Saturday, July 28, 2012

Music across borders

I've been contacted by Emily Mervosh, a student at Boston College who is coming to Ireland next month to make a documentary about the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland. She originally got in touch as part of her fundraising campaign, but she has now achieved her target and is ready to start filming.

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of this youth orchestra, founded in 1995, which includes young musicians from both North and South. Emily describes what she aims to achieve: 

Through interviews with current members and alumni as well as academics who specialize in The Troubles and its aftermath, this film will show how these two opposing groups aren't much different from each other and how the country is trying to mend itself. It will premiere in New York City in the fall of 2013 when the orchestra is scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall, will be screened in Ireland/Northern Ireland, and will be submitted to film festivals.

I believe the film will show people unfamiliar with Irish culture and history that the country and its people are not defined by the violence that has plagued them for decades. These people are bravely trying to create positive social change within Ireland. Their story needs to be told.

Filming will be mainly at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, where the orchestra rehearses, and also in Belfast and Dublin.

Emily believes the story has wider application. She wants to explore how the young orchestra members have been changed by their experience, in 'their relationship with others, opinions about the conflict, and their daily lives'.  

So congratulations to Emily on this innovative project. I hope the film will help to draw attention to the potential of the arts for helping with community reconciliation. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Let’s stop pretending about CSI

Much consternation last week (again) about the long-delayed Cohesion, Sharing and Integration programme. On Wednesday, the First and Deputy First Ministers announced that they had made some unspecified progress on CSI and the Strategy working group would conclude the process in September. On Thursday, the UUP withdrew from the cross-party group, saying they were not consulted about the announcement. They followed Alliance, who withdrew in May. Which leaves the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Féin still hanging in there.

Also on Thursday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, criticised the lack of progress on CSI, an unusual move. I would have preferred him to have said more over the past few years about the lack of progress on local government reform, or to have intervened on the transfer test debacle. But anyway, on Friday the FM and DFM attacked this intervention and told him to go back to England and not bother his head about what was going on here, we’re doing grand without him.

It’s ironic but not surprising that a cross-party group tasked with progressing a community relations policy can’t keep its membership together. And it’s also not the slightest bit surprising that the final version of the strategy hasn’t yet appeared. Remember that in 2009 it was so difficult to agree on a consultation draft that the DUP and Sinn Féin issued separate versions, before finally agreeing on one document in 2010 – which was ripped to shreds in the consultation process. Anything that is released in September will not have all-party support and will have limited credibility with the public. That is, if anything appears at all.

It’s time to face the fact that CSI is dead. As the Labour Party said in response to consultation in 2010: ‘A political system based on communal division cannot provide the required leadership for a policy to abolish such division’. It’s just not in the interest of our ‘big four’ parties to be seen to agree on this issue.

So what to do next? How much difference has it made that we don’t have CSI? What’s missing without a central policy, strategy and action plan is the overview – the ability to identify gaps, avoid duplication, and monitor overall progress effectively. There’s a huge range of equalities and community relations activity going on in Executive departments, agencies, local councils and the voluntary and community sector. On the legal side, building on the s.75 provisions in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and other equalities legislation, there is a convincing case for a Single Equality Act, in line with the rest of the UK. Perhaps the short term priorities should be to campaign for improvements in shared education and housing – most fundamentally, to ensure that the draft education area plans and the restructuring of the Housing Executive aren’t backward moves – and for a Single Equality Act.

Otherwise we may have to wait for the Northern Ireland Audit Office to tell us that millions of pounds have been wasted on ad hoc community relations schemes and policies, and that we need a regional framework. Then the whole charade can begin again.