Peace & Reconciliation - The Opera

Peter Geoghegan finds out how the money was spent

At first glance, opera seems the most unlikely medium through which to poke fun at peace funding and its worst excesses. But the second night of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival saw director Peter Morgan Barnes attempt to do just that in a wittily written and excellently paced production of Peace and Reconciliation: the Opera, performed in an ante-room in UU’s York Street campus.

Commissioned in 2004 the piece is far removed from the Norse gods and Greek myths of more standard operatic fare. Instead it takes as its subject matter the huge amounts of money poured into Northern Ireland by the European Union at the first signs of a peace process.

The opera opens with a horned Mephistopheles, draped in an EU singlet and played to great comic effect by Emma Harper, tempting a recalcitrant Ulster (Catherine Harper) with promises of cash, in exchange for peace. In timorous, high pitched song Mephistopheles manages to convince Ulster to ‘buy peace with honour, reconciliation too’.

As the peace money flows into ‘little Ulster’ a whole army of civil services and bureaucrats emerge to administer it. Looking for funds to repair the roof of his local badminton club the excellent David Revels is sent on a Kafkaesque journey through a labyrinth of form filling, box-ticking and consultation.

Judging by the laughs at this performance, this experience of applying for peace funding had been shared by many in the audience. After initially rejecting his request, and with surplus money needing to be spent, the civil servants decide, much to the consternation of local residents, to replace the cross-community badminton club with a state of the art sports facility ‘the size of Heathrow’.

At just over 45 minutes, Peace and Reconciliation: the Opera presents a fast moving, genuinely satirical appraisal of the tragi-comedy that has been peace funding in NI. Although the acting at times did not match the vocal capabilities of the performers the piece was carried off with great gusto and no lack of enthusiasm.

The role of filthy lucre from Europe in finally bringing the conflict to something akin to a resolution is a point well worth making. Wonderful opportunities for helping communities were wasted as peace funding was tied up in bureaucracy and lavished on overpriced showpiece projects and constructions.

The story of the willful destruction of the shared space of the badminton club provides a nice analogy for the steady erosion of many organic cross-community initiatives in the tide of cash that flowed following the troubles.

The piece closes with Mephistopheles, her head turned away from ‘little Ulster’, singing that the EU is shifting attention east and ‘the money is going to Poland now’. This sobering conclusion stands as a timely reminder that the gravy train has long pulled out of Belfast Central, taking with it the days of extravagant peace funding.