Fostering liminality: Lessons from Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (Vol. 5)
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
13 February 2020
Director of the 147 Trust, Rev. Dr Bill Shaw OBE, welcomed guests to the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Art for the launch of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined – Shifting Borders, Shifting Identity. The Duncairn Centre, he highlighted, is the only building in North Belfast purpose-built as a shared space for the arts.
It seemed fitting that this event should take place in such a space, as it celebrated the fifth edition of this book that shares many perspectives on the state of contemporary British-Irish relations.
Chief Executive of the British Council, Sir Ciarán Devane, reflected briefly on why the British Council does the work that they do. Reflecting on the inception of the British Council in 1940, he stated that their original mission statement foregrounded the necessity to “foster the interchange of knowledge, ideas, and discovery”. This, he believes, is the key to peace and reconciliation.
Devane continued by arguing that we must create an environment where good things can flourish, that this comes from people reaching across and sharing with one another, and that this is fundamentally what the British Council aims to do: facilitate difficult conversations in order to break barriers that impede the capacity for relationships. Lives Entwined explores the complexity of creating connections, as well as the nuance, brilliance, and difficulty of one’s sense of identity and belonging in a shifting society.
Glenn Patterson, novelist and contributor, moderated the evening, introducing the speakers and engaging them in conversation surrounding their perceptions of identity in this nebulous time. He welcomed contributors Grace Dyas, John McCallister, Shannon Sickels (Yee), and Conall McDevitt to the stage, to read and reflect on excerpts from their essays.
Acclaimed Irish writer, activist, and theatre director, Grace Dyas, considered the immense dissatisfaction facing society: a reality that neutralises national identity in her eyes. The people of Britain and Ireland are discontented, existing in a liminal space. “To me,” she writes, “it feels like Britain’s membership of the EU is a fake problem, invented to distract the people from the real problem: their suffering under the weight of late capitalism.” Faced with problems and with feasible resolution, Dyas put it, people sit in-between, in liminality; however, it is in this space that transformation blossoms.
Former unionist politician and board member of the Community Relations Council, John McCallister, emphasised the perpetual shifts in borders and identities that have taken place in both Ireland and Britain for generations. This inextricably links Britain and Ireland together as “complementary identities”, he argued. Rejecting that reality, McCallister asserted, is a rejection of plurality. Instead, he implores us to embrace “ambiguity, fluidity, and change”.
On his contribution to the volume, former politician and current CEO of Hume Brophy, Conall McDevitt, referred to identity as “truly layered”. Like McCallister, McDevitt views the relationship between Britain and Ireland as mutually dependent; therefore, the identities that exist within these places must be reconciled as interdependent as well. That is to say, existing together throughout culture and history. This reconciliation comes from accepting and embracing the diversity in oneself and the diversity in others, McDevitt reasonsed.
For award-winning playwright and producer, Shannon Sickels, “it’s time for a drastic reset”. Identity, she contends, is a construct; an “act of self-determination”. She observed that from a young age we begin to assert our autonomy, our identity, before culture, politics, and society impede us on our path to self-discovery and pit us against one another in isolation. “We must,” Sickels asserted, “wrangle with the power of the group, with all its cruelty and kindness.”
With the authors’ book contributions submitted pre-Brexit context, Patterson raised the fact that there is a sense of foreboding that imbues many of these essays. Yet Dyas suggested that this has brought people alive. The political and social shift instigated by Brexit has brought about a social and political transformation that has more people involved in politics and choosing care and compassion in their policies.
To this effect, McDevitt believes that human civilization continues to progress and that this momentum is our great hope. The problem we face, however, is disagreement on how to progress and identity politics often get in the way. “Identity is either your prison or your liberator,” he stated, and it is up to us to determine how identity will affect us.
Sickels remarked that an acknowledgement of power structures, hierarchy and privilege is imperative when discussing our capacity to progress in society. Identity can and should be a liberator, she argued, provided that one is supported, not isolated, by society. We do not and cannot exist in isolation, impervious to the collective. We would be remiss to disregard the impact that the hierarchical dynamics of mainstream society have on marginal identities.
After the panel was dismissed, guests were invited to peruse older copies of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, watch videos of contributors reading excerpts from the volume, or listen to a recorded poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Individual book chapters, the entire book, a promotional video, and an audio recording are all available at the British Council website.