Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland

Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland: @IFNetUK Inter-Faith Week 2011
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
21 November 2011

OFMDFM Junior Ministers Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell sponsored a panel discussion marking Inter-Faith Week, organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum: “Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland”.


Graphic portrayals – Northern Ireland, graphic novels and the peace process

Dr Gordon Gillespie, who is a researcher at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, gave a presentation on “Graphic Portrayals: Northern Ireland, Graphic Novels and the Peace Process”, at the Linen Hall Library.

Gordon started with a clarification that he was going to talk about graphic novels/comic books, not cartoons, and material that was produced for commercial purposes rather than for political or propaganda motives.

He described how there is significant research on Troubles-related literature and movies, but that graphic novels have been largely overlooked. He said that this could be because there isn’t much material here to examine, and/or that it was seen as juvenile and trivial, and not worth much consideration. Gordon added later that as comic books are ephemeral by nature, what was produced wasn’t regularly saved, let alone analysed.

For Gordon, the “golden age” of Northern Ireland-related graphic novels was from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, which coincided with the developing peace process and was influenced by events on the ground.

He said that it was important to bear in mind that these stories were produced as part of the massive worldwide comic book industry, and how changes in technology played an important part in why Northern Ireland-related stories appeared. For example, advances in printing technology allowed publishers to produce smaller runs while generating a profit.

Gordon then went through a Northern Ireland chronology of graphic novels, which included:

  • V for Vendetta (1981)
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
  • Watchmen (1986)
  • Web of Spiderman (1987)
  • Nightwing and Speedy (1988)
  • St George (1988)
  • Black Knight (1990)
  • Green Arrow (1991)
  • Crisis: Troubled Souls (1989)
  • Troubled Souls; Heartland
  • Judge Dredd (1991)
  • Dicks (1997)
  • Holy Cross (I, II, III) (1993-1997)
  • DNA Swamp (1997)
  • Keltor
  • Good Craic
  • Small Axe (2005)
  • The Punisher (2002)
  • Back on the Road (2008)

I suggest you watch Gordon’s presentation (below) for his description of the significance of each novel:

The last one on the list, Back on the Road, was published in association with the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association (BCDA), and I was privileged to attend its launch:

There is a remarkable drop in the amount of Northern Ireland-related stories published in graphic novels since the 1990s. Gordon suggested that this is due to the Northern Ireland situation as being deemed as “solved”, post 1998 Agreement, as well as comic book writers’ attention turning to new protagonists post-9/11. For me, Captain America comes immediately to mind.

I am pleased that Gordon has compiled this presentation of graphic novels and the peace process, namely because he is the best person for the task — an interesting mix of academia and pop culture. Where is our “Media Studies in Divided Societies” course offering in Northern Ireland?


Barbara Stephenson’s “old friends” reception


It was a pleasure to be among many guests for an after work reception at Ardnavalley, for former US Consul General, Barbara Stephenson, who is over for a visit from her Deputy Chief of Mission post at the US Embassy in London.

Ambassador Stephenson served as US Consul General in Belfast from 2001-2004. Indeed, she arrived within only a few weeks of 9/11. I remember her leading a 3-minutes silence ceremony at Belfast City Hall at the time.

I didn’t expect her to remember me, as I was serving as an Alliance Party staffer (policy officer) while accompanying the party leader and general secretary of the day. Yet she genuinely did remember me, and we recalled her parting comments about integrated education.

The ambassador asked about my current job, to which she replied, “That’s great — you’re keeping the work of a shared future alive!”

I knew she was sincere when she addressed all of us later, when current Consul General, Kamala Lakhdhir, described us as “Barbara’s old friends” along with “new friends” that she wanted Barbara to meet.

The ambassador said that it felt like being back home. She said that she was very thankful to see all of us, and how she felt that peace felt more bedded down, certainly less precarious than when she served her post in Northern Ireland.

Then she added that it was pleasing to see so many of us in the room “working for a shared future”, something she wants realised here.

I’ll applaud that, and we all did.


Discussing e-books on BBC Radio Ulster Saturday Magazine

You never know where a blog posting will end up — on the back of my praise for Libraries NI making available e-books for loan via the Overdrive mobile application, I was asked to participate in a discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Saturday Magazine programme, presented by John Toal.

The panel included Helen Osborn (Director of Service Delivery, Libraries NI), author John Bradbury and yours truly.

Helen argued that this service has the potential to increase the number of new users, as well as adding value to the many reasons why current users go to their library.

John prefers the tactility of a printed book, and to browse his books physically, while I argued that I used to be this way with my music, but now enjoy the convenience of having a large library available to me anytime, electronically.

I did confess that I had to get over the irrelevance of page numbering in e-books, but this took me two minutes and I don’t think about it anymore.

But for me the most important point wasn’t weather you read a printed book or e-book, but that this additional service by Libraries NI should encourage more reading, in itself.

Our 15-minute conversation went very quickly. We all could have easily talked about this topic for much longer!


Copeland Island adventure

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After many times talking about taking a boat trip to Copeland Island, Madame Oui and I finally got our finger out and jumped onboard “The Brothers” on a sunny afternoon.

Not surprisingly for us, immediately we noticed the captain’s dog, who kept himself very satisfied up in the cramped bridge:

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“The Brothers” captain’s dog. It’s a dog’s life.

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There were a couple dozen of us in the boat, and the journey was relatively smooth.

I was glad I had my camera ready as we entered the island harbour, as the first sight was some sunbathing seals. I was hoping we would loiter a bit, as one swam towards us:

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Disembarking, the large signpost instructs all visitors that this is a private island, no dogs allowed (oops, too late of a notice for some), and that we are to stay to the coastline. That last instruction would have been easier to comply with if there were any path markings on the island. Madame Oui and I did our best, but we did manage to wander through someone’s drive at the end. At least we smiled and waved at the home owners as we walked through!

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Evidence of rabbits. Artistically, I like this image.
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Rabbit in action. There is abundant tall scrub for them to hide.

Copeland Island is reputed for its birds, seals and rabbits. For a while, the only evidence of the preponderance of rabbits were their droppings, which were absolutely everywhere. And a few carcasses. But thanks to Madame Oui’s sharp eye, we stumbled upon some living specimens, which I duly captured with a long range camera lens.

One fellow walker told us how much the island had changed since he last visited 40 years ago. First, for him, the rabbits were out of control, far more than before. He also noticed how much the thistle had taken over the island.

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Island graveyard desecrated by rabbits. Not how I want my corpse to go!

Some houses were very secluded. With no mains electricity, this is certainly a sure way to get away from the bourgeois routine. But then the constant bourgeois trekker visitors must get annoying.Madame Oui and I were impressed that there were several occupied houses on this small island. I’ll add that they were loyal British families, with their Union flags withstanding the constant wind.

As is our wont, we examined as much of the island as we could. Madame Oui said that it reminded her of Los Lobos, Fuerteventura, and as such did not want to wander too far lest we miss our boat return. I assured her that if need be we could run across Copeland Island in 5 minutes.

Hidden from view from Donaghadee is the northern side of Copeland Island, which reveals two more islands — Lighthouse Island and Mew Island. Fittingly, Lighthouse Island is the one without the lighthouse; overnight accommodation available via the Bird Observatory (RSPB me thinks).

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All in all worth the journey. We picked a fine day to do it.


Borrowing e-books from Belfast Central Library


Well, the ability to borrow e-books from any public library in Northern Ireland somehow missed me. I only discovered this via an article in the magazine Tap!, in a review of the iPhone app Overdrive.

It’s genius.

But you will need a real library card at a participating library, whether in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom or the USA — it’s a widely adopted borrowing system.

Overdrive works on Mac or Windows desktop, and on mobile devices iPhone/iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7.

First, simply download the Overdrive app onto your device.

When you open the app, you’ll be asked to “Add a Library”. Clicking that link brings you to a search field where you enter location details (e.g. “Belfast Central Library”). Then, you’ll be asked to enter your real library card number.

And that’s pretty much it. Back in the Overdrive app you’ll see your list of libraries. Clicking one brings you to that library’s e-book checkout service (where you follow that library’s instructions).
For Libraries NI, you login with your library card number. You can then browse all available e-books and audiobooks, which are available to borrow for 21 days. You can check out up to 9 e-books at a time.

You add desired books (which are dependant upon availability at the library; you still may have to compete against other borrowers!) to your basket, then proceed to checkout where you then download to your device.

Pretty straightforward after linking up your library to your Overdrive app.

I’m impressed, as it restores a link with my local library. Hope that Libraries NI can gear up their promotion campaign, though, as I only discovered this by accident.

FYI here is what I’m e-reading now from Belfast Central Library:


FITZGERALD was why I pursued Ireland

What a sad coincidence that Garret FitzGerald should die today, in the midst of the historic visit to Ireland by the Queen of England.

For me, FitzGerald was the spark for my interest in Irish history and politics.

While in high school in a small Midwestern town, I read an article of the Taoiseach in an issue of Current Biography, at my local library.

In the article he discussed his work towards what became the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

I wrote a letter to him, expressing support and telling him that a cousin of mine was living in Dublin for the year as an exchange student.

I was delighted to receive a sincere reply:

Office of the Taoiseach
27 February 1985

Dear Allan,

Many thanks for your letter. I enclose herewith copy of the Richard Dimbleby Lecture “Irish Identities” (duly autographed) which I delivered some years ago, for your political history collection. As you will see from the lecture it concentrates on the problem in Northern Ireland, about which I am deeply concerned.

I am delighted to hear that your cousin is enjoying her stay in Ireland and sincerely hope it will be possible for you to visit this country some day.

Yours sincerely,
Garret FitzGerald TD (signed)

My first visit to Ireland was the very next spring.

Inspired, I went on to self-tailor my undergraduate studies in international relations towards everything Ireland, ultimately moving to Belfast in 1994, and I’ve been here ever since.

During my postgraduate studies at University College Dublin — where FitzGerald was Chancellor — I had the opportunity to meet and thank him in person.

His letter proudly hangs in my office.


‘Americans had little experience of terror’ (News Letter)

‘Americans had little experience of terror’
Laura Murphy (News Letter)
7 May 2011

[Laura Murphy interviewed me about the death of Osama bin Laden]

Relief, and the belief that “every right-thinking person” should share this emotion, was what was experienced by US-born Allan Leonard, when he learnt of the death of terror chief Osama bin laden this week.

“There’s no question (about that),” says the 43-year-old.

“The man was an international threat.”

Originally from Toledo, in Ohio, Allan lived in various parts of his native country, including Boston and New York, before moving to the province in 1994. He is now married and settled in Balygowan.

“I had planned to come here for several years after I graduated from Boston University,” he says.

“My Bachelor’s degree was International Relations and I was interested in Irish history and politics, and like many Americans, I have Irish ancestry.

“It was the classic story — I came here and met a local girl from Belfast (her name is Beverley), married and settled down, bought a house, and I’ve been working ever since.”

Ironically, on the day of the 9/11 atrocities, Allan was “busy finishing a project at the Linen Hall Library called Troubled Images.”

Just a couple of days later, he had to fly to England in order to sign off the final master disk for a multimedia CD-Rom which was part of the project — “this was in the days before high speed broadband,” he laughs.

“My plane ticket was already purchased, so on the day of 9/11, I’m watching all of this take place.

“People asked was I nervous and I said ‘absolutely not’, this would be the safest day in all of history to fly because it was just such a rude awakening in terms of airport security.”

Allan likens the impact of 9/11 to that of the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, “in a sense that America had been directly attacked by a foreign power.

“Also, the audacity and the shock … it was almost unreal. Friends and I were sending text messages asking ‘is this really happening?’ It just felt like a nightmare.”

But he says that despite the horror, it didn’t evoke in him a feeling that he needed to “rush out and join the US army”, and he believes this was in part due to the fact that he had been living in Northern Ireland — a country well acquainted with terrorism — for some time before the strike in America.

“I have learnt how society operates in a conflict. I know how it affects people’s psyche and their outlook and how they deal with things.

“Americans have very little experience in dealing with direct terrorism.”

In was back in the late 1990s when Osama bin Laden first came to Allan’s attention.

“He was doing all these atrocious acts, and I just thought ‘this person must be stopped’.

“He was a threat to international security, he was just way too dangerous. I knew that something was always going to have to happen.”

Allan adds that he knew that once his fellow American countrymen “set their minds to taking action, it gets done.”

And he says that whilst he believes that “Al-Qaeda still remains a threat”, he hopes that with the organisation’s “charismatic head cut off”, and future operations will be “not so effective and less co-ordinated.”

He adds: “Al-Qaeda atrocities will continue but I cannot see how they will manage to pull off a spectacle like 9/11 because that was, in a way, an incredible mastermind of co-ordination. What we need to be hopeful of is that they will never carry the same kind of impetus.”


Shared Future panel: @UUPonline conference 2010

Shared Future panel: @UUPonline conference 2010
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
4 December 2010

At the annual Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) conference at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, I attended a panel discussion on shared future policy. The event was facilitated by Councillor Ross Hussey. Panellists were Duncan Morrow, Bill Manwaring, Lesley Macaulay, Kenny Donaldson.


A Shared Society: @SDLPlive conference 2010

A Shared Society: @SDLPlive conference 2010
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
5 November 2010 

At the annual SDLP conference at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, I attended a panel discussion — A Shared Society — chaired by Conall McDevitt MLA (South Belfast).

@SharedFuture Photography Work

What does ‘unite’ mean to you?

What does ‘unite’ mean to you? Culture Night Belfast
by Allan LEONARD
15 October 2010

As part of Culture Night Belfast, which was supported by the Unite against Hate campaign, Moochin Photoman took some distinctive portrait photographs using a ‘Through the Viewfinder’ technique.


Young people discuss CSI at Stormont @Cinemagic

Young people discuss CSI at Stormont @Cinemagic
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
27 September 2010

As part of the Cinemagic International Film & Television Festival for Young People, and in conjunction with the Unite Against Hate campaign, there was a day event at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.