Previewing the 10th Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics (Monday 18 to Sunday 24 March) #ImagineBelfast

What do you get if you mix policy and politics, expertise mixed with challenge, with the space to think and ask questions? The answer is probably something like Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, now in its tenth year. Top enterbrainment as the festival strapline phrases it.

Running between Monday 18 and Sunday 24 March, there are a hundred or so films, talks, gigs, walking tours, exhibitions, panels, workshops and theatre shows.

Climate Improvement Districts // Tuesday 19 at noon in the Maldron Hotel // Poor planning decisions are blamed for exacerbating the negative impact of climate change in some urban environments. Andrew Haley will suggest measures which Belfast could adopt, before audience members are invited on a short walking tour of recent nearby work by (event sponsor) Linen Quarter Business Improvement District, such as the rejuvenated Bankmore Square and urban ecology projects like turning a gap site on Great Victoria Street into an ecologial haven with bird habitats. There will also be an opportunity to hear from the Maldron Hotel on their own initiatives, and sample some tea and honey, harvested from the beehives on the roof of the hotel (subject to a good harvest!)

What Does a Peacebuilder Actually Do? // Tuesday 19 at 6.30pm in Accidental Theatre //
A chance to find out from peacebuilders about their work and practice. Expect to hear less about latte-drinking, peace-processing letsgetalongerism and more discussion about the work that is done over years at a grassroots level to encourage and develop better community relations, and insight into the highs and lows. Organised by Shared Future News.


Thursday 21 March is Democracy Day at Imagine! Festival. With events throughout the day in Crescent Arts Centre, you can find out about the achievements and ambitions of participatory budgeting (10am-noon), drop into the Democracy Lounge  (noon-3pm) for the launch of the new Network for Better Democracy and an open space where participants will decide on the day what to investigate, how to unlock democracy by removing barriers for young people to participate in democratic processes (1pm-2pm) with Hattie Andrews (The Politics Project), Tom Brake (Unlock Democracy) and Paul Smyth (Politics in Action), putting the debate around the Union vs unification into perspective with five short talks that explore public opinion and also ask how the debates about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future compare to previous dramatic changes (specifically, German unification), and to round off the day, the art of political speechmaking (5pm-7pm) with five local MPs and MLAs reciting elements of their favourite political speeches (originally made by other politicians!) and discussing the continued importance of speechmaking in the political arena.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ireland! – Paddy Cullivan // Thursday 21 at 8pm in The Black Box // Join Paddy on what he promises will be a hilariously insightful journey through the history of partition and the Ireland of the future. Imagine it’s 2032. The people have spoken on both sides of the border and Ireland is a brand new 32-county country. There’s a new flag. A new anthem. There’s even a new capital. As Unionists holiday in the south, discovering the imperial joys of ‘Royal’ Dublin, southerners discover the ancient landscape of Ulster beyond the retail outlets of Newry and Titanic Belfast.

Community Farming: A Catalyst for Change // Friday 22 at 11am in QUB Senate Room // Imagine! might be a Belfast-based festival, but that doesn’t stop it examining agriculture and crop growing. A community farm is a place where people come together to grow and harvest crops, raise animals, and learn about sustainable agriculture. It is a space where people can connect with nature, learn new skills, and build a sense of community. Community farms can provide fresh, locally grown produce to the community and promote healthy eating habits. They can also offer educational programs, workshops, and events that teach people about the importance of sustainable agriculture and the benefits of eating locally grown food. The first ever accelerator programme for community farms in Northern Ireland has just ended. Come and hear about some of the projects with Dr Jonny Hanson (founder of Jubilee Farm). Did I mention that the event includes lunch!

Alice Asks: What are the ethical challenges with AI? // Friday 22 at 2pm in Crescent Arts Centre // Disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories and deep fakes … is AI eroding our trust in communications and is it posing a serious threat to our democracy? In this case, Alice isn’t an AI-driven chatbot, but instead is a public relations company organising the event. Be prepared for a controversial and lively debate among the panellists: AI export Niall McKeown (CEO of Ionology), communications professional Martina Quinn (CEO of Alice Public Relations), researcher into extremism and disinformation Ciaran O’Connor (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) chaired by Sarah Travers.

Looming Elections and Political Futures // Friday 22 at 5pm in Europa Hotel // Slugger’s resident election nerd Dr David McCann will be chewing over the upcoming British and Irish general elections, casting an eye towards the forthcoming European election, and stray into the 5 November US elections. He’ll be joined by the Mystic Meg of election predictions Professor Jon Tonge (University of Liverpool), Stratagem political consultancy deputy director Anna Mercer, and the Belfast Telegraph’s Sam McBride. The event is supported by Linen Quarter Business Improvement District and if you’re early there’s a free drink at the bar.

What economic history does the next UK government need to know? // Friday 22 March at 5pm in McHugh’s Bar // If you can’t get a ticket for the Slugger event, can I recommend this one! One of the most informative and entertaining events I attended (and filmed) at the ESRC Social Science Festival last year was organised by this group of academics. It turns out that economic historians are great communicators and can put numbers into perspective. They argue that understanding economic history can be the key to successful government policymaking. At the event, rapid fire presentations by some of Ireland’s top economic historians will explore the concept of government decision making and the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this process. Organised by Dr Chris Colvin for the Centre for Economics, Policy and History (CEPH), and chaired by historian and comedian Dr Andrew Dorman in a pub.

The Ulster Workers’ Strike: 50 Years On // Saturday 23 March at 1pm in Crescent Arts Centre // The Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike was called in May 1974 by unionists and loyalists opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement, which had been signed the previous year and gave a consultative role to the Irish Government. The stoppage ended the prospect of power-sharing for a generation. Introduced by Dr Connal Parr and Dawn Purvis, panellists include Carmel Gates, Jackie McDonald, Jackie Redpath and Sean O’Hare, who share their memories and reflections on the legacy of the strike and what it means in 2024. Connal Parr organised a conference on the UWC’s 40th anniversary: you can still listen back to my recording of the sessions in a post from 22 May 2014. The internet never forgets …

Alan Johnson in conversation with Stephen Walker: The Long and Winding Road // Saturday 23 at 8pm in Crescent Arts Centre // Former postman (and later general secretary of the Communications Workers Union), Labour politician and three-time memoirist Alan Johnson will discuss his political career, his views on current political affairs, the long-running Post Office Horizon scandal, and the prospects of a Labour government in the forthcoming general election with former BBC journalist Stephen Walker who recently published a well-received biography of John Hume.

And there are still a couple of tables left at the Imagine! Festival Politics Quiz that rounds off the week’s events in The American Bar at 8pm. £10 will secure a table for maximum four people who think they know their left wing from your right wing? Dominic Doherty will test your knowledge about them ’uns, us wans, and our lovely history in Norn Iron, Northern Ireland, North of Ireland, our wee country, occupied 6 counties, Ulaid etc! The organisers stress that it’s a light-hearted quiz and you don’t have to be expert to take part or have an opinion about the convoluted and always contested politics. Though being a self-appointed expert or being opinionated won’t be a bar to entry!

There’s lots, lots more in the full programme on the Imagine! Belfast festival website. And over on the Alan in Belfast blog, I’ve previewed some of the more overty arty events in the festival.

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