Category Archives: Future


Sitting in the brightly lit university classroom, the statement hit like a scud missile. Coming from a man for whom I had quickly developed respect and affection, it caused considerable turmoil in my head.

“The really good marketers” – it came in the midst of a class on Entrepreneurial Marketing – “are those who move to London and learn their craft there before coming back home.”

I’m still not sure why it caused me to react the way that I did. At the time I was determined to move to London in any case. But I did not feel comfortable with this belittling of Belfast. It became a topic of conversation with my best friend, Cliona, who was also on the Masters with me. We rejected the notion. I stayed in Belfast. Cliona moved to Dublin.

Today we both know what Professor Carson – Dave – meant. It was not that London or Dublin are inherently better than Belfast. Put simply, the message was that to succeed in London or Dublin you cannot be average. They do not celebrate the average.

I have both a hatred of the average and a fear of being average. Another friend used to laugh when I would cringe and scoff at Sunday evening television for being “middle-class, Suburban blah.” It is saccharine filled drivel, full of lowest common denominator compromises. I remain uncomprehending as to why anyone would chose to sit down and watch Heartbeat. Some of the people I love most in life are huge fans, but I still cannot understand why.

Susan Jacoby delivers a fulsome critique of the evils of television in “The Age of American Unreason.” The specifics of her argument I have forgotten. But I do remember her blaming the dumbing down of America on the rise of television. Whilst I probably agree with Jacoby on the evils of television, my issue with Sunday night television is its averageness. My fear is that despite my refusal to watch Sunday night television, I am trapped by my own averageness.

Two months ago I resolved that my future would be based on my ambitions. Having drifted through my 20s on the backs of other people’s dreams and goals, I finally had a sense of what I actually wanted to achieve in life. It had a focus and specificity which the dreaming of my past lacked.

Two days ago, having failed to write anything in a month, I sat and stared at a blank screen. Becoming ever more frustrated with my inability to write, I eventually began a 900 word diatribe on my averageness.

My hatred of averageness and banality has some strange consequences. I cannot, for example, bear to listen to most presenters on local commercial radio; in particular Paul Kennedy and Pete Snodden are banned from my radio. So, when listening to music in the car, I am usually tuned to BBC Radio 1, whereupon my brain wonders, what is it about Nick Grimshaw or Sara Cox or Greg James that enabled them to become Radio 1 presenters? The simple answer is they are not average, nor did they settle for average.

Was it as simple as them moving to London? I cannot believe it so, but I can believe that by being in London or having the ambition of being in London then they were willing to go beyond average.

“The Last Empire” is a collection of essays from Gore Vidal. In one he recounts the tale of how a reviewer of his work was upset that he did not know how dumbed-down Americans were. “How dare I mention people that they had never heard of?” he quotes the reviewer as asking.

In that simple question Vidal’s reviewer showed his acceptance of the average. He showed his willingness to celebrate the mediocre, a position in which we all seem to now find ourselves. Recognising this in myself means that I have to do something about it. It means not being trapped by averageness but working to not be average. It means dedication, practice and focus. It means not being average.

To have a future that is different from the present requires us to make a change. Successful people are often filled with self-doubts. Their success comes from not allowing those self-doubts to define them. They don’t settle for average.



Filed under Ambition, Future, Personal

Only fools can predict a legacy…

During the week in which Barack Obama was inaugurated to a second term as US President, there has been much talk of his legacy. The White House is working to a plan to avoid the usual second term pitfalls, while the pundits speak of legacy as though they can preordain the future.

The lead character in the novel “American Wife,” a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, muses that only men are concerned with leaving a legacy. She may be right. What is more arrogantly masculine than believing that only we control both the inputs and the outcomes of what we do with our lives?

Yet, regardless of the possible masculinity of legacy hunting, it is premature to begin thinking about Obama’s legacy now. He is only at the mid-point of his Presidency. 40 years after Nixon’s Presidency, there remains disagreement over his legacy.

In his second inaugural speech, Obama gave us some clues as to what he would like us to consider for his legacy. Climate change and immigration reform featured. But, in paying tribute to the coalition of forces that secured his victory, he hinted at his symbolic legacy.

“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” rolled easily off his tongue. He confidently addressed gay rights in a way that no President has before. The first Latina Supreme Court Justice administered the oath of office to Vice President Biden. Richard Blanco was the first Latino and first openly gay person to deliver an Inaugural poem. Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first woman and the first layperson to deliver the Invocation at a Presidential inauguration.

If the pundits want legacy, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ presence on the Capitol steps virtually defines the word. At almost 80 years old, her legacy is one of continuing action and campaigning for civil rights, but one with accidental and tragic beginnings.

Born in Mississippi to a teenage mother, Evers-Williams was raised by her grandmother and aunt. Both schoolteachers, she followed in their steps. Myrlie enrolled at college so that she too could become a teacher. And on her first day, she met Medgar Evers. They fell in love, they married and they had three children.

Medgar became the state-wide organiser for the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Myrlie helped him with his work. Until, in 1963, hours after President Kennedy’s national address in support of civil rights legislation, Medgar was shot and killed outside their home.

Myrlie carried on campaigning. Interviewed in 2011, she said that she continued “out of my love and respect for him and what he did.” Her work involved three trials for the man responsible for her husband’s murder. Two trials in the 1960s produced hung juries; a conviction only secured in 1994. It included writing, running unsuccessfully for Congress, and working as a community organiser and fundraiser.

In 1995 she was elected as National Chairwoman of the NAACP, completing the circle begun by her husband three decades earlier. Her tenure is celebrated for steadying a storm-battered organisation. Evers-Williams herself once wrote “Almost none of those accomplishments were things that I, Myrlie Louise Beasley, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was raised to do.”

Did the women gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848 imagine a woman delivering the invocation at a Presidential Inauguration? Did those involved in the civil rights movement of fifty years ago picture that woman being black, speaking at the inauguration of a black man? Did the men and women who fought back at the Stonewall Inn imagine that an openly gay man would share the stage with Presidents and Senators, at the inauguration of a President publicly committed to achieving full equality for gays and lesbians?

If there is a lesson in any of this, it is that perhaps those pundits who focus on policies as legacy miss the point. Policy matters as the framework for laws, but laws can change in the blink of an eye. Transformations cannot be achieved without policy. But they are measured through symbolism; that of Myrlie Evers-Williams, of Sonia Sotomayor, of Richard Blanco, of President Barack Hussein Obama all sharing a platform on the steps of the US Capitol.

The symbolism of a changing America has been talked about as Obama’s legacy for as long as he has been a national politician. The reality of how big that change is was visible for all on Monday.

His political legacy is another matter. Amy Davidson summed it up best in the New Yorker. “There were plenty of reminders of how impossible it is to know how any given story ends,” she wrote. Davidson could see what other pundits are paid not to see; that the accidents of life and the whims of others have as much say as we do in what our legacy might be. Just ask Myrlie Evers-Williams.

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Filed under Future, US Politics

Reflections, not resolutions

It was news to me that my writing is too descriptive and, in the phrase of a good friend, “solid”, until I was 29. It may have been a deeply buried yet fleeting realisation on earlier occasions, but such thoughts were dismissed as the fault of others for not appreciating my writing.

This causes a problem because I want to be a writer. More specifically, I want to be a foreign correspondent. Writing skill and style is of rather critical importance to foreign correspondents. Journalists who lack the ability to write well are rarely successful.

Some writers have undeniable natural talents. Others have learnt their craft by writing, rewriting and rewriting lots more. People who want to be writers are told to read. But it is not enough to read the words on the page. The author’s chosen words and phrases must be dissected, critiqued, understood and, ultimately, absorbed by the reader.

This is all by way of saying that I do not do resolutions. Seventeen days into a New Year is not the time to be making New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I have faith in them. Maybe I have no faith in me. In any case, I do not do resolutions. But, two months into my 30s, I am ready to look ahead to when I will be 40.

Reflection  is natural at endings and beginnings. Entering my 30s in late 2012 meant that both November and December were especially reflective. With the melancholy of knowing that I no longer have some choices that I had at 20, but the excitement of better knowing who I am and what I am good at, I am ready to make some decisions. They are not a reaction to short-term impulse, like so many New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, they are rooted in reflection, and an ambition that was always there, but that was allowed to drift.

People who are confident in their decisions often say they have no regrets. They are happy with where they are in life. While I am not filled with regrets, there are undoubtedly opportunities not pursued, places not visited, and choices I wish I had made differently. Not wishing to be someone other than who I am, I do wonder about who that other me would be, and where I would be.

So, to writing. Instead of pursuing journalism after school, I decided that the temperament required to be a journalist was different from the one that I possess. I even justified my decision when a taxi driver regaled me with tales of drunken journos and broken marriages.

Kate Adie and Allan Little have a lot to answer for. From Our Own Correspondent has prompted me to pursue, at age 30, a career as a foreign correspondent. Listening to the programme on BBC Radio 4 has renewed my ambition. It has sparked a specific goal. Call it a resolution if you must. By 40 I will have featured, from some far-flung corner of the globe, on From Our Own Correspondent with a dispatch detailing life as the BBC’s Correspondent in said far-flung corner.

As the programme name suggests, only BBC Correspondents appear on the programme. So I shall need a journalism qualification, for which I will need several thousand pounds, and I shall need someone at the BBC to give me a job. For that to happen I will need to write well.

As I currently read Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” I am constantly struck by how none of my teachers took me aside and said to me, “Short sentences. No waffling.”

But reflection brings clarity, and clarity prompts action. So to develop as a writer I will write at least 500 words a day, with at least one published article on my blog every seven days.

Having thought of the what, the where looms large. Amid the self-destructive seizures to which Belfast is submitting itself once again, I question the fact that I still live there. Richard Florida wrote “I want to make sure that every day I see someone that looks and acts different than me.”  Belfast is too limiting, too insular, too toxic to be that kind of place.

Yet it remains home. For reasons both illogical and logical, I stayed. The chances to leave passed by while my eyes looked elsewhere. Other opportunities presented themselves, most notably in having an incomparable mentor and friend as my boss. But remaining in Belfast feels like being strangled in slow-motion. The grip of despair tightens month after month.

So the goal is Istanbul or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, maybe with a stop-off in London on the a way. The real goal is to live in a place that inspires, that contains real diversity and that has a cosmopolitan vigour. It is reflected in wanting to be a foreign correspondent and the chance that no assignment will last for longer than a few years.

It is reflected in my ambition to return to languages. There is an embarrassment at having failed to master a foreign language. Some might say I have yet to master English, but that does not negate my dream of learning a language or two, or three.

Spanish and Arabic are most appealing for the former’s sensuality and the latter’s mysticism. Both would be helpful for a career as a foreign correspondent. Both would be useful for personal adventures to South America and the Levant.

Combined, they amount to my dream that, long before I am forty, I will fondly remember my decade and a half in Belfast, but will do so from the banks of the Golden Horn or the galleries of San Telmo. And I will do so as a fluent speaker of Spanish and a competent speaker of Arabic, maybe even on the way to mastering Turkish.

Istanbul holds special fondness. It is where I became engaged, and it is the place where Kevin, my partner, and I hope to return for an extended period of time. It will not happen in 2013, nor in 2014, but we will live in Istanbul.

There remains, behind all of this ambition, the question of how? Only about 20% of people who set resolutions will succeed. Goals are one thing, taking steps towards them is another. Plenty of people, including teenaged me, are fans of motivational quotes. We all know the ones that urge us to “Dream Big”; something that encourages naïve teenage optimism, but that fails to connect inspiration with action.

I am ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that inspirational quotes on their own are as empty as a student’s fridge. Believing that big dreams and big ambitions would equal big success, I was convinced that success would be natural. It was a low and only a passing consideration that success requires focused, specific  and dedicated work.

Four things fed my natural procrastination: the lack of specific and personal goals; not knowing what exactly I was really good at; a fear of failure that was fed by my need for perfection and my need to analyse; and the fact that distractions are plentiful, whether invented by Steve Jobs or Johannes Gutenburg.

But my future happiness rests upon me making some changes. It will take more than words. My ambitions are now clear and specific. They now require a plan. They require me to reflect on what I have done at the end of every day, every week and every month to help make them a reality.

The path has been set. I cannot allow myself to be derailed. I need to finish what I start, no matter how big or small. I need to take individual and specific steps to make me happier and more successful. That means individual and specific steps to learn Spanish and Arabic. It means a specific and planned timetable to move somewhere more invigorating. It means a specific plan to save the money for a qualification in journalism, and it means developing my skills as a writer.

Fulfilling my ambitions will require me to be selfish with my time. I must be more disciplined and decisive, and develop routines to help. I must accept that I need to do more and analyse less. I will need to hold up a mirror to my excuse-making and time-wasting. I need to finish what I start, and these 1400 words are the start of something new.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Personal

Jean, tear down that wall – a shared society in Northern Ireland is not enough…

It has been a while since I put fingers to keyboard. My inspiration returned after the NI Community Relations Council’s annual conference.

Let me start by saying that one of my dreams is for a prosperous, stable, confident, creative, mature, diverse and successful society in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where peoples’ backgrounds have no bearing on how others perceive them, on what job they fulfil, or on where they live, go to school, or spend their leisure time. This can be achieved when people in Northern Ireland not only wish but work for this to happen.

I’m tired of hearing about a shared society in Northern Ireland. I want more than a shared society. I want us to be more ambitious. I want a visionary, creative and successful society. So I’m not going to settle for a shared society. Nowhere else in the Western world would settle for a shared society. Equally, I understand where the desire for a shared society comes from. I just don’t want to settle for it or for mediocrity.

As part of the conference we were asked a series of questions, and the audiences’ responses were partially analysed afterwards. Soft questions, predictable answers and woolly analysis assured my frustration.

One question asked about the role and voice of young people in the peace process. A more critical question in my mind would be to ask young people what they think of the peace process. Cue blank stares wondering why this ‘old’ guy with greying hair is asking them about dinosaurs. Young people do not have a place in the peace process because the peace process is over. It was over years ago and no matter how many circular conversations are had amongst people of a certain age, it now needs to be put to rest. We need to move beyond thinking about the peace process to thinking about how we make Northern Ireland a successful, creative society based on our visions of the future. It must not be about cementing the divisions of the past. Someone once said to me that anyone over 35 feels like they missed out on ‘normality’ because of the Troubles and they need their turn to try and fix ‘it’ for younger generations. You can’t fix something by clinging to a flawed vision though.

Another question asked whether or not a deadline should be set for taking down the peace walls – 20-odd foot walls dotted around Belfast to keep Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods separated and built at the request of communities. Initially surprised that the majority of people said no, I quickly realised that self-interest did not have to be declared through anonymous answers. Then to Jean, who offered her analysis of why she had voted no. Jean was adamant that no deadline should be set because her community of 700 Protestant people in Suffolk was surrounded by tens of thousands of Catholics in west Belfast and needed the peace wall to ensure they felt safe in their homes. In one line Jean blew apart the shared society.

Jean assured us that most of us had never lived in an interface area (the term used for the dividing lines between Catholic and Protestant areas) and that we could not know what it was like for people who do. Jean assured us that there was a lot of positive community dialogue between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities. Jean assured us that one day she wanted to see the peace wall come down but not until the Suffolk community was ready. I predict that if a shared society remains the height of our ambition in Northern Ireland, that peace wall between Suffolk and Lenadoon will never come down.

Later, I was asked on Twitter if, on the basis of having no time for the shared society concept, I wanted “a divided, sectarian, racist society” instead. Having tweeted that the Millenial generation in Northern Ireland wants an “ambitious, prosperous, creative society” more, my response was something along the lines of “Oh please.” Of course I want a shared society, just not as it has been defined as the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland.

My earlier frustrations from the day were reinforced at the second Kennedy Memorial Lecture in Belfast, delivered by Professor Robert Dallek. Within seconds of hearing some of JFK’s famous quotes, it struck me that Jack Kennedy would never have settled for a shared society. It would have been much too small for him. He asked Americans what they were going to do for their country. He challenged them to see that the path they were on was not going to deliver what they wanted.

A “shared society”, as the peak of our ambition, feeds the status quo. It fails to challenge the notion that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland. It fails to acknowledge that a shared society is held together by a plaster and that the spoils have to be shared around in equal measure. It fails to acknowledge that outside of this tiny region, no one cares about our divisions and if we want to attract investment and talent to Northern Ireland then we have to grow up and become a shared society in the way that ‘normal’ societies have.

In his opening remarks, Tony Kennedy of the Community Relations Council referenced Richard Florida and his work on successful places being those places that respect diversity. To my mind, Tony should have gone the step further in Florida’s thesis that the hallmarks of a successful city are tolerance of strangers and intolerance of mediocrity. A successful society is premised on the idea that to move beyond our divisions, we need a bigger vision for the future. It argues that a different Northern Ireland will only come when we combine our talents, ideas and creativity and recognise that a shared society just is not enough. And Jean, tear down that wall.


Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Society

Delusional politicians

Sometimes I really do wonder how politicians in Northern Ireland can be so lacking in leadership qualities that they don’t even realise that the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review is not negotiable. The sums of money announced by George Osborne on October 20th are not going to change just because Mssrs Robinson and McGuinness are “seeking a meeting” with the Prime Minister. Rather than whinge about the settlement, why not start to do something constructive? Why not actually use the CSR announcement as the starting point for refashioning Northern Ireland and its scloretic economy into somewhere that has a 21st Century economy based on collaboration, on innovation and on seeking to challenge conventional thinking? One thing is for sure – as much as the construction industry would like to believe that innovative thinking in that sector will be its saviour, it’s certainly not going to admit that construction and property were to blame for the economic crash as much as the banks were, so why should I expect Northern Ireland’s leaders to do anything constructive?

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Filed under Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

Deprivation begets violence. But what is the solution?

Northern Ireland has suffered another bout of summer violence. Low level and localised but depressingly familiar and shocking all at the same time. Cars burnt out, petrol bombs thrown at the police, 80 police officers wounded – one seriously when a piece of masonry hit her on the head – all in the space of four nights of rioting. Most people had thought that this was a thing of the past and that Northern Ireland had moved away from such scenes.

There is no question that there has been sometimes unimaginable change in the region over the past decade, and Northern Ireland is a better place today for this, and for the many other positive benefits of the peace process.Yet, for all this change, some things have stayed the same, and the ‘peace dividend’ has yet to be felt in many neighbourhoods – particularly some of the most troubled. In a recent article in the Guardian, Mary O’Hara writes about the background to the violence, and, more particularly, about the background of the rioters. She highlights that all too often, the factor that leads to violence – and is more often ignored – is the chronic deprivation of the areas and the people who live there.

The thing is, that for all the progress – and boy, has there been much to celebrate in recent years – districts such as the Ardoyne and parts of west Belfast remain areas of incredible, entrenched deprivation. For all the admirable work by individuals, local groups and communities at large to turn things around, sectarianism remains and poverty and social exclusion are its willing partners in crime.”

In a previous post, I wrote about Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in North Belfast, under the auspices of engaging young people in heritage led regeneration. During a community consultation on the possibility of restoring this architectural landmark, I spent a lot of time reading the Dunlop Report. Back in 2002, it was recognised that North Belfast suffered from some major social ills. Three men, led by Rev. John Dunlop, spent a period of time examining what these social and economic problems were before suggesting some ways of dealing with them. The report did not make for happy reading, nor does it do so today, despite almost a decade passing since it was written. My guess is that if the report were being written again today, it would say exactly the same thing again. In the foreword to the report, the three men wrote,

“We cannot overstate the significance of this problem [the division of communities and violence between them] or its potential to destabilise other parts of Belfast and Northern Ireland. We have been told that the situation in some areas is getting worse. While assistance is necessary from outside the area, such assistance must help local people, at all levels, to have the confidence and generosity of spirit to constructively tackle their local problems which are often the result of the breakdown of relationships and therefore of trust.”

The rest of the report continues in much the same vein, and rather than repeat it here, I would urge you to read at least the Executive Summary.

The work I mentioned on Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church includes statistics from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, the government’s statistics gathering and analysis arm. These did not make for happy reading either and two specific points from this data are regularly quoted by me – 6 of the 10 electoral wards immediately surrounding the building are in the top 10 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, and in 2005, only 2.7% of the population in the Shankill ward had a university degree; the NI rate is 15.8%. There are others: just 23% of schools leavers had 5 or more GCSEs at Grade C or above in the Shankill ward (63% in NI); in the New Lodge ward, 44% of people between 18 and 59 claimed Income Support in 2004 (11% in NI as a whole); and almost 16% of all recorded crimes in Northern Ireland were committed in either North or West Belfast. As a whole, it means that West Belfast is the most deprived parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, closely followed by North Belfast as the number two on that list.

University education is not the pinnacle of achievement, and the requirement for income support is not in itself a bad thing. Put them together, along with the presence of high rates of crime, major health problems – particularly mental health problems – and the continuation of double digit rates of long term unemployment (people out of work for 12 months or more), and the picture becomes bleak. Mary O’Hara’s point that poverty is the backdrop to the recent riots is the headline. The root cause is the lack of aspiration, and the sense of desperation that comes with that.

It is easy to see how young people in these heavily deprived areas feel trapped, as though the world is passing them by. Segregated in their local areas, with fierce loyalty to their own small patch of territory, and with neither incentive nor desire to mix with the population from the ‘other side’, there is an inevitablity to these young people seeking a way to draw attention to their situations. When dissident republicans are bent on causing trouble, and young people in these areas sense a way of bringing attention to their sense of loss and abandonment, little is going to stop this combination ending in violent outbursts.

The cause of the violence in recent days can well be traced to the marching of the Orange Order, but what in particular caused this year’s marching season to be more violent than last year’s or the year before? Something has to be seen in the chronic, long-term deprivation of the areas where the rioting occurred. Yes, there are people in these areas who are unhappy with the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Their support, such as it is, will continue to grow whilst society at large continues to ignore the real costs of segregation, of failing to tackle the lack of aspiration amongst young people, and of the sheer sense of loss and abandonment in these communities.

Part of what I believe has to happen involves an entire generational and attitudinal shift, both in our thinking about how to deal with deprivation, and in how we engage with these communities.

The answer has to lie in working with people, particularly young people, and allowing them to discover that there is something more than what has gone before. It is about showing them that they can remain loyal to their communities and their territories whilst looking outwards. It is about using their talents and skills to make their communities more successful. It is about finding a way of allowing these communities to see that the talents for delivering change lie within, rather than them hoping for a government department to deliver change for them. Back in the Dunlop Report, a telling paragraph reads,

 “A dichotomy…exists whereby young people in North Belfast feel depressed by their environment and engage in activity which intensifies their problems yet nevertheless they have a strong attachment to their community. They fear leaving it even when they know there are many opportunities and resources available elsewhere. They need encouragement to take a step outside their daily routines, to discover their talents and to serve their community.”

Furthermore, there is a wariness of outsiders and a wariness of people offering help. More often than not, promises have been made and shattered. Government strategies have been written and quickly forgotten. Masterplans have been drawn up only to be redrawn, and redrawn and never actually implemented.

Delivery is therefore key; but it must be delivery of something practical, beneficial, long-term and something that is based on solutions that come from within the communities. Young people, and the development of skills, will be vital, as will finding a sustainable project that taps into their talents. That wariness of outsiders and of broken promises will take years to eradicate. The division between communities might well take generations to eradicate. The depressingly chronic social and economic problems of these areas might also take generations to change, but that’s no reason not to try and the best way to do that is to foster a culture of aspiration amongst young people. O’Hara herself writes,

“If we are serious about dealing with social exclusion, with poverty, with youth criminality, with knife crime – whatever manifestation of a troubled society we are talking about in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter – we need to start with asking “why”, and we need to finish with an answer that doesn’t simply reinforce the miserable status quo.”

Nothing would break the status quo more than by, firstly, working with the local communities to help them find solutions from within and, secondly, creating a culture of aspiration that gradually, but radically, breaks down the cycles of dependence, despair and disappointment.

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Filed under Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

The power of “But…”

“But” is a particularly powerful word. Deceptively so. I remember hearing someone describe it as essentially a way of sounding agreeable or interested before saying, essentially, “What I said just now doesn’t count; the important bit of what I’m saying is coming up right now.” One word lets you say “ignore what I’ve just said.” Ever since, I have tried, and usually failed, to reduce my usage of “but”, particularly when I’m debating or arguing about something. Of course, in the heat of the moment, it sometimes gets forgotten, but my point is that I try. Hearing other people use it only strengthens my resolve, and a particular episode last week struck me as the power of “but” to negate an argument or to turn a positive into a negative.

Listening to The Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster on one particular morning – not something I do naturally – a man phoned in to comment on the findings of the Saville Report. Lord Saville conducted a 12 year investigation into the deaths of 14 people, shot by the British Army in Northern Ireland back in 1972, known as Bloody Sunday, and a particularly divisive episode in this little region’s history. History has disputed the situation in which these 14 people died – families and supporters claimed that they were innocent victims, participants in a banned Civil Rights march that turned ugly following a heavy handed response from the police and army; the army claimed that they had come under attack from the IRA and that they had been shot at first. An official inquiry in the immediate aftermath – the Widgery Inquiry – largely exonerated the army and found that many of those killed had been armed in some way. The families disputed this vehemently.

My point, however, is not about the Saville Report, which found that all 13 victims were innocent, and established that there was a complete loss of control and discipline amongst the members of the 1st Paratroopers Batallion, nor about Bloody Sunday itself. Rather, it is about the continuous offerings by ‘ordinary’ people in Northern Ireland that they “want to move on, but…” This is usually followed by a tribal and partisan rant about a specific grievance around something that the ‘other side’ did and has yet to atone for. I can’t remember the specifics of the point raised by the caller to the Nolan Show, other than that he opened by saying that he had no problem with the findings of the Saville Inquiry and that all he wanted was that people in Northern Ireland, from whatever side of the divide, forget the past and “move on” before going on to dig up an episode from the past and say that Northern Ireland’s people would not be able to move on until the grievance in particular was addressed. In terms of disclosure, the caller was unquestionably a unionist and his grievance had something to do with Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, formerly a senior IRA officer and who was found by Saville to have “probably” been in possession of a sub-machine gun on the scene, on the day of Bloody Sunday.   

Yet, nationalist callers could have a litany of complaints and grievances of their own to raise. Par example, “We need to move on, but Unionists need to…”; “We need to move on, but the British Government needs to…” and so on, and so on. I’m not sure if anyone is particularly aware of the irony of saying look to the future and then dragging up the past to say why they in particular are not willing to move into the future. There is no doubt in my mind that very many great hurts and terrible crimes were committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles over the course of the past 40 years. We will not, however, “move on” until everyone recognises that every single person in Northern Ireland can claim a grievance and until the past stays in the past.

I once had a conversation with a leader writer for The Times on the steps of Stormont. Looking out over Belfast on a starry spring night, she asked me about my take on what was causing a particular hold up in some negotiations at the time. I remember uttering, in what I thought was some earth shattering realisation that would appear in a Times editorial the next day, that “the problem is everyone wants to mould the future in their own way.” Banality aside, I think maybe the problem has become that everyone wants to mould the past in their own way. Not unique to Northern Ireland at all, but if people are not willing to let go of the past and move on, then maybe the new motto of Northern Ireland should be “But…”

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Filed under Behaviour, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics