that currency was interchangeable across the island. An isolated Donegal was the first to apply, quickly followed by Cavan and Monaghan, pleading to join a reforming Ulster. Two years later a hastily negotiated international treaty was in place.

Soon after, the island of Ireland was thriving, with four strong provinces maximising each region’s output and collaborating to achieve efficiencies. Presidents and Royals continued to visit Ulster, bringing the world’s cameras to Omagh, Armagh and Ballymena. Tourists followed, eager to visit the land of free public transport and complicated history. Letterkenny will be the next stop on the parliamentary roadshow.

Fresh thinking in the political sphere seemed to free people up to consider all kinds of new ideas. The land of saints and scholars is now home to some of the most innovative scientists and researchers in the world.

The discovery of a seam of uranium in the Mournes turned out to be an elaborate hoax, but it excited an interest in nuclear physics in a Newcastle schoolgirl who went on to discover – well, stumble upon – a viable method of creating bubble fusion. She won the title of Irish Young Scientist of the Year, while the island of Ireland discovered that their early advantage in developing a fusion-based economy opened the doors for energy-rich industry and manufacturing.

Self-sufficiency hasn’t been limited to Ireland’s energy. The introduction of farming qualifications at secondary school and limited state subsidies has encouraged investment and allowed Ireland to become the bread-basket of Europe. Fisheries are the one exception in the agri-food industry. Gone are the days of Lough Neagh eels being shipped to Japan. Seafood has overtaken meat on kitchen tables. Good for health, and good for the economy.

What started out as an Adjournment debate about Fair Trading principles was enthusiastically taken up by the Minister for Independence. Consumer insistence upon fairly produced goods has resulted in big retailers like Tesburys using local suppliers and raising workers’ self-esteem and standard of living Consumer price cuts that are entirely passed down to suppliers without affecting the retailer’s margin are now illegal.

Fears that relaxed planning regulations would destroy rural green belts have been proven unfounded as developers avoid creating large new housing estates and instead re-establish small hamlets and villages with affordable housing and micro communities. Locally-based credit unions are backing co-ownership schemes, while the last high street bank branches will close later this year.

While nationalist hopes of all-Ireland unification have been both achieved and dashed with the split into four self-governing provinces, unionists have had to adapt their traditional vision, as Scottish independence and English regionalisation have turned the United Kingdom into a de facto confederation.

All in all, 2030s Ulster – the new nine counties – is self-sufficient, politically stable, harmoniously relating to our neighbours by land and sea, and exhibiting healthy signs of community building.

A settled nation … until the acceleration of global warming over the last ten years and rising sea levels so threaten the Balearic Islands that their billionaire investors have branched out to find a larger island economy to capitalise. Spanish-Ulster language schools are now ubiquitous while Margarita has replaced Guinness as the refreshment of choice.

All change!

- - -

Photograph via KeithBelfast

Friday, March 02, 2012

1912, A Hundred Years On - exploring the Ulster Covenant through drama and talk

While the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will continue to dominate Belfast for much of this year, the centenary of the start of a turbulent period of Irish politics is also on the horizon. (Has there ever been a period that wasn’t turbulent?)

The story of 1912 and the Ulster Covenant isn’t a unionist story. The events and repercussions are part of a narrative that covered communities across the island and beyond. Home Rule, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish National Volunteers, gun running at Larne, the Suffragist movement in Ireland, the Battles of Gallipoli and the Somme, and the Easter Rising all form a continuum of history.

1912, A Hundred Years On - still from play by Philip Orr and Alan McGuckian

1912, A Hundred Years On is a play written by Philip Orr and Alan McGuckian. In it they explore the events of that year, focussing on the political rather than maritime events. The 3rd Home Rule Bill promised Ireland a parliament of its own in Dublin, while still part of the British Empire. Unionists deeply opposed the bill and hundreds of thousands of men signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant (as well as a shorter declaration for women).

The playwrights describe 1912 as “a tense and troubled year with violence on the streets”. Yet also “a year when many people stood up for their convictions, on all sides”.

The play will run in venues across Northern Ireland for two weeks in March. Performances are followed by a discussion.

The challenge for the audience may be to try to understand more fully the motivations of their ‘forefathers’ and ‘foremothers’ but also the motivations of those with whom their ancestors quite possibly disagreed, in matters of faith and politics.

I was impressed with the play’s preview last year and look forward to seeing the final version.

The Centre for Contemporary Christianity (which grew out of ECONI) has long been involved in the promotion of reconciliation and mutual understanding. This play written by a Carrickfergus writer/historian and a Jesuit priest with a strong interest in Irish history is part of their contribution to the decade of political centenaries.

  • Friday 9 March at 7.45pm // Carrickfergus Town Hall
  • Monday 12 March at 7.30pm // Antrim Old Court House
  • Tuesday 13 March at 7.30pm // Fitzroy Presbyterian Church
  • Wednesday 14 March at 7.30pm // Aquinas Grammar School
  • Thursday 15 March at 8pm // Ballymoney Town Hall
  • Friday 16 March at 7.30pm // Neilsbrook Community Centre, Randalstown
  • Monday 19 March at 7.30pm // Knock Presbyterian Church
  • Tuesday 20 March at 7.45pm // Marine Court Hotel, Bangor
  • Wednesday 21 March at 7.30pm // Sean Holywood Arts Centre, Newry
  • Thursday 22 March at 7.30pm // Westbourne Presbyterian Church, Belfast
  • Friday 23 March at 7.30pm // Down County Museum, Downpatrick

Some events are free, others have a small entrance fee. Full details of booking details and contacts can be found on the Contemporary Christianity website.

Contemporary Christianity vertical banner

Contemporary Christianity have kept this theme for their annual Catherwood Lecture. On Thursday 8 March at 8pm in Edgehill Theological College (BT9 5BY), Johnston McMaster will speak about

Signing up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future

The organisers believe that it is “an opportunity to reflect on significant political and religious events which have affected our history and to consider an alternative vision for the church in Ireland for 2012 and the years ahead”.

Johnston McMaster is a lecturer and coordinator of the Education for Reconciliation programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast. His research has included a historical, theological and political examination of the period from the first Home Rule Bill of 1886 to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Shipyard Church logo

And while we’re on the subject of the Ulster Covenant, four talks are planned in Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church under the banner of Titanic People.

  • Thursday 22 March at 7.30pm // 1912, A Hundred Years On play, followed by a talk by Gordon Lucy
  • Monday 30 April at 7.30pm // Presbyterianism and the Ulster Covenant, John Erskine and Nelson McCausland
  • Wednesday 23 May at 7.30pm // Nationalism and the Ulster Covenant, Eamon Phoenix
  • Thursday 21 June at 7.30pm // Women and the Ulster Covenant, Diane Urquhart and Philip Orr

Yardmen Walk and Titanic concerts in the Shipyard Church

Westbourne Presbyterian Church tower

Nicknamed the ‘Shipyard Church’ and with an eye-catching neon cross up on the stone building’s tower, Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church has been a place of worship at the bottom of the Newtownards Road in Belfast since 1880.

There’s a strong historic connection with Belfast shipbuilding. With the workforce at the yards peaking at over 30,000, many of the yardmen lived in the streets around Westbourne, worshipped in the local churches, and walked to work.

The yellow Harland and Wolff cranes fill the view as you go out the front doors of Westbourne church and I often wonder what the atmosphere must have been like the weekend after news of Titanic’s sinking reached Belfast. What kind of despair would have been felt by the riveters who had spent months fitting the three million rivets that held the boats steel plates together?

A few events are coming up in and around the church linked to the Titanic centenary.

On Sunday 1 April, there’s a Yardmen Service at 11am, which will be followed at 12.56pm by the Yardmen Walk from Pitt Park across to the new Titanic Belfast building. Dunchers (flat caps) will be provided, and participants are encouraged to wear black and white clothing to create the ‘yardman look’.

You can register to take part in the walk at Connswater Community Greenway website or Facebook page. There’s a small registration fee of £5 to raise funds for Bowel Cancer UK. (Cyclists can join in too, departing Billy Neill Centre in Dundonald at noon.)

No need to register for the church service! Just turn up and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards.

The night before on Saturday 31 March at 8pm, Westbourne is hosting an evening of music poetry and drama. Members of the New Irish Choir and Orchestra will be performing. Dan Gordon will bring the yardmen to life with a performance of a portion of his play The Boat Yard (which premièred in the church back in 2010).

Three weeks later on Friday 20 April at 730, Belfast Community Gospel Choir will be in concert. Tickets for the concerts are £10 and can be reserved online.

Titanic People logo

This is the start of a larger plan to develop a community exhibition and performance space in the church. The hope is that Titanic People will tell the stories of the people of East Belfast. Stories of the men and women who worked in world class industries. Stories of individuals who became household names in the fields of sport, literature, music, politics and film. The stories of people from different communities in the area who fought side by side in the world wars, and also fought each other during the Troubles. Sharing stories of Titanic People.