‘Rights and justice have to be fought for…’ (States of Play)

‘Rights and Justice have to be fought for…’
by Steven McGOOKIN (States of Play)
16 April 2023

Allan Leonard grew up in northwest Ohio. A year at the US Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island, introduced him to New England and began a lifelong love affair with the Red Sox. He moved to Belfast at the time of the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and has called the island of Ireland home ever since. He’s a writer, photographer and long-time advocate for peacebuilding in Ireland and around the world.

You can read Allan’s full bio at the Conversations page.

Steve – We aren’t at a game, but if we were, where would we be? What’s your favorite venue to watch baseball (or, indeed, any sporting event)?

Allan – In Belfast, it could be at the Kingspan Stadium on a Friday evening. Rugby is far better than American football, which the forward pass ruined. I actually got introduced to rugby by a workmate in Boston. Stateside, my favourite baseball venue is Fenway Park, of course — nothing beats the Green Monster.

Warming up at Fenway Park (pic by Allan Leonard)

Steve – What was the first baseball game you went to and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? What do you think have been the most significant changes in both institutions since then?

Allan – I belonged to a “keyhole club” at the Toledo Mud Hens, a feeder club for the Minnesota Twins at the time. But my first big league game was at the Detroit Tigers. I was about 14 years old. Opened up a new sporting world, like when the Bad News Bears played at a professional stadium.

My first election must have been the presidential race in 1988 between Bush Sr and Dukakis. But of course the most memorable moment that year came in the vice-presidential debate, when Republican Dan Quayle likened himself to US President John Kennedy.

As for significant changes, a common denominator is the role of broadcast media. For example, you can now watch live-streamed MLB games online, and the influence of social media on political discourse in American politics was something beyond our imagination in a time before the World Wide Web.

Steve – You’re still registered to vote in Ohio even though you’ve been “away” for nearly 30 years. It’s often seen as a “bellwether” state but has been trending more red recently. The state went for Trump in 2020 (when he actually out-performed his 2016 numbers) breaking a streak going back to 1960 of the state voting for the eventual presidential winner.

Do you think it’s representative of the urban-rural political division in other parts of the country?  The contrast between the state’s two senators, Sherrod Brown and JD Vance could hardly be wider (although to be fair, they’ve been working together over the recent train derailment in the state). What do you think of the quality of local elected politicians and candidates there?

Allan – I remember Sherrod Brown visiting our high school when he was Secretary of State for Ohio!

I’ve been out of the game of monitoring local US politics. For some time, I had an unbroken streak of predicting the outcomes of US presidential elections, just by conversing with my very politically mixed extended family of grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Called it correctly from 1976 to 2012. In 2016, I knew Trump would win Ohio, but I let others convince me Clinton could win regardless. Nope. Biden won without Ohio in 2020, but my home state is no longer my bellwether predictor.

I don’t subscribe to the urban-rural paradigm itself to explain recent results. Instead, I see increasing vitality in southern and southwestern states. The lodestar has moved away from the Midwest.

Steve – And what are your thoughts on the national political picture at the moment and looking ahead to the coming election cycle? It looks like the polarization we’ve seen over the past few years isn’t going away, but maybe more worryingly, fewer people seem to think it’s important to try to bridge the gap between us. Are we at a point where the two camps are just digging in, with one side capitalising on apparently unrestrained populism, while the other side is waiting for the fever to break?

Allan – You’re asking an American who intentionally moved to a place that was beset with deep societal divisions and political violence justified by multiple sections of the community. So, for me, there’s been a bit of hysteria by the media and others about some renewed “civil war” in the US. I remind folk that many of Trump’s associates have been convicted of crimes and are now incarcerated.

Two essential tenets of democracy are freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. You undermine either and liberty slides away. I’m confident about the integrity of America’s political institutions. But that doesn’t mean that rights and justice don’t have to be fought for.

Steve – Having lived here in Ireland as long as you have, what do you think are the main similarities – and main differences – between politics in the US and in NI? What are some lessons each place can learn from the other?

Allan – Danger beholds making political comparisons between any two countries! It’s complex. I will say that most Americans don’t appreciate how influential the Ulster-Scots (Scots-Irish) were in designing its checks-and-balances system of government.

Another dimension was a not-dissimilar religious schism in 17th and 18th century America among Protestants, Catholics, and Dissenters. Lest we forget the competition between colonial Anglicans and Congregationalists (Puritans). Likewise, as new communities of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians formed, these “dissenters” were often seen as upsetting the social order.

Indeed, some historians argue that President Jefferson could thank the defeated United Irishmen who fled to America for enabling him to implement his separation of church and state as well as other contentious policies at the time.

So, a fascinating, historical intertwining between two lands and peoples.

Perhaps this partly explains Northern Ireland’s disproportionate attention it continues to receive from the US.

Steve – The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is upon us and an integral part of that has always been the importance of US figures like Bill Clinton and George Mitchell in shepherding the negotiations then, and of course President Biden’s support for the Agreement now.

But what’s your sense of how important peace here is for the next generation of US politicians? What do you see as the most likely next steps on our collective journey? Do we need some kind of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ format in order to move forward?

Allan – On one hand, let’s not overstate the importance of Northern Ireland to American politicians, who will face little or no electoral consequence of any collective failure in Northern Ireland. But for its relative size — Northern Ireland is geographically the size of Connecticut with the population of West Virginia — US commitment to peace here is impressive because there’s relatively little economic or political advantage in the grand scheme of US global politics. We here need to make the best use of such opportunities, especially in regard to investing in our economic competitiveness and accessing international markets.

In regard to reconciliation and community relations, progress within our society will ultimately need to be locally driven. We should remain grateful for the support provided by the likes of the International Fund for Ireland and the Washington Ireland Program, in developing leadership and capacity.

Steve – Effective functional democracy traditionally required everyone to be playing by the same rules and working from an agreed set of basic facts. Sadly that’s not the case anymore, and the exponential increase in mis/disinformation – in politics generally, but also in something as societally important as responses to Covid – seems to have left many citizens confused and less engaged as a result.

With the growth of AI and bots like ChatGPT, that shows no sign of changing. Through your work with FactCheckNI, are there any encouraging signs for how media consumers can build trust?  Is Finland’s educational approach something we can learn from?

Allan – Fact-checking serves an important role in ascertaining the accuracy of claims. It is vital that public leaders use factually accurate information in their arguments. But people’s first-hand experiences, good and bad, also inform one’s worldview. And if someone has had a negative experience with an institution (for example, a hospital or a police service), then they can be more susceptible to blocking out genuinely useful information because they don’t trust the source. Instead, they’ll agree with what affirms their opinions and lived reality.

This is called confirmation bias and we all do it — our social media echo chambers and self-curated selection of news channels.

An important objective of fact-checking training is to increase awareness of the many biases and shortcuts we make when consuming a plethora of constant information.

Re-establishing trust in our public and private institutions is work of a higher level.

Steve – Talking of trustworthiness, I’m glad you mentioned your What Northern Ireland Means To Me interview project. Since I’ve been working on States of Play, I’ve been aiming to refine the formula for getting the best responses to questions.

Mostly I’m finding it’s about giving people the chance to respond thoughtfully, knowing they have as wide a canvas as possible on which to illustrate their answers. It’s hard to generalise since so much depends on the subject and format, but what for you are the most important elements that make a good interview?

Allan – When I was a candidate in the 2005 election to Belfast City Council, I asked a mentor why anyone would listen to a blow-in like me. She helpfully replied, “Who says you have to have all of the stories?” So, I made the most of my relative outsider status and asked more questions, but more importantly, listened. There is a richness of stories out there.

However, I always advise my interns and volunteers at Shared Future News that there is plenty of evidence here to fit any narrative you want. It’s important to be aware of biases — conscious and unconscious. The questions you ask and don’t ask can reveal much about you. With WNIMTM, we kept it to one starter question and let the conversation evolve.

What Northern Ireland Means To Me

Steve – Finally, back to baseball, if only tangentially. As someone whose team recently won the World Series for the first time in forever, I can understand what 2004 must have meant to Red Sox fans. Do you think an important part of that victory was that it ‘reset’ the rivalry with the Yankees, after Boston had gone so long without winning?

As someone who has worked in numerous post-conflict zones, is there something we can learn about peacebuilding in societies where two “sides” in any rivalry are roughly equal, versus where one side has been dominant?

Allan – It depends on what is at stake. A sporting rivalry can be a healthy outlet for passion. Or lead to riots on the pitch. Or be a proxy for sectarianism. I have witnessed the transformation of the Northern Ireland Football Team, from a working men’s outing with sectarian chants, to a more welcoming, inclusive activity. The Medal of the City of Paris was awarded by its mayor to the fans of Northern Ireland, collectively, for their positive spirit and bonhomie during the 2016 European championships. This testimony was a result of steadfast work among many participants — the IFAs leadership (and continuing community relations work), the players, and crucially, the fans themselves.

Peacebuilding is constructed by many working together for a vision of a better future.

Allan Leonard: “The questions you ask and don’t ask can reveal much about you..”

You can follow Allan on Twitter here and keep up with his writing and other work here.

Cross-published at States of Play.