Belfast Telegraph

20 years after Agreement, the irony that new 'hand of history' show won't be seen in Belfast

By Ivan Little

A major new art exhibition in Liverpool celebrating the Good Friday Agreement won't be coming to Northern Ireland because of the collapse of the Stormont Assembly - set up in the wake of the Agreement.

Organisers say the irony of artistic ironies has been caused by the absence of local politicians to approve funding for the exhibition of sculptured bronze hands of many of the architects of the April 1998 peace deal.

The exhibition, which is part-funded by the Irish Government, is being hosted by the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool to mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreement.

One of the curators, Ann Bartley from the ArtisAnn Gallery in east Belfast, said: "Although several venues here were keen to host it, the exhibition is yet another victim of the MLAs' failing to reach a deal, as the funding cannot be approved."

Sculptor Raymond Watson's first Hands Of History exhibition in 2004 included nine pairs of hands of prime movers behind the Agreement, including the late Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and the late Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine.

Mr Watson, a former republican prisoner in the Maze/Long Kesh, said many of the people he featured in his first collection had initially refused to shake hands with each other during the Agreement negotiations.

At that time, Mr Watson was unable to meet the man who inspired the exhibition, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who famously said in the run up to the Agreement that he felt the hand of history 'upon on our shoulders'. But the Cushendall-based sculptor has now got his hands on Mr Blair for his updated exhibition.

He said: "I flew to London to take a cast of his hands and I told him that it was his 'hand of history' remark in Hillsborough that set me thinking about the idea for my original exhibition.

"I began to focus on the significance of the red hand in our history and I wanted to find a way of visualising it."

The new exhibition is called The Hands Of History +20.

And that's because Mr Watson didn't content himself with just adding Tony Blair to his exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum in the University of Liverpool. His new subjects include the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern; Bernie McGuinness, the widow of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness; Lord Chris Patten, the chair of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland and Methodist minister the Rev Harold Good, who was a witness of IRA decommissioning.

Mr Watson said he was disappointed that the exhibition wasn't scheduled to visit 'its natural home' of Belfast, but he hasn't given up hope of finding funding later in the year. He added: "The Good Friday Agreement is a highly important agreement not only in the north but internationally, where it is seen as a blueprint to resolve conflict through peaceful means, as opposed to who won. Clearly, things seem a bit grim at the moment, but in my opinion every crisis at Stormont has eventually been sorted out and the peaceful path wins through at the end of the day.

"Too many people have invested far too much in progress to allow it all to be undone and unwound."

All the bronze hands are mounted on bases cut from Mourne Granite; the same material that forms the steps to Parliament Buildings in Belfast.

This Hands of History +20 exhibition will be accompanied by two new installations that combine historical items with digital technology. The artefacts include a grappling hook made by prisoners in the Maze in the Seventies and the actual keys from cells at Belfast's Crumlin Road gaol.

Belfast-born Professor Peter Shirlow, who is the director of the Institute of Irish Studies, said he believed it was important to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Agreement and the part it played in reducing violence and building peace within communities here.

Prof Shirlow said: "Violence is pernicious and grinding and difficult, but we have to remember that 20 years on from the Agreement we are living in a better place."

He added that the Institute has also commissioned a digital photographic exhibition of images of conflict from Northern Ireland, Iraq, Colombia and Argentina. A video of animations of young and old people reading out extracts of the Agreement also features, as does a display of commemorative quilts related to the innocent victims of conflict. Mr Watson said the hands in his exhibition weren't identified, leaving it up to viewers to try to say who was who. He also revealed that when he met the Prime Minister to make a cast of his hands, he asked him how long he had thought about the 'hands of history' soundbite.

Mr Blair told him he hadn't planned it all and that "it just came out" - a hand comment that was off-the-cuff, so to speak.

Belfast Telegraph

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