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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

European Unionists bring their "constructive ambiguity" to Stormont

Updated: May 26

After I had landed in Belfast, and recovered from my temporary vertigo / nausea, I headed into the city centre, where I left my guitar at the hotel before legging it across town to the Ulster Museum.

I slightly regretted walking so fast, as by the time I got there, the vertigo and nausea had returned. I was greeted by a delightfully cheery assistant who informed me that most of the exhibitions were free and what was on display. I was particularly amused by his description of the gallery of “Northern-Irish Impressionists” which “randomly” included a Renoir painting, which he said was “a bit odd” but was supposed to represent their source of inspiration.

L'allée au bois, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

'Resting' by Sir William Orpen was my favourite painting in the exhibition - probably because I felt an emotional connection with the young woman, having worked in similar menial jobs myself. I was glad they named the model, Lottie Stafford, despite the fact that she was a washerwoman 'who lived in a decrepit part of London'.


I enjoyed these paintings, even though they were quite trad – although in some cases I was more impressed by their incredible frames.

After looking at the “old trad” artworks I walked through some double doors and was hit by a wall of candy-floss pink – a starkly contrasting exhibition of prints. I was particularly drawn to the political messaging of some of these artworks.

I was most delighted to see a collection of John Piper prints on display – an artist I have always loved for his gestural linework, bright colours and magnificent deployment of light and shade.

I then ventured downstairs and discovered an exhibition about the Troubles, which is quite pertinent to my research interests.

'Weave of Diversity' by Helen Averley was commissioned by the Community Relations Council to represent the diverse communities. I need to find out some more about this artwork as it relates heavily to my research into the use of textiles to foster communtity and celebrate identity.

There were a lot of flags and propaganda prints on display.

I thought the incorporation of barbed wire in this sketchbook display was particulalry powerful - as I have noted the presence of barbed and razor wire across the city - especialy on domestic properties.

My favourite thing in the exhibition was this chalk board, which reminded me of an episode or Derry Girls where the Catholic and Protestant communities are asked to come up with things they have in common and they can only think of their differences...

And finally, I found my spirit animal – glistening, blue butterflies in a display case: bright, bold, sparkling, slightly erratic, flittering, swift, fragile and gentle - kind of sums me up...

I love butterflies and moths, but as soon as insects have long, straggly legs – they give me the ick. I am particularly terrified of spiders, but anything with noticeable legs makes my skin crawl. Given that I seem to be semi-allergic to insect bites maybe its not an entirely stupid adaptative response? Urrrrgggghhhhh soooooo manyyyyyyy ickyyyyy legssssss.

I then dashed a few blocks away to a Café Nero I had located on Google Maps, knowing that they would have plug sockets and wifi, and significantly better coffee than Starbucks. I was just in time for the MA teaching session, although I’m not sure how valuable my participation was given that I had a headache, to accompany my cold and cough, and my brain was functioning at about 20% capacity.

 

Afterwards I headed back to the hotel, where I could now check-in and caught up on urgent work before crashing out for the night. It turned out to be a very noisy night, the hotel faced a park which, despite being overlooked by a beautiful church and there being signs saying there was a £500 penalty for drinking, was full of drunks during the night. At about 1am there was a lot of screaming going on between an unhappy couple. After they had disappeared, someone who I assume was drunk (and a man) started going up and down the corridor of the hotel rattling all the door handles trying to open them. He banged on my door four times in the space of half an hour, and it was honestly terrifying – the door was obviously locked but I still felt very afraid and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest every time he came back … it took me a long time to fall asleep again after that. Finally, a lorry parked outside around 6am and the shop next door made a huge racket as they unloaded goods – at which point I gave up on trying to sleep. I should have brought some ear plugs, although I have yet to find any kind that actually work. I am a very light sleeper, and incredibly sensitive to noise – anything can wake me up… So, I’m basically used to functioning on very little, very disrupted sleep now.

After obtaining a coffee, I got dressed up in my EU gear, packed up all my belongings and headed over to the Northern Ireland Assembly buildings. I am extremely impressed with the buses in Belfast, they are frequent, on-time, clean and not over-crowded – the absolute opposite to bus services in England! When I arrived at Stormont, I took some photos before heading through the security and into the venue.

It was an extremely impressive building, and I was particularly delighted that they seemed to have a gender equality campaign, with ‘Women in Parliament’ displayed on boards around the main atrium – including one featuring one of our speakers, the lovely Jane Maurice. I was so happy to see her again, I really wish she could be my granny, I love chatting with her, she is so positive, supportive, bold, funny and powerful – she truly inspires me. She introduces herself as a "European Unionist" which she describes as "constructive ambiguity".

Jane's display board with a small section of her impressive CV.

Hilariously, none of the three MLAs who were required to sponsor the event, turned up even though one of them was due to make a speech.

I enjoyed all of the other speakers (who did show up), although I felt a bit out-of-my-depth on the discussion panel which was mainly focusing on legal challenges and the voting rights of Irish citizens in Northern-Ireland – neither of which were topics I know much about. So, I had to think carefully about what I was going to say – drawing on examples from my personal experience and knowledge but trying to relate it back to the topic of discussion.



The final questions “Is the European Parliament all its cracked up to be?” was a tough one… Most of the panel responded negatively, but sitting there with the EU stars emblazoned on my chest, I felt obliged to make the positive case:


I started by pointing out that the European Parliament was far from perfect and that the values and principles which underpin the European project often get lost in the bureaucracy of the institution. I gave an example of my “personal beef” with them – when they offered me a Schuman traineeship after I won their Charlemagne Youth Prize but then withdrew that offer when they discovered I didn’t have a BA degree (which I dropped out of because I was campaigning against Brexit and promoting the European Union in the UK). It seemed unjust to me after I made that huge sacrifice in the name of the institution which rejected me because I didn’t meet their “rules”. Despite this personal complaint, I still believe in the importance of the European Project which at its heart is a peace project which has successfully ended the conflict in a continent historically ravaged by the horrors of war. The purpose of the European Parliament is to get countries together around a negotiating table to solve their disputes through dialogue and not by violence – with people’s lives as collateral damage (this was my key point and I was glad that it seemed to go down well with the panelists and the audience). I agreed that the European Parliament was not perfect and there was much room for improvement but the alternative – the nation state – is not a better solution. Just look at the disaster that is Brexit, we have lost our rights and privileges as EU citizens, we’ve lost environmental protections, the economy has been damaged – and for what? What have we gained from Brexit? Nothing. So, my answer to Jane’s question was “Yes - the EU is everything it’s cracked up to be”.

Immediately after, I grabbed my guitar and performed two songs – everyone was desperate for lunch as we had over-run by half an hour and my voice wasn’t going to hold out for anymore. I performed ‘Bridges Not Borders’ and ‘It’s Time To Vote’ which seemed to be the most pertinent for the occasion. I checked with the organisers and some of the speakers ahead of the event whether it was too sensitive a topic to perform my song about the Irish border, the organisers (who were not locals) weren't sure, but the Northern-Irish and Irish speakers informed me that after the peace treaties were signed - the first act was to rebuild the bridges which had been destroyed in the conflict as a symbol of peace and co-operation - and so, they encouraged me to sing 'Bridges Not Borders'. It was by no means a good vocal performance, I struggled through as best I could and will not be posting a full video online. Still, a number of people came up to me afterwards to say how moving they found the lyrics - Jane told me that I said more in a song than any speaker can rambling on for ten minutes (she really instils confidence in me). After chatting in-depth with a couple of people who were interested in involving me in local campaigns/events – I had to make my apologies and dash for the airport.

Unfortunately, I had to book a flight from Belfast International airport (which is an hour and a half away by public transport from Stormont) instead of Belfast city airport (which is basically next to it) because, otherwise I wouldn’t have got home until 1am. I made it to the airport in plenty of time, as the security queues were very small and they didn’t seem fussed about my guitar at all. At airports in England, the staff freak out when you show up with an instrument – hand searching the guitar and every pocket and crevice of the case before swabbing it for chemical tests. Belfast airport on the other hand seemed surprised when I asked what to do with the guitar – “just put it through the scanner with the rest”. I’m also pretty sure I left one of my inhalers in the guitar pocket, and they didn’t even flag it (inhalers are supposed to go in the liquids bag). They didn’t need me to take my hair straighteners out either – which makes me wonder how unnecessary other airport's security policies are… Most of Belfast International airport appears to be a pub, however, I was on a mission to find coffee and plug sockets as my phone was nearly out of battery. Unfortunately, the only café which had available plug sockets was Starbucks, so I opted for an espresso since you don’t have to endure the disgusting taste of their burnt-dirty-dish-water-coffee for very long to get the caffeine hit. The flight home was full of stag and hen dos (to be expected when you are travelling to Manchester on a Friday evening), there was a “bride squad” in front of me who were extremely loud and cackling with laughter the entire flight. Fortunately, we were only in the air for 45 minutes as I had a headache by this point. One of the main reasons I don’t ever want to get married is because I hate “wedding culture” especially the obnoxious behaviour and tackiness of the “hen / stag dos” which is a hallmark of British culture.

 

Since I was allocated a seat at the front of the plane and we didn’t have to get through passport control, I managed to run through the airport and make an earlier train than I thought I would be able to catch. I got home about 7:30pm (meaning the journey took 6 and a half hours) and was delighted to see the kitties – who I had left with a 48-hour food timer. Boudicca kept giving me nose kisses, shouting at me for treats and wanted to play with her feather fishing rod for ages (I feel bad for leaving her for so long), Kafka on the other hand was in a right grump and kept growling at me and bit me when I tried to stroke him. Despite his grumpiness, he still wanted to sleep on me. Kafka is much heavier, so he lies on my legs whilst Boudicca (who is tiny for a Maine Coon) lies on my chest – I have to move her down a bit or I get a mouth full of fluff.  


Feedback


One of the young men I met at the event, a refugee living in Belfast made this very touching post about the event on LinkedIN:


Bridges Not Borders Lyrics


VERSE 1

We have learned to love, we have learned to forgive,

We found a solution that everyone could live,

To sacrifice on the altar of delusion,

When Peace is the victim of this false illusion

 

CHORUS

Bridges will stand,

Borders will fall,

There is no support,

For this dividing wall,

Together we stand,

Divided we fall,

The stakes are raised so high,

Because this matters to us all

 

VERSE 2

People so unaware of consequences untold,

Now the extent of the threat that’s posed begins to unfold,

The deception uncovered, it’s time to think again,

The final say must be given to all women and men

 

CHORUS

 

OUTRO

Bridges not borders my friends,

This is where the compromise must end,

Reach out and I will take your hand,

We must never, ever heed to this demand


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