Rewrite our future! Washington Ireland Program Thanksgiving Ball 2017
by Allan LEONARD
25 November 2017
The Thanksgiving Ball has become an annual tradition of the Washington Ireland Program, held at this time of year in recognition of the generosity of families in America who host visiting participants. Tonight’s event, with several hundred attending at the Hilton Hotel in Belfast, took on an added significance with the award recognition of Norman Houston and Nuala McAllister.
But before those presentations, the programme’s chief executive, Bryan Patten, explained the motivation behind the awards as one of encapsulating the “spirit of WIP”, namely: humility, empathy, respect, and integrity:
“The purpose of the organisation isn’t the accumulation of leadership positions for alum. It’s actually the spirit and behaviour of people that are within the community when they have the opportunity to lead and serve and the ethic and ethos about which they go about that.”
Bronagh Finnegan (“proud member” of WIP Class of 2011) made some introductory remarks for Norman Houston, for his service to the community. She expressed her gratitude for Houston’s mentorship, leadership, and guidance, describing how she went on to work at the Northern Ireland Bureau:
“I have witnessed at first hand all that you do in a personal and professional capacity to ensure the programme continues to develop young leaders of the future … Tonight Norman, I want you to look around this room at all the people who have turned out to support you, so many people whose lives you have impacted for the better, my own included.
“Thank you, Norman, for all that you’ve done for me, all you’ve done for the programme, and the colossal amount you have done for Northern Ireland. But most of all, thank you for being you.”
After some brief recorded video greetings were played, Houston rose to a tumultuous applause to address the audience. He began by saying that despite “being around for an eternity”, this was the first time that he was being honoured in Northern Ireland; he was additionally glad that it was by an organisation that he holds in such high esteem.
Houston shared his journey as Northern Ireland’s longest serving diplomat, from a “very naive school leaver” from Larne who joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 1975, to finding himself escorting Northern Ireland Ministers into the Oval Office at the American White House or those of senators at Capitol Hill.
He remarked how difficult Northern Ireland was as a place of work during the Troubles:
“Through those dark days, public servants of every description — bus drivers, policemen, teachers, doctors, nurses and civil servants — kept everything working. The buses ran, patients went to hospitals, and pensioners and the unemployed got their allowances. And all this happened because public servants of every hue kept the ship afloat.
“That’s why I am very proud to be a part of a service that puts the public first. No other civil service in Western Europe had to deliver services under the strain that we endured in this small region. And, you know what, we were all proud to do it.
“Thankfully, today’s Northern Ireland is completely different than those early years. And we much acknowledge the risks that local politicians and community leaders took to make it happen.”
Houston continued by explaining his motivation to get and keep involved with the Washington Ireland Program: “It’s all about empowering and helping the younger generation to take Northern Ireland forward … WIP takes highly intelligent and educated young people and turns them into leaders and agents for change. That can only be a good thing.”
He described how he sees this whenever he meets a WIP alum, with their enthusiasm for making Northern Ireland and Ireland an even greater place to live and work, and reflected positivity of his children and extended family, whom he thanked for their support.
Houston finished with a message for the young people who are in the early stages of their careers, quoting Rita Mae Brown: “I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself. So go out there, be yourselves, and make a difference.”
Ciara Fitzpatrick (a fellow alumna of the WIP Class of 2010) offered an “honest” introduction to Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister. Fitzpatrick reminisced about her first meeting with McAllister at their WIP orientation, recounting McAllister describing her favourite pastime as “hanging out with her grandfather”. It didn’t seem like the most exciting pastime for someone in their early 20s, but Fitzpatrick explained that once you got to know McAllister, you appreciated that that represented a maturity and prioritisation of spending time with those whom you love most.
Fitzpatrick continued by complimenting McAllister’s character: “Nuala is kind and considerate, warm and wise, firm but always fair, and has an enduring sense of honesty that never seems to offend anybody, and that’s a rare thing for a politician.”
The set of played recorded videos of greetings for McAllister caused her to dry her eye with a dinner napkin; she began her speech by explaining that her American host family had become more than a host — they became part of her family and she said that she looks forward to receiving them in Northern Ireland in the near future.
McAllister spoke to the four values of the Washington Ireland Program, remarking that they’ve been “very relevant to me and to what should define the character of a public representative”.
“C.S. Lewis said, ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’ It can be very easy for some to be caught up in a political game, to always want to win votes no matter the cost. But should that define how we lead? Should the potential of power be the driving force of leadership? Or should it be the potential to effect positive change in the daily lives of others, to create a positive agenda throughout political discourse? Humility is not the absence of confidence, it is the ability to use that confidence for others.”
“How will we know how our actions will affect others if we have not walked in their shoes? As Maya Angelou said, ‘I think we all have empathy. We may not have the courage to display it.’ The courage to show compassion should not be difficult, especially in politics. With so many people demoralised, discouraged, and stigmatised by our political agenda, it is so important that those in power recognise the power of empathy. We need to help people maintain dignity, and to empower people with compassion and empathy.”
“The say that respect should be earned, it is not given. I don’t agree with that. Respect starts when you respect yourself and every person along your path. It’s something that we are missing quite often here. Identity, our language, tradition, culture are all often disrespected, used as a weapon to control and wield power or demonisation that attacks us all in society.”
“When judging the character of a good leader, the single most important value, I believe, is integrity. Stay true to yourself. Honesty is a word not often used to describe politicians — it’s easy to simply say what people want to hear, be all things to all people, not stick to your principles. But the legacy of any leader will be judged on how they made people feel. Be true to yourself when making positive change in society.”
McAllister summed up her thoughts on these values by saying that they aren’t the only ones necessary to be a good leader, “but embracing and living these not only helps you to lead but inspires others to follow”.
She then spoke to her position as Lord Mayor of Belfast, a leadership role that she found herself in early in her career, and with a responsibility to ensure that she used the year tenure to promote and highlight the kind of Belfast “that I not only want, but many argue we need”:
“When we look at the most successful cities in the world, more often than not they are the most diverse. Diversity should be embraced and equality should be for all. I am proud to — and will continue to push for — marriage equality, change for gender recognition, women’s rights, an ethnic minority bill, greater compassion through funding and healthcare for asylum seekers, and a greater emphasis on the celebration of our cultural diversity in Northern Ireland.”
McAllister finished her speech with a direct appeal to the Washington Ireland Program alumni:
“[For] the millennials like us who thirst for opportunities in an open and inclusive society … the future we want to see is being stripped bare by the politics of fear, dishonesty, and the failure of leadership.
“We have all, in our right, become leaders. We’ve gained experience, grown in strength, and now is the time to empower more leaders and instill those [WIP] values.
“We need to grab our future — not only put our stamp on it, but completely rewrite it!”