Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival

The week-long programme of events is given added weight following the death of Nelson Mandela

This week sees the second Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival swing into action, with a packed and varied programme of events taking place in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry until December 14.

You could be forgiven for having missed the festival’s first outing, as promotion in 2012 was low key – or, as one of the festival’s coordinators puts it, the marketing strategy amounted to 'an A5 leaflet and a couple of posters'. This year, however, there is a slick website and a published programme of events to peruse.

Kevin Hanratty, campaigns manager at the Human Rights Consortium (HRC), which oversees and coordinates the festival, explains that last year’s offering was something of 'an experiment' to see if there was an appetite for a festival of this kind. So there proved to be.

December 10 is celebrated across the globe as Human Rights Day, being the anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, of course, the day is given added weight following the death of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa and tireless human rights activist.

Northern Ireland has been part of the Human Rights Day party for several years, with many organisations marking the occasion in some way or other. In 2012, it was decided to bring all of those groups and their events together under the banner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival.

A popular ‘TED-style’ night of talks in the Crumlin Road jail was one the inaugural festival's highlights – this, along with a day of poetry slams and arts exhibitions in the Ulster Hall and educational events at Queen’s University, provided the core of the festival, and the basis upon which this year’s offering has been structured. Additional funding was provided by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

As well as the talks, lectures, reports and discussions that you might expect, this year the festival brings poetry, cabaret, film screenings and exhibitions to audiences keen to learn and be entertained. As Hanratty explains, getting the balance right between issues and entertainment is one of the main challenges, as the festival organisers are keen to get everyone involved in the discussion.

'To the person on the street, a lot of these topics seem very dry and caught up in politics. That can be a turn off,' Hanratty admits. 'So it’s useful to be able to put the message across in different ways. We’re still talking about the same issues but we’re trying to use different narratives and make these events more attractive to everyone.'

Satire has long been a powerful tool in hooking the attention and imagination of the person on the street – as well as lampooning the egos and agendas of the people in charge – so it’s no surprise that the Human Rights Cabaret is expected to be one of the highlights of this year’s programme.

This collaboration between the HRC and Tinderbox Theatre Company brings human rights to the stage in Belfast on Wednesday, December 11 and Derry~Londonderry on Thursday, December 12 with a series of comical sketches and songs, followed by a pub quiz 'that will be like no other', according to Hanratty.

'The actors will be involved, reading the questions, engaging the audience to guess the answers. It sounds like a lot of fun. Tinderbox were really enthusiastic about it. It’s really their work, we just gave them some background. We’ve told them not to be afraid to have a go at the HRC as well. We’re probably ripe for a bit of sending up.'

It won’t all be light-hearted larks, however – 'Groundhog Day: Five Years on from the Bill of Rights Advice' will adress the fact that there is still no official Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, Sidney Lumet's classic film 12 Angry Men will screen in Belfast's Strand Cinema, and women's rights will be the focus of a discussion event at Na Croisbhealai Cafe on Belfast's King's Street.

The other big event of the week is 'From A Republic of Conscience' on Tuesday, December 10, named after the lauded poem that Seamus Heaney wrote to mark Human Rights Day in 1985. Less than three months after Heaney’s death, it is likely to be a night of tangible poignancy.

Belfast Poet Laureate Dr Sinéad Morrissey and six local poets will present readings from Heaney’s work at Queen's University, as well as the written words of political prisoners and persecuted people around the world, for what Hanratty believes will be 'a very powerful event. It will be both a commemoration and an opportunity to keep that work going.'

With over 20 different events happening over the six day festival, it’s hoped that people of all ages and from various backgrounds will find something to pique their interest. Ultimately, Hanretty would like people to come away with an overarching feeling of hope and positivity.

'It’s very easy to get focused on the negatives in Northern Ireland, and obviously there are gaping gaps in human rights protection, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the history since the Universal Declaration was first signed in 1948.

'This year's festival is an opportunity to celebrate everything that’s been achieved. We want to celebrate that work. Hopefully this festival will show people that human rights aren’t just for the academics or legal professionals but that they are relevant to everyone in their everyday lives.'

Visit the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival website for full event listings.