The Adrian Flannelly Show
Irish Radio Network USA
Adrian Flannelly speaks to the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, and to Richard Wakely, the Director of the Belfast International Arts Festival, as they are in New York to launch the festival and to garner support for Belfast and Doire being designated the 2023 European Culture Capital.
Where’s the audio? To listen as you read along please click here
Adrian: I am delighted to welcome Councillor Nuala McAllister, who is the Lord Mayor of Belfast, and – Lady, Lord Mayor – how do we address you?
Nuala: It’s Lord Mayor, yes.
Adrian: It’s Lord Mayor.
Nuala: Yeah, so we don’t gender discriminate it’s ‘Lord Mayor’.
Adrian: Yeah. There you go! This interview is going so terrific already I think! You’re on a trip to the US and now you’re in New York. But what was the purpose of this trip primarily?
Nuala: The purpose of this trip is twofold: It’s to launch the Belfast International Arts Festival, which we’ll come on to, but also to consult with the Irish diaspora over our bid for Belfast and Doire to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023 so we’re going about that bid at the minute. It’s very intense and we want to put together our best opportunity that we can to ensure that we can be successful.
Adrian: Well it sounds attractive in the sense that you’re talking about Belfast and Doire because obviously that would be a huge boon to Northern Ireland.
Nuala: Oh, it would be huge! Actually, it would be quite huge. I think that’s a bit of an understatement in that the entire spotlight will be shone in our region and it will be coincidental that it’s twenty-five years from the Good Friday Agreement so it’s our chance in Northern Ireland to make sure that we can embrace our diversity and celebrate our success as a region through the culture of the people who live there and the people who have come to live in our two cities. So it’s a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase our local talent and for us to welcome our new people that live in our cities.
Adrian: Yeah. Yep. And the diaspora, you know – that’s a big group.
Nuala: It is a huge group. You know, I’ve been seeing so many people and meeting so many new faces over the past few days. I was in Chicago before New York and one thought that I had was: Are there any people left in Ireland? Because we have such a huge population of Irish people here in the United States and what’s so heartwarming to see is the connection that everyone makes with each other to ensure they can retain their links to back home.
Adrian: Let me ask you, first of all, a couple of things: You represent the Alliance Party. Can you tell us what the Alliance Party is?
Nuala: Okay so for those listeners that maybe aren’t aware, I’d say most people maybe aren’t aware, in Northern Ireland we have a Unionist and Nationalist population and that dates back from our conflict before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Alliance Party is not Unionist nor Nationalist. It is the only cross-community party and we believe that the constitutional question, whether Northern Ireland becomes part of a united Ireland or we remain in the United Kingdom, has been answered by the Good Friday Agreement in that it is up to the people. And so what we’re focused on is the integration of people in Northern Ireland – not to just simply tolerate but to integrate – because separate but equal, and you know in the United States through the history here, that separate but not equal is simply not good enough.
Adrian: I would assume that you wouldn’t be offended if we were to group you into something which is very noble in that in conflict resolution that would be you know, a…
Nuala: …it’s what people should – yeah, it’s what people should aspire to really after conflict. People should be aspired to integration. And Northern Ireland is examined throughout the world. It’s looked upon as a peace process to admire because we set up peace in Northern Ireland. We ensured that we could get government and we ensured that our violent past remained in the past and we are seeing the benefits now from that now twenty years later and the first people born after the Good Friday Agreement had just voted for the first time but we still, in essence, do have that separation in politics. A lot of questions in politics relate back to identity in Northern Ireland but we have a lot of aspirations regardless of that and our people work together quite a lot.
Adrian: How and how close do you think that the political parties in Northern Ireland will get or will find a common ground and have the Assembly up and running which has to happened?
Nuala: Yes, we currently, as you just said, we don’t have government, regional government, because it collapsed. And I do think that the political parties are closer together than what the media portray them to be because, of course, whenever you go into negotiations I’m sure that they have their conversations and once they go outside to the media that might be a different story that they tell. I think they are closer together than what we see in the media but what we need to do is, essentially, is set aside red lines and ensure that we can move forward for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. Belfast City Council, I represent Belfast as Lord Mayor, and it has become a responsibility for us to pick up pieces that are left behind because we have no functioning government and I think as a city council we’re making great strides in representing Northern Ireland as the capital. We’re the economic driver. We are doing great working in ensuring that Belfast does not lag behind.
Adrian: Your goal is to globalise Belfast. Can you tell us about it?
So my theme, or agenda, for this year as Lord Mayor is ‘Global Belfast’. So it’s about assuring that my city is profiled internationally – that means internationally at home as well as abroad. I want to promote a city that is open, welcoming and inclusive – that’s open for business, investors, tourists and open for those who seek refuge. It’s welcome to those who have come to Belfast and inclusive for everyone once they are here – no matter where they are from, no matter their walk of life, whether it is business or tourism and I’ve been doing that by linking-in with the diaspora whilst I’m here in the United States and I’ve been doing that whilst I’m at home to ensure that everyone does celebrate our diversity back home.
Adrian: Just to maybe pursue a little further: As we look at southern Ireland many would perceive Dublin as being the hub of southern Ireland whereas that would be offensive to many of us. Is Belfast considered to be the hub – that’s where everything happens?
Nuala: It is the hub of Northern Ireland I think, yes, but maybe is that because I’m biased because I’m Lord Mayor of Belfast? We have some beautiful places in Northern Ireland. Doire was the UK Capital of Culture a few years back. And we have the Giant’s Causeway which our American tourists love to visit which is just beautiful. We have the great mountains of Mourne that sweep down to the sea – Northern Ireland is just so beautiful and green. But Belfast is the economic driver. That’s the reality. It’s where we have the most opportunities in Northern Ireland and we have really seen it flourish in just the last five years. And of course, Belfast was also home to the Titanic – and she was fine when she left Belfast I will just add – and we do like to celebrate that significance of our shipbuilding history and so we’ve kind of had the advantage to rebuild that area where the Titanic was once built so we’ve moved forward in industries and had a new industrial revolution turn digital revolution back home.
Adrian: Yeah, maybe you’re best to introduce my co-guest on the programme in the person of Richard Wakely.
Nuala: So Richard Wakely is with me here today. This evening we’re going to launch the Belfast International Arts Festival. So this is happening because of Richard and his hard work. Richard has just a small team of people that put together the programme – one of the most successful and longest standing in Belfast history so – over to you then, Richard.
Richard: Well thank you very much, Lord Mayor. It’s a pleasure to be with you here in New York and Adrian, lovely to talk to you, too.
Adrian: Your bio, and we see a lot of them, are there areas that you haven’t covered? You know, it reminds me somewhat of in the west of Ireland when there was a call for – there were like a couple of parish priests who came into areas that were minding their own business and they built churches and they really riled people up. And this was great! And then they were called to do the same thing over and over again. But there are – you have served in such a tremendous and great areas of leadership, not just in Northern Ireland, but you know – tell us a little bit about it.
Richard: Well I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career, Adrian. I suppose at the end of the day I’m a cultural activist.
That’s what I am. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in London for nineteen years. I’ve produced, co-produced, presented eighteen West End productions and a production here on Broadway, Frank McGuinness’ great Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. That came out of the theatre that I worked in in London. It was a great honour to return to Ireland and to be offered the job of managing director of our national theatre, the Abbey Theatre, where I was for several years. I was very…
Adrian: …And you were there for the rejuvenation of the…
Richard: …it was a golden age, I think, when I was there. I mean I’m very proud of the time that I had at The Abbey and you know delighted that The Abbey still goes from strength to strength so it holds a very special place in my heart. But I’m back in Belfast where I was educated – although my family’s a Dublin family I have a Northern twang as you can hear and I was educated in The North – so to be able to return to Belfast at this time, twenty years on from the Belfast peace agreement, and to I suppose use that experience in terms of creative entrepreneurship to help reshape our society is a great privilege. And I’m very, very lucky in what I do in running this wonderful festival.
Adrian: When, and most representatives recently anyway, have come to America and to North America have made great inroads in terms of investment and trade. The culture, the cultural aspects, of what you are obviously an expert in doing – is there a separate degree of support from the diaspora and particularly from North America? Obviously what you undertake is huge, it is costly and do you have a separate route in terms of funding from that or does it go through government?
Richard: Well a large portion of our funding comes from the public sector and that’s because we have public sector ideals and values so we’re lucky to get money from the tourist authorities, from the Arts Council. And we haven’t actually mined, financially, the links over here in America. But our festival, Adrian, has the strongest cultural links of all the festivals on the island of Ireland with America. And we regularly bring over artists to work with us, to work with our communities, from North America. So that has been the basis of our relationship up until now but the diaspora, as the Lord Mayor was saying, has a very important role to play in the future for us and as part of the civic engagement to build support for the bid for European Culture Capital designation in 2023 we’re asking our diaspora to actively get involved in backing the bid. And that’s terribly important and that’s why the Lord Mayor and I are here today and marking the submission of our bid in a few weeks time with a special reception here in New York this evening.
Adrian: The Belfast festival, the International Festival in Belfast, it pretty much stretches through the month of October.
Richard: Yeah. It’s been going for fifty-five years and it takes up most of the days and nights in October.
Adrian: Yeah. A huge undertaking when you figure that most festivals a week is, you know, is a stretch, yeah.
Richard: Well we’re ambitious! We’re ambitious! I mean the Belfast International Arts Festival is a major European festival. It’s not just a festival about Northern Ireland. It’s not just a civic festival. It’s a major European festival. It’s part of the cultural calendar, one, indeed, of the highlights of the cultural calendar, for the island of Ireland every year. And we’re very proud of that fact. And we’re very proud of the fact that we are ambitious for ourselves and for the city and our people. So that’s why we spend time searching out the best acts from around the world. Artists from fourteen countries are appearing with us this year over the twenty-two day period in all disciplines. You don’t have to travel to London or Edinburgh or New York to see these people – you can come to Belfast.
Adrian: Yeah. Tell us about the categories again – you’re talking about the disciplines, the categories – ranging from?
Richard: Theatre. Dance. Literature. Film. Music, both classical through to roots music. We have a lot of talks as well. A lot of it’s based around contemporary arts practice – so living artists – and it’s a very wide and expansive programme. We’re very proud of the fact that many of our events are free, Adrian, so you know that’s a very important part of our character because we believe that art is for everyone. So access and inclusivity and diversity are the cornerstones upon which the festival operates.
Adrian: Yeah. Now you have actually, obviously the history of the festival covering more than a half century, grew before, during and after the Good Friday Agreement. What is the common theme? Something just comes to mind: We were always very impressed here with, again pre-Good Friday Agreement, say the Cross Border Orchestra of Northern Ireland where actually artists, musicians, got together without any affiliation with, or we should say maybe despite the political situation, got together and actually produced something which again, they were very proud of and that had had a lot, obviously, to do with the border. How far and to what degree does the festival incorporate, say, outside of Northern Ireland, say – into The South?
Richard: We’re an international festival and so as I say we have fourteen countries visiting us throughout the year in this edition and we have many colleagues from the Republic coming to work with us. We co-produce and we co-commission with colleagues from The South and that’s a very important part of what we do. We’re about bringing people together in a civic space and in a creative space and we do that through working with like-minded artists and like-minded organisations, Adrian, across the city. So you will actually find us up the Falls Road and down the Newtonards Road, in the north of the city and in the south of the city. And the strength of the festival is its diversity and its ability to work with many partners. This year for example, the Lord Mayor and I were just talking about some of the funding that we’re on, we’re thrilled that the Irish government, in Dublin, are one of our sponsors this year. Indeed, this is the second year. So we get money from Westminster, we get money from Belfast and we get money from Dublin. We’re very fortunate. But that is a testament, I believe, to the values that we espouse of working together, of inclusivity – that civic dimension, I suppose, we’re talking about.
Adrian: We have through the years broadcast from Ireland from many cultural events and one of the most striking I think was covering Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann for their first time crossing the border, as it were, into Northern Ireland. And many would say at the time – and of course the naysayers would’ve said, you know, it’s a very bad decision and why would they do this and so forth – and we can say honestly that it was probably one of the most tremendous cultural experiences – everybody – okay – nobody cared, it was…
Adrian: …And that’s it. Now, in terms of the size of the festival, can you put some numbers on the number of visitors – you’ve already said fourteen countries – the approximate number of performances, acts?
Richard: Yeah. It’s a very, very big event this year, Adrian. So we’ve a hundred and ninety-one events taking place across the city. So it is huge. And I said fourteen countries, twelve premieres and we’re a festival of scale. Because as I said at the beginning of the interview, and this is important, is that we are ambitious. And I worry that, you know in Northern Ireland, that our history has made us rather parochial, rather inward-looking. But our festival is outward-looking. You know we’re a globally connected festival because we believe that Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland and the islands of the British isles need to be globally connected. We’re part of a wider global community and we reflect that through the stories that our artists bring to us through their creations.
Adrian: I want to come back to Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister, and again obviously we cannot ignore the advent of Brexit and obviously how that is going to affect Northern Ireland. Just generally maybe give us your opinion on that first.
Nuala: We can’t ignore and nor should we ignore it. One of the key things to mention here is that currently Northern Ireland doesn’t have an Executive, a government, which means currently Northern Ireland does not have a voice in the Brexit negotiations. And I know that it’s up to the Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, but Northern Ireland currently doesn’t have that voice speaking up for us and what do we want to see because we all want to see a friction-less border. We’re the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a border with a country that will remain in the European Union. We have so much juggling going on at the minute. We have so many unanswered questions. And I’m going to be honest, I don’t think there’s anyone who has those answers right now. I don’t think there’s any person within the UK government, in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland that can give concrete answers to people’s fears and worries about what will happen. All we can do is just hope that we get our government up and running, hope that the Prime Minister is speaking in our best interests.
Adrian: How though, in the meantime, obviously with your upcoming, now world famous, international Belfast cultural festival, that – you haven’t been waiting so who are you actually reaching out to? Who are you speaking with in terms, say in the UK, or is that something that you’re doing – obviously you’re doing it on your own without the representation but…
Nuala: …Belfast hasn’t been waiting at all. In fact, at Belfast City Council we’ve been providing excellent leadership and we have a fantastic team of people in our chief executive and we’re actually trying to pursue a city deal for Belfast and the wider area which would ensure economic growth for Belfast and, therefore, economic growth for the entirety of Northern Ireland. So we’re continuing to move forward because the world will go on, the world will continue. We are having conversations with Westminster regarding issues that we do have powers over. We cannot step, obviously, outside of where our powers do not lie but we’re still getting on with business because we have to and that’s just the way it works in politics – that sometimes you get the answers to votes that you perhaps don’t like but even within the difference within Belfast City Council we are providing excellent leadership and we’re moving forward regardless of what happens in two years or maybe even expand at this point with Brexit. Nobody really knows. It’s all a juggling game for both EU leaders and the UK leaders at the minute.
Adrian: You know we had Alastair Hamilton as a guest a couple of weeks ago on this programme who again represent the not only inward invest but the trade. As Lord Mayor of Belfast – yes obviously, you have the Alastair Hamiltons and you have many others, but how do you coordinate, as Lord Mayor, the great number – in the absence again I’m sure of the Northern Ireland Executive?
Nuala: Well we actually have great collaboration between both ourselves, the Belfast City Council, and Invest NI that you just mentioned whom Alastair works for. Indeed our colleagues here in New York – and once we’re here in New York we’ll be meeting with a number of people, those to welcome to Belfast and those to say thank you for as well as the diaspora, too. And we basically link in, organisation by organisation, at that kind of ground-work level and we have dedicated staff members and we are very open in terms of sharing of information and connections and everyone knows how vitally important that is. So we do a great job in Belfast. But at the minute it would be great if we did have ministers but actually investment is as high now as it ever has been even before.
Adrian: And of course we’re almost at this stage of the game take for granted the significance of tourism and the amasing advances that have been made in that that with or without a border or the hard border or any other border the island of Ireland has been marketed as such and that has to have to play a huge role.
Nuala: Oh! It – last year in Belfast I think the figure was at three hundred and thirty million from tourism. And we are seeing the effects of Game of Thrones – I’m not sure if you’ve ever watched it – but the majority of us are in Belfast and locations across Northern Ireland and that has created such huge economic growth for our region. And we have seen so many people taking tours across Northern Ireland. We’ve had more film studios now open in Belfast – people come in to actually film there which is excellent. And we have much more to offer, much more, in terms of our skills base, our location and what we have to offer for people coming outside in wanting to promote Belfast.
Adrian: Richard, I would like Richard Wakely who is the director and the person who can either be congratulated for big successes or, alternatively, will take the rap if it doesn’t turn out to be that, but just tell us about, again, the amount of, first of all the participation – how many thousands of people do you expect? And what’s the track record?
Richard: Well this year we’re expecting two hundred thousand people at least to engage at our festival.
And that’s primarily because we’ve been very lucky, very fortunate, to attract a very big, iconic, ceramic sculpture to Belfast and that’s called Poppies: Weeping Window. The full sculpture was first seen at the Tower of London and it’s a piece of work that is inspired by the First World War and speaks to the loss of life during the First World War. It’s the only place on the island of Ireland that is hosting it and we already know there’s a lot of people coming to see it. So it’s part of the, what the Lord Mayor was saying, it’s part of that tourism drive but it’s also unique, too – it’s the only place on the island of Ireland you’re going to get to see that and indeed many other wonderful events as well throughout the month of October.
Adrian: Can you give us the website?
Richard: www dot belfast international arts festival dot com. Very easy!
Adrian: I’ll leave the last word to the Lord Mayor and I know your time is very limited here and your handlers are going to wallop us if we don’t get you out of here but tell us about the Titanic Centre.
Nuala: Oh well – you mean the Titanic tourist attraction that just won Number One in the world? ! Yes, we are a leading…
Adrian: …Yeah! Don’t hold back now! (both laugh)
Nuala: Yes, we are a leading tourist attraction and celebrating our culture in shipbuilding is just part of our overall culture and identity in Northern Ireland. And part of that relates back to what we’re trying to do as a city council to build on the old industries of Belfast but also create opportunities through that both for those who visit and for those who live here. So the Titanic tourist attraction is excellent. If you haven’t been I surely suggest that you do – that whole area is re-generating within Titanic and you can see…
Adrian: …and it’s not a day trip, I can tell you!
Nuala: No, Belfast is not a day trip – it isn’t. And you know then we have, just Belfast, and outside we have our links to the Giant’s Causeway as yoou mentioned before and which people just love to visit and Bushmills, our distillery, which is not far from the Giant’s Causeway either, but Belfast has to be your number one and your first stop. And also City Hall, where I work, it’s a fantastic building. It dates back to 1906 when it was first opened to the public and so a lot of history there. And we have just opened the first exhibition of the history of Belfast. And you know I say that because it’s quite huge. We got political agreement that there was no narrative around the history of Belfast. It’s just, it’s there to show through sculpture, through art and through artifacts and so it’s an excellent opportunity – free – open to all in Belfast.
Adrian: The best website, again, for Belfast and for the bid on Belfast?
Nuala: So belfast city council dot co dot uk. (belfast city dot gov dot uk) Hashtag: #WeAre2023. We’re launching, for part of launching our bid, for the European Capital of Culture so I do suggest that you get involved by contacting Council.
But also online, Facebook and social media, which everyone, at the tap of a button, you’re able to do it – Hashtag: #WeAre2023. And the question that I’ll ask you is, if you’re part of Irish-America: What does ‘home’ mean to you? And if you’re in the Irish diaspora: What does ‘home’ mean to you? If you’re from Belfast, you’re from Doire – just get involved and tell us exactly how you feel.
Adrian: Thank both of you. I want to thank both of you for being here.
Nuala: Thank you very much, Adrian.
Adrian: You’ve had a great story to tell.
Nuala: Thank you.
Richard: Thank you very much, Adrian. (ends)