Adrian Dunbar’s speech

Presenting the 2022 to 2023 award, Adrian Dunbar said:

“Thank you Roy, and thanks to all the judges for asking me to present this auspicious award today. 

“The ambition of the Christopher Ewart-Biggs prize was to foster understanding between our two countries, and looking through the past winners, it is remarkable how the award prefigured the focus of so many artists and writers in the years that followed; the need to explain the nature of our relationship did indeed become paramount. The past winners include many friends and work colleagues of my own, acquaintances, and of course people I admired appear everywhere, as they do here today. A. T. Q. Stewart, Stewart Parker, Brian Friel, Garret FitzGerald, Seamus Heaney, Fergal Keane, Frank McGuinness, and it was wonderful to be reminded of Donal McCann’s performance at the Royal Court in Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom

“Something else struck me at the time of the awards announcement: it was a remarkable response to grief. It still is, and the fact that its significance has grown over the years and indeed fostered understanding is testament to Jane Ewart-Biggs and those who set it up. 

“Of course, that fateful day sadly couldn’t draw a line under what was to follow, and in the north, we entered into a dark and brutal period that must have made all those connected with this prize wonder at times if the small light they lit would continue to burn. The horror of that period still stalks the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women in the North of Ireland today. The background noise of so many lives is a mother, a father, a sister, or brother dead before their time in a violent act. 

“However, looking back on those evil days of the 1970s it is almost inconceivable that in the last few years, and particularly as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, that we find ourselves in an entirely changed landscape. A place where finally the language of peace takes centre stage again. 

“My own history, like the histories of many people in this room, mirrors the symbiosis that exists between our two countries. My great grandfather was a Campling from Norfolk. He was Regimental Sergeant Major in the Enniskillen Fusiliers. My grandfather was a colour sergeant, who as a drummer boy, drummed Queen Victoria off the boat at Queenstown. He was later badly injured at the Somme, his brother died in the Dardanelles. My five uncles fought the second war. The regiment held the line for Wellington at Waterloo prompting Napoleon to declare: ‘DAMN THAT REGIMENT WITH THE CASTLES ON THEIR CAPS’. Many hundreds died. As a result, the flag of St George flies over Enniskillen Castle today, the only place it does so outside of England. It’s worth noting that 40 per cent of that regiment at Waterloo would have taken their orders in Irish. 

“My father’s people, the Dunbars, are from a tight Nationalist enclave of Portadown in County Armagh called Oban Street or the Tunnel. My father came from five generations of carpenters. It was in Portadown that I first came across sectarianism, and it was here and elsewhere in the 1970s that the biggest movement of civilians happened since World War Two. Thousands moved within months. Catholics moved from Protestant areas to Catholic ones and vice versa. It was here also that I realised the inbuilt obsolescence that segregated education places on any enterprise —at five years old you know you’re different, and ultimately the fear of the unknown, of each other, trumps reason. 

“So, I suppose in many ways, I myself am an example of this complicated relationship… made further complicated recently by a DNA test that told me I was 27 per cent Scottish. Sadly, no Welsh. 

“The relationship between our two countries has entered a new phase. Despite continued setbacks — like the stress placed on Ireland by Brexit — the basic tenets and aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement have held firm. The next few years are going to be crucial to our relationship into the next hundred. There is something happening in Ireland right now that is very interesting — it is a people who are realising they have the ability to reimagine their country free from the influences that have been so dark and destructive to the natural exuberance of the Irish people in the past. All over Ireland discussions are taking place as to what this new unified country might look like. 

“Every day now it seems the island, so long psychologically scarred by the knife-cut of partition, is beginning to make itself whole again. Infrastructure and institutions are gradually fusing back those broken nerve endings and all with the blessing I hope of both governments. 

“Here in the UK the truth seems to be in very short supply these days. It’s hard to know where to look to find commentary that reflects the lived experience of ordinary people, and by that, I mean us. 

“Increasingly, it seems the arts themselves and a handful of news outlets and journalists are all that’s left of what used to be the Fifth Estate and a much broader debate. 

“However, just now and again the arts or a piece of journalism hits the spot and gathers the facts as truth. I’m thinking here about Ireland’s former ambassador to the UK, Bobby McDonagh’s articles on Brexit in the Irish Times; or the wonderful recent TV programme Mr Bates Versus the Post Office, which achieved something in days that had been a scandal for decades.

“All of our nominees tonight have something of this about them.

“We have singled them out today as people with the desire to gather the facts as truth and present them as insight to the symbiotic relationship that exists between us. All our nominees tonight seem aware of this moment and all of them in different ways are shedding light on the past reminding us of how fragile peace can be and how we must continue to work for it. We really have to applaud them for giving us fresh insight into our own pasts and allowing the light of the facts as truth to deepen the understanding of everyone in these isles of the sometimes painful and difficult lessons brought on by proximity.

“As actors in the theatre, we are finely tuned to the audience, we know when the written line is summoned and made flesh and hits the collective consciousness and the rumble of recognition rolls around the room. However, there is one reaction that actors prize even more and that is something called the laughter of recognition. 

“The laughter of recognition is a precious thing, it connects the writer, the actor, and the audience in a kind of sublime way as it confirms our collective understanding and humanity. And so, for the sublime way she has made us laugh with recognition and for giving us so many reasons to protect the precious peace, this year’s Christopher Ewart-Biggs prize goes to the writer of Derry Girls, Lisa McGee.”