Getting under the skin of What Northern Ireland Means to Me

Getting under the skin of What Northern Ireland Means to Me
by Shared Future News
21 March 2022

As part of the Imagine Festival of Politics and Ideas, Shared Future News hosted an online event that got under the skin of its What Northern Ireland Means to Me podcast, with playback from a selection of episodes and feedback from the attendees.

Shared Future News editor, Allan Leonard, welcomed everyone and informed them that the organisation has been publishing since 2008, with over 400 articles on its website. He explained how they had a desire to broadcast audio stories and that last year’s centenary of Northern Ireland presented an opportunity for this, through the Northern Ireland Office’s Shared History Fund, administered by the Heritage Fund.

Leonard said that they took some inspiration from the BBC’s Year ‘21 podcast: “It struck us how listening to stories of 100 years ago, how much of it still resonated today.” He wondered what listeners of WNIMTM a century from now will make of the recorded stories.

He stated that the aim of the project was not to have an equality between the two traditional communities in this place, but rather to have an interesting mixture of perspectives. Leonard suggested that the podcast series as whole illustrates a diversity within historic communities as well as those voices less heard. He informed those attending that they wanted to hear their voices today, too.

Fellow Shared Future News co-founder, Julia Paul, talked about what they discovered from the interviewing process. Her first reply was that quite a lot of people found it fairly difficult to sum up their feelings about Northern Ireland. This included herself: “I have a great affection for Northern Ireland, but I also find it’s quite difficult to put that into a fairly short series of thoughts.”

‘Home’ was the first word that came to many interviewees. But Paul and Leonard found that ‘home’ meant many different things to different people. Paul loved Dr Emily Stanton’s use of the word ‘complexity’ to describe Northern Ireland, as a clever way of encompassing everything that is both fascinating and sometimes very frustrating about living in Northern Ireland.

Paul noted that there is no agreed definition of what Northern Ireland is, and illustrated this by playing the full contribution by Claire Mitchell, who made a point that she feels no hostility to the name Northern Ireland, but also doesn’t feel any emotional connection to it.

Paul played other clips, such as one from Nandi Jola, who is a poet and writer of colour, originally from South Africa: “Northern Ireland will be an intercultural society, that new tapestry that we’ve all created. We are layering history.”  Claire Hanna, an Irish nationalist and MP for Belfast South: “I think we’ll be in a new Ireland. I think there is change coming here … But I think fundamentally, and I think this is really important to say, Northern Ireland’s always going to exist.” Brian John Spencer, an artist: “If you look to the Republic of Ireland, it’s hard to see how you can maintain your British identity. Whereas, the way it is in Northern Ireland, you can be Irish, as I am, and you can be British, as I am, or you can be just Irish or just British.”

The clip from actor Joseph Nawaz was presented as exemplifying that search for a Northern Ireland identity with his personal identity. Nawaz grew up with a mother who’s an Irish Catholic and a father who was a Pakistani Muslim, and grew up in a predominantly Protestant populated neighbourhood and attended controlled (Protestant) schools: “You could argue that would make somebody like me the poster child of the new Northern Ireland. But the fact both my parents came from parts of the empire that were crudely carved up by the British can’t help but bring its own perspective to me being from here.”

The event attendees were then divided into groups, facilitated by Allan Leonard, Julia Paul, and Una Murphy (co-founder, VIEW Digital), for a 20-minute session to learn reactions to what was presented so far as well as to collect thoughts on what Northern Ireland means to the attendees themselves.

Leonard reported that feedback from his group was that people are comfortable with their complex identity, whether it’s Northern Irish or a mixture of British and Irish. Furthermore, he suggested that when you listen to the podcast series as a whole, you can see that there is more that we share in common than divides us, yet you mightn’t get that impression if you listened to local politicians, “because there’s victories to be had by appealing to absolute differences”. Leonard also said that his group spoke about the history of places here, not just the province of Ulster, but individual villages that predate the plantations and still have a strong sense of particular identities. He suggested that overall this place is a mosaic of communities and locales, where people have a sense of belonging, whether adopted by new arrivals or over generations.

Paul reported that the migrant story resonated with her group. They also had a discussion about a sense of a lack of awareness outside of Northern Ireland of our complexity and nuance of living here. She highlighted a contribution by Eileen Gricuk, who used the term ‘fierce tenderness’ to describe this place — a tenderness of the ivy and laurel, which takes root anywhere and spreads rapidly and tries to dominate space.

Murphy’s group contained some visitors — Alex, with Polish and English heritage, who has found his stay here so interesting and worthwhile, and Miley, from the US and wants to make Northern Ireland home. Murphy remarked how this was different from her generation, whose friends left during the Troubles and never looked back. She shared how fellow journalist Kevin Cooper and she had different experiences growing up in Belfast at similar times, with his family suffering sectarian attacks. The consensus among the group was that now “there’s lots of great possibilities here in Northern Ireland”.

Leonard concluded the event with an announcement that Shared Future News has just published a compendium of the podcast interviews in a book of the same title, What Northern Ireland Means to Me, which should be available imminently.

What Northern Ireland Means to Me was part of a set of projects of the Shared History Fund, which was funded by the Northern Ireland Office and administered by The Heritage Fund.

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