How the arts can help conflict resolution

Katy Radford and Brendan Sturgeon look at the Belfast Fetival's programme page about The Suitcase
Robert McMillen

While the forces of austerity are driving its Panzer divisions through arts funding in the north, a little play that is being performed as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival is showing what drama brings to the outside world and its power to help transform people and situations.

The Suitcase is written by Jane Coyle and was inspired by a trip she made to the Jewish museum in Vienna and an exhibit of a suitcase with the name of a woman from Berlin on it. But why a suitcase from Berlin in a museum in Vienna?

“Because an elderly man who had lived in Vienna had used that case to bring home his few little bits and pieces from Terezín concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. When the camp was liberated the case was found in the attic of his house after he died. I thought there's no reason why a case like that couldn't be found in a house in Belfast,” explained Jane.

When writing the play, in order to make it as authentic as possible, Jane contacted Dr Katy Radford, director of the Institute for Conflict Research which is based in north Belfast and of the arts festival Jews Schmooze.

Katy's mother Inge, lost five siblings and her own mother to the Holocaust, was immediately taken by Jane's half-completed script for the Suitcase. It hit home on a personal level too.

“The funny thing is that when my mother, who was a refugee from Vienna, came away, she has three things she remembers bringing with her. One was a ball, one was a cheese sandwich and one was a little brown suitcase. And so when Jane came to me with the play, I thought ‘this gotta be done'.

The combination was a perfect match between Jane and Katy - what Katy calls “a lovely synergy “ - but also between the play and the work of the Institute that Katy heads.

The ICR is a not-for-profit charity which grew out of the Cost of the Troubles study in the mid-90s. Since then it have been working on the interface between Tiger's Bay and the New Lodge.

“To cut a long story short, we look at conflict in its myriad forms here, internationally (Israel-Palestine, The Balkans, throughout a range of European countries), and we try to use the arts in some way to convert, in its best possible sense,” she explains.

“We're very much rooted in the community,” says Katy. “We work on a range of issues with people who are at risk of marginalization or social exclusion and that could be new migrants, those engaged with the criminal justice agencies, it could just be people who as a result of impoverishment haven't managed to reach their potential.

Last year, the ICR did a series of four big exhibitions about the 1916 period with a range of people from big boroughs - Banbridge, Newry and Mourne, Craigavon and Armagh, looking at personal stories in those areas and how families came through those experiences

“We took eight people over to Auschwitz but we did a 96-hour contact programme with them beforehand to help them think about dealing with the past, moralisation, the use of public space for policing, parading, then we took them to see what the outputs of hate crime can be in it's biggest sense.

“Then we work with them on arts-based programmes, so when you come out of our office, you'll see big silk paintings which, when we're de-briefing people after the process of spending five days over in Krakow, they then interpret it using the arts.

Katy believes the Arts are incredibly important for what you do in conflict resolution. They are a very good way to connect people as either practitioners who want to express themselves or alternatively in giving people an opportunity to react to pieces. Importantly, there is always built in an opportunity for dialogue and reflection, for discussion.

“A few years ago we did a piece of work on Nazi occupation, which led to discussion on policing, on internment, we didn't know that it would go that way. But it led to a discussion on the secular vs. the sacred - the arts are integral to what we do.”

Near where the ICR is situated on Duncairn Avenue, in the past we have seen Palestinian flags on one side of the divide and Israeli flags on the other. We are quick to adopt international conflicts as our own.

“We took eight groups to Auschwitz-Birkenau last year as part of a Conflict Transformation Programme that we were working on here and using that awful experience as a lens to look at our own conflict transformation here and it worked so well because there's enough distance, there's enough structure, there's enough thought, there's enough theory and practice all around it that it helps us look at our own process of conflict transformation.

“However, we try to debunk the myths that the conflict and tribal sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland can be equated to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

"For me there's something about acknowledging that in any place or space with divisions that there are multiple narratives to be told. However, I don't think it relates to Jane's story,” she adds.

While the arts might be great for getting people to think outside their own experiences and core beliefs, has Katy found that people are open to changing their minds?

“Definitely!” she replies in a flash.

“ I grew up in Belfast in the 60s and 70s, and it's clearly as across my DNA as the Holocaust is because of family experiences. But I wouldn't do this work if I didn't feel there was transformative, positive changes happening through that work. It's small and we chip away - the stalactite dripping creates a hole in the rock eventually,.

“We've seen that from a beautiful young man in prison recently, who wrote saying 'I'm so sorry that I have got to this stage, because having been working with you on this, I realise where I could go. Please can you come in here and tell some of the other ones'.

And I've kept that and I've treasured it because it took him all of his strength to write the letter. It was very positive.


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