Imagine! Belfast Festival: A local staple turned international event

For the second year in a row, Imagine! Belfast Festival will take place virtually with 115 webcasts.
“Belfast City Hall” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics will take place virtually from March 22nd to 28th.

The festival will provide high-quality showcases discussing contemporary political and societal views through online talks, workshops, theatre, comedy, music, film, and poetry.

This is the second time the Imagine! Belfast Festival has been held virtually, last year organisers had to move the event entirely online with only two weeks notice. 

This year’s event has 115 webcasts across the week and is “one of the largest of its kind in the world,” said Festival Director, Peter O’Neill.

International Expansion

According to O’Neill, holding the festival online has allowed them to expand their range of guests internationally. “Now that we’ve gone online that obviously encourages that wider showcase for the event, not just to local audiences but to international ones as well.”

The events this year include international guests such as American Linguist Noam Chomsky and playwright Bonnie Greer.

O’Neill has also found the move to online has changed the discussions that are happening during this festival and the audience that attends it.

“The nature of the discussions are increasingly cosmopolitan, less parochial, although we do focus on particularly the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland state,” he said. “But most of the events really look at kind of international single issues like climate change, Black Lives Matter, racism.”

The State of Us

Imagine! Belfast Festival 2021 focuses partially on Northern Ireland’s centenary which is being marked this year.

The festival’s theme is “The State of Us” which O’Neill explains was a theme that many of their patrons had asked organisers to cover this year. Through this theme the organisers hope to look at the relationship between Northern Ireland, England and Ireland as well as issues like Brexit and Welsh or Scottish independence, said O’Neill.

It will also look “at the state we are in economically, culturally,” he said. “The pandemic in particular has impacted so many aspects of lives. So we are looking at the state of our health service, other economic, social and cultural forces that are impacting on society.”


The performances during the week-long festival include a production by Kabosh Theatre Company in Belfast which will be a mock newscast based on news from BBC and RTÉ.

“The writer, Vincent Higgins, is actually writing the material the day before so it’s going to be really hot off the press,” said O’Neill.

There will also be a short play called ‘The Astronaut’s Missing Passport’ which focuses on a woman who is stuck in an immigration office in a small UK airport. Poetry readings, live music and comedy performances focus on a variety of political topics and social issues.

Senator Eileen Flynn will be speaking on racism towards Irish Travellers in her talk ‘The everyday racism experienced by Travellers’.

The aim of this festival is to organise a programme of performance, discussion and debate as well as encouraging the participation of underrepresented groups in political or cultural debate and promoting free speech, according to Imagine! Belfast.

This is the seventh year that the festival has taken place. It was originally inspired by the Scottish Independence referendum and the passion organisers saw there compared to Northern Ireland.

“We thought given our sort of flat political culture at the time it could be useful to have a sort of festival or platform to encourage citizens, to encourage ordinary people to get involved in more political debate,” explained O’Neill.

The majority of all the events will be free to attend according to Imagine! Belfast. All events can be found on their website and will also be streamed on Imagine! Belfast’s Facebook page and on YouTube.

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