Be the Change: A creative workshop
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
21 January 2016
At a creative workshop entitled “Be the Change”, hosted by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB), in partnership with Twitter, over 50 participants spent the afternoon developing and pitching proposed campaigns for social change in Northern Ireland.
Friendships between individuals are formed through many encounters in life, and grow and foster with shared experiences. Comradery among a group is less common, if only because such opportunities are fewer, and it is more difficult to maintain the esprit de corps.
Sport is a great way for people to learn the important skill of teamwork – that you can achieve a greater goal together. Team play transfers well into the real world of getting along with the perspectives of many.
And if you take that to heart, you gain a comradery that endures.
Such it is that the crew that rowed for Queen’s University Belfast in the 1994-95 season – nicknamed the Delta Crew – have been meeting up for reunion events every five years.
This band of brothers included: Steve COLL, Darren COMER, Brendan DUFFIN, Gareth INGRAM, Allan LEONARD, Mark McGIMPSEY, Jonny MALLOY, Stephen MEENAN, Paul MURPHY, and Keith WILSON.
As with all university graduates, as our professional lives and family relationships were getting established, this group of mates got together in 2000 and pledged to make the effort to keep in touch. Yes, we know how this well-intentioned promised can come awry by the pressures of life.
But we did keep in touch, and importantly, kept a sufficient level of fitness to meet up and participate in the Galway HORR in 2005. While it was gratifying to actually beat a fellow Queen’s novice crew, the real joy was the fact we made this reunion happen.
Our comradery was true.
Five years on, the Delta Crew met up in Boston and participated in the Head of the River Regatta.
By then, many of us were settling in with careers and family commitments. As we know, maintaining domestic bliss – with the responsibilities of raising children for some of us – will command ever precious time.
Plus the fact that natural aging is a bit cruel to our VO2 max, weight and BMI stats.
Nevertheless, the Delta Crew promptly pledged the next rendezvous – Henley HORR 2015.
We romanced the thought of actually taking a nostalgic row on the course. This idea lasted about a minute, as we acknowledged none of us had managed to get in a boat in five years.
What really mattered was the act of coming together, with our crew now spread out throughout three continents – America, Europe and Australia.
But we middle-aged men were up for some demonstration of virility.
The decision was a group cycle, from Belfast to Henley. Well, subtract the ferry journey and it’s Liverpool to Henley. But still 180 miles over two days.
Some of the lads were already established cyclists, and some of us didn’t even possess a road bike until a few months ago.
Yet like before, it all came together with collaboration. Stephen was the persistent organiser, sorting out the logistics; Paul set out the course, using his professional experience in this field; Brendan prepared the van for nine bikes, and dutifully collected the Northern Ireland contingent; Gareth and the other Henley gong holders secured stewarts’ entrances for the post-cycle reward of viewing the boat races up close.
Better than this, though, was Stephen and Brendan bringing Mark, Jonny and me up to speed in the skill of group cycling – like many sports, there is a marked difference from practising solo. We even managed to participate in a open sportive of a thousand cyclists, around the coastline of the Ards peninsula.
It would be interesting to see how our varied skill set and levels of fitness would reveal itself in our nine-man group ride.
But with fresh legs and high spirits, it was a scene of hugs and happy faces when we joined Keith and Paul in Chester, just outside Liverpool (wisely avoiding cycling on the busy A-roads in the city). We were joined by Darren at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the morning of day two, having flown in from Atlanta.
The more experienced applied their cycling proficiency to lead our group, and ensured that we stayed together as a group.
Sometimes that meant a literal push of a hand on your back.
This was a team effort, for fun and a shared experience, not a contest for individual bragging rights.
We shared the duty of driving the van. Others gladly provided company with map reading; the smartphone app, Strava, has a wonderful follow-this-route feature, I discovered.
No adventure is without mishap.
On the first day’s cycle, the day after the hottest day of the year in England, we experienced a few hours of hard rain and plunging temperature. Mark and I got the word to go to a leisure centre, where the rest were trying to warm their soaked and chilled bodies. This is why we prepared with a support van. After some hot coffees and dry kit change, and thankfully a cessation of the monsoon, the cyclists were back on the road.
Stephen had a flat tyre, Mark broke a pedal (quick replacement at bike shop conveniently nearby), and I had fun (not) with my derailleur (thank you Darren for the on-the-spot fix).
More dangerously, Keith had a literal near miss with an errant car, indicating one way but turning the other, which underlined the point of always being vigilant, no matter how experienced you are.
Throughout, all of us looked after each other, with established call outs: “car up!”, “car down!”, “[car] overtaking!”, “pothole!”, and hand signals for upcoming hazards such as parked cars on the road and slowing up ahead.
One of my favourite moments was when Darren got us to do a rolling rotation on a long stretch of flat road, where we rode two abreast, following as closely as you safely can (i.e. very close!), then after a stint at the front, peeling off the sides to let the group progress, taking a reprieve at the back (still following very close!). It was an exhilarating drill.
Opposite of flat was Howe Hill – an ascent of 14 per cent over about a kilometre long. Sharp and short. With full participation – Brendan and I got out of the van parked at the top, free wheeled down and climbed back up. All for KOM’s (King of the Mountain) recordings on our Strava accounts. (As Paul declared, “If it’s not on Strava, it doesn’t count!”)
Outside Henley, we stopped for a kit change. Donning commemorative “Queen’s Belfast ‘95” crew jerseys, the Delta Crew gallantly entered the town, with much admiration from the mass of thousands. Well, perhaps more curiosity of a sight of nine cyclists arriving at the most famous rowing event in the calendar. But we felt valiant nevertheless.
Our coach, Paddy Doherty, was there to greet us at Little Angel pub, where we all had a congratulatory pint. We raised our glasses (outdoors: plastic cups) to mission accomplished.
But we didn’t forget mate Steve, who we brought to the races the next day via a video Facetime call to his home in Sydney.
There was fond reminiscing on a splendid Saturday afternoon spent in the stewards’ enclosure, with obligatory (but responsible) consumption of Pimms and Lemonade (on draft – who would have thought?).
We joined Andy Wells and 50 fellow rowing alumni for an enjoyable dinner. It was special to see other rowing friends reunite. And like family reunions, there were photos of fun times past passed around. It was assuring to see that our esteemed elders had gotten into shenanigans in their boathouse days as we did in ours.
In post-meal conversation, our group was complimented on our coming together. Ach sure, we replied, it’s not a big deal; we had a lot of fun.
No, it was a big deal, was the response. This is not to be belittled.
And over a final pint, we appreciated this sentiment. Because there is an element of magic to comradery. You can’t plan for it; there is no formula. But when a group of friends discover it and want to keep it, then you find ways of keeping it alive.
On BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme, I learned of a Passion Walk event that would take place on Good Friday. Passion Walk seeks to recreate the experience of Jesus of Nazareth’s final days in a contemporary environment, using local landmarks in place of those around Jerusalem.
Based on the success of a previous Passion Walk in Edinburgh, one was organised to take place in Belfast.
The walk commenced at Grosvernor House on Glengall Street, where those who pre-registered (and those who did not) arrived to collect site-marked maps and portable MP3 players, with individual tracks to be played at corresponding sites. (As the website offered the playlist as a download, I only needed the map.)
You’re invited to sit in the chapel hall to listen to the Reflection 1: Introduction track, to encourage you to take a moment to be still: “If you become distracted, you might find it helpful to concentrate for a moment on the rhythm of your own walking feet.”
Duly quiet in mind and body (and bundled up with a scarf and hat for this blustery morning), I set out to walk the journey of Jesus’s Passion in the streets of Belfast, busy not unlike Jerusalem at Passover.
But this being Belfast on a semi-observed holiday, the streets weren’t so busy. So I paused in front of City Hall. Strangers walking past a beggar felt poignant.
Indeed, later in the walk I witnessed an act of kindness – a woman gave a homeless man a cup of coffee and snack.
The next station was the public sculpture of Sheep on the Road (by Deborah Brown), in front of Waterfront Hall. Here I listened to Reflection 3: Gethsemane, explaining how Jesus is ready to lay down all his strength and authority: “the shepherd has become the sacrificial lamb”.
Appropriately, the Big Fish sculpture at Lagan Weir is where we listen to the perspective of Peter, the fisherman disciple struggling with his failed loyalty.
Custom House is where we learn of the complicated politics of the day that Pilate had to deal with – having to balance Roman authority with local customs. The final passage of this track is thought provoking:
“Pilate is both fascinated by Jesus and frustrated by him. This carpenter from Galilee has more strength, more integrity, more dignity, than all the political leaders he has known. How can it be that this man who has relinquished all power is the most powerful person in the room?”
After observing the elevated platform where Jesus’ fate was determined, I go back into the bowels of the city – a narrow back alley that thousands walk past daily, if we even know its existence. Here we listen to how Jesus was mocked and beaten. On the brick wall is a spray-painted acronym “KAH”. Or is it “KAT”? Whether it’s “kill all huns” or “kill all taigs”, the sectarianism in this city is the plank in our eyes.
Or as I listen to Reflection 7: Carrying the Cross:
“From the City Hall to the Falls and the Shankill,
From Helmand Province to Guantanamo Bay,
In the refugee camp and the hospital waiting room,
The job centre and the methadone clinic,
Among the fearful, the joyful and those who pay no attention,
Still, he carries his cross.”
Continuing on the path to Calvary, we hear how Jesus looks back on the city of Jerusalem with sadness. He wants to bring all under his wings with compassion and love, “but they are not willing”.
And another powerful thought, this time from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human being, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.”
The challenge is whether we have the willingness to accept compassion, to overcome unrest and division.
The walk from city centre to the end of the slipway at Titanic Building is fittingly long. The tall, rusted brown steel beams with jutting lamps now appear before me as mock crucifixes. This is the end of the line. Or is it the beginning?
The Passion Walk booklet provides a reading from Isaiah 53 (extract):
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was on him,
And by his wounds we are healed.”
I take a moment to reflect, and sea gulls fly overhead, which descend closer to the water’s surface in Belfast Harbour, scanning the sea for a catch of fish.
I reverse and listen to the story of Joseph of Arimathea, a senior council member who knew Jesus as a boy, then years later found himself witnessing Jesus’s last days. I am moved by Joseph’s words, his jealousy of Mary Magdalene, and how his washing of Jesus’s unclean wounds of his dead body serves to cleanse his own soul.
Indeed I had to stop walking for a moment, for my own body to absorb the enormity of this wisdom.
The walk concludes in the prayer garden in the Dock Café, with a suggested explanation of the conflict between the joy of Easter with the despair we can feel in our everyday lives, “with its tensions, suffering and wanton cruelty”.
One resolution is faith, to “wait for God, holding our questions, doubts, hopes in his presence”.
Though back at the crucifixion station of the walk, listeners are asked if there is one word that summarises the life of Jesus to them. My word is “justice”. Even Pilate found Jesus an honourable man. Yes, there is much injustice in the world, but for me Jesus’s life demonstrated that this will not change if we keep rejecting God in our lives.
The power of this Passion Walk was to be compelled to reflect upon this historical event in a contemporary way. While the crucifixion of Jesus was a couple thousand years’ ago, its context is not so different today.
As part of a work group, I went on a Sandy Row Tour, discovering the history and character of this neighbourhood.
We began at the well-known mural site at the entrance to Linfield Gardens — a large example of a re-imaging project. The UFF “Welcome to Sandy Row” has been replaced with a more permanent, metal affixed, “Let ambition fire thy mind” homage to King William.
Standing at Boyne Bridge, we learned that this was where the Belfast riots of 1864 were sparked, with the ashes of a burnt effigy tossed into the Blackstaff River.
We walked towards Weaver’s Court, with another example of a re-imaged mural. However, the new mural has been frayed by some years of sun, now curling back to review elements of the original paramilitary one.
The industrial park was once a formidable linen mill, employing hundreds. And was the birthplace of Linfield football club. Think about the name — linen field…
The original terraced houses are gone (though a row was transplanted, brick by brick, to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum). Apparently it was a privilege to live so close to the linen works, even if there were up to 20 residing in a two-up, two-down dwelling.
We were told about the once thriving, owner-occupied businesses along Sandy Row itself. I shared my personal linkage; one of my wife’s great-grandfathers ran a cobblers shop here.
The former business at Ena’s Café was run by a husband-and-wife team — she managed births and he deaths — a regular matches and dispatches outfit.
Though at this point of our rain soaked expedition, we would have gladly welcomed a closer inspection and paid for a hot refreshment.
The obviously commissioned public memorials to those residents of Sandy Row that gave their lives to World War One, Two and ‘Ongoing Conflicts’ was augmented by the more ad hoc memorial garden to the UFF and John McMichael in particular. This was no sugar-coated trip nostalgic.
Though it would have been more inspiring to learn the local community’s plans for the future.
For example, the very next day the news of a newly approved urban village project for Sandy Row was announced. As we were physically on the ground, I would have appreciated a firsthand explanation of what that will mean for this neighbourhood.
This doesn’t detract from the professional and courteous tour provided by our local guides.
Our last two stops were at the appropriately named King William Park — a commemorative plaque to King William’s passing here en route to the Battle of the Boyne, with a more contemporary display of public art ten metres away — the Belfast Wheel — a large bronze circle showing the slices of the city, all fitting into one, each with a rich history and stories to tell.
I had the pleasure of meeting Neil O’Brien at a NI Biz Camp event in Belfast, April 2013. I immediately liked his sense of humour: “Sending me to a relaxation course is stressing me out!”
Yet behind his Irish wit is a concise, distilled lesson plan of proven suggestions to motivate yourself to the next level.
Essentially, each of us has a comfort zone. Tricky thing is, if you decide just to stay in it, it’ll keep getting smaller as the world moves on. Neil has some strategies to help you act outside your comfort zone.
His book, Time to Fly, is an easy-to-read digest filled with methods, exercise plans, summaries and encouragement, all sprinkled with signature humour.
What I particularly liked is that I am able to remember some key points. Reference points, if you will, that’ll keep you closer to 10/10 on the self-worth scale, and away from the 2/10.
Time to Fly really is inspiration in a nutshell (to cite another reviewer). Be good to yourself — get Neil’s book!
The obituary notice for Mark Allen caught my attention, not because I was a 1989 participant in the BU Oxford Honors Study Program (CLA ’90), but because of the heartfelt addendum by Dee Mondschein (CAS ’97).
Mark was not one of my tutors (I read the Politics and History modules), but Dee’s description of the tutorial system brought back fond memories of my own Oxford experience.
It is gentlemen like Mark who bring life to one’s scholastic journey. It was comforting to read one of his student’s accounts, and surely he had a positive impact on many more. May Mark Allen be remembered thus.
I came across Coffee with Jesuson a display table at the front of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Just as well, as I doubt I would have perused the religion section to discover it.
Coffee with Jesus originated online, under the consortium Radio Free Babylon. It is a irreverent perspective of Christ in everyday — American — lives, with our Lord dispensing his eternal wisdom on the flawed mortal characters presented in this graphic novel. There’s Carl, Lisa, Ann, Kevin and Joe, each of which author David Wilkie provides pseudo-biographies.
And of course there’s Satan, who taunts Jesus with nicknames like the Boy King, dogmatic Galilean, the Nazarene.
I enjoyed Coffee with Jesus and its theological humour. (Needs to be more like this.) Certainly there will be some who will take offence in putting words into Jesus’ mouth, but the joke is surely at them?
That is, I’m reminded of a small notice stand at a church coffee shop, which declared, “Christ is okay; it’s Christians I can’t stand.” The Word is the message, however delivered, whether the Sunday sermon or a good piece of levity served with a cup of Java.
As part of his retirement from Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Rick Wilford was invited to present a lecture: “Two cheers for consociational democracy?” The Senate Chamber of Parliament Buildings provided a most appropriate setting for his review of the structures and operations of Northern Ireland’s government since the return of devolved administration with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay MLA, welcomed Prof. Wilford, particularly thanking him for his role in establishing the Assembly Bursary Programme, “of which we are most proud”.
He further described Prof. Wilford as “a critical friend”, someone ready to tell it as it is, as well as how it could be. The Speaker said that the Northern Ireland Assembly “is not perfect, yet sometimes we bring it upon ourselves”. By this, the Speaker was lamenting the underdevelopment of a parliamentary culture within the Assembly, where we are “far away from where we should be”.
By way of introduction, Professor Wilford described his arrival at Queen’s University in 1980. By no means ashamed of his Welsh background, he doesn’t go for passionate nationalism: “We are born with feet not roots; I like to travel light on my feet.”
For the development of his own understanding of this space we call Northern Ireland, Prof. Wilford cited many leading academics — John Whyte, Cornelius O’Leary, Sidney Elliott, Richard Rose, Richard Crick et al.
And before commencing his main lecture tonight, Prof. Wilford praised the Speaker, stating that Speakers have a key role in their legislatures. He particularly thanked the Speaker for the reform of the operations of the Assembly (based on an undertaken review), and for his office’s outreach efforts, with the aim of greater linking with the public that it serves.
So, does our model of consociationalism — which ensures a power-sharing governance arrangement based on dominant cleavages in society — deserve two cheers?
The short answer by Prof. Wilford is “yes”:
There is variety in our government, i.e. inclusiveness across the divide
Criticism is allowed, within and without, i.e. individual MLAs and Ministers can be challenged
But there are numerous shortcomings.
Prof. Wilford framed his critique in terms of the general politics and the citizenry, or polis.
For example, many legislatures in democracies are facing a decrease in public engagement, from a disdain of party politics. But Prof. Wilford reminded the audience that the political domain is greater than the body of elected representatives; politics is ubiquitous.
He emphasised the need to have a constant civic conversation (with less top-down presentations and more cultivated participatory processes). Institutional reforms of government procedures are not enough. Instead, we need to adapt to a new culture of doing politics, which could include the use of social media (which has already countered the decline in party membership).
Prof. Wilford mooted whether government structures crimp opportunities for political action, or open them up?
He described Northern Ireland government as not resembling a partnership, but more akin to patron (Northern Ireland Executive) and client (Northern Ireland Assembly).
Also, for an MLA to disobey his or her party whip not only lets the party down, but also that legislator’s ethnic group.
Prof. Wilford then argued the need for a more deliberative process in the Assembly; individuals need to regard themselves as “Members of Parliament, not Bristol”. Legislators should also exercise independent judgment, “enlightened not ethnic”.
Positively, he pointed to three developments in the Assembly that can facilitate this:
Assembly Committees are better supported administratively
Private Members’ Bills
This “critical friend” then suggested further reform:
Northern Ireland Executive should be smaller, especially its functions
Escape “Departmentalism”; need joined-up programmes
OFMdFM should be like the UK Cabinet Office, a strategic hub (and no more)
Northern Ireland Assembly should be smaller; Committee Chairs should not sit on other Committees; Public Affairs Committee should be akin to that in Scotland (and especially in absence of a Civic Forum)
Petitions of Concern should only be for communal issues, or implement a weighted majority vote without communal designations
An adequately funded Official Opposition (but with minimum threshold of seats to prevent “I am Spartacus” claims!)
Prof. Wilford concluded by aspiring for good parliamentarianism, in a “spirit of accommodation”. He wants better connectedness, both between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as by all politicians and the body politic.
Instead of a politic of identities, he added, there should be a politics of recognition.
To this, Prof. Wilford declared that he would select the Assembly’s designation of “other” (versus “nationalist” or “unionist”), reflecting his tenet of independent judgment and representing the wider citizenry.
Even the Speaker added: “Northern Ireland does put politicians into boxes, and limits them.”
I replied to Prof. Wilford, suggesting that while there is perhaps not much we can do to change the operations of the Northern Ireland Executive (with the inability to remove party representation (for any reason) and the lack of collective responsibility), the Good Friday Agreement is arguably not as prescriptive upon our legislature. That is, I see “a ray of hope” in the ability to introduce many of the professor’s suggested reforms above.
And the need to facilitate a constant civic conversation also resonated with me; it is part of my daily professional work.
The audience was very grateful to Professor Wilford for his analysis and positive proposals. Somehow after living here for near 35 years he has not become utterly jaundiced, calling himself a “miserable optimist”.
Considering our contested past, it’s reasonable to expect a lot of misery about this place. But if we are to progress and “not train another generation to go through what we went through”, as the Speaker thought out loud, then I’ll take optimism in any form.
Perhaps poignantly after just returning from a long and splendid transatlantic Christmastime holiday, and getting back into routine in the return to work, I finished Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport.
A Week at the Airport is a short and compact book (“Slender enough to pack in your carry-on”, Daily Mail). It can be considered an addendum of sorts of his previous book, The Art of Travel (from which one learns that de Botton is a home bird, really; see my separate review).
I’ve always liked Alain de Botton’s use of illustrations and imagery interspersed with his narratives. In this case, Richard Baker adds wonderful value with his insightful photographs.
A Week at the Airport is just that — the chief executive of BAA granted the author unrestricted access throughout the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow.
“In such lack of constraints, I felt myself to be benefitting from a tradition wherein the wealthy merchant enters into a relationship with an artist fully prepared for him to behave like an outlaw; he does not expect good manners, he knows and is half delighted by the idea that the favoured baboon will smash his crockery.”
Thankfully de Botton does behave himself and doesn’t offend the airport staff, or perhaps more importantly, the security folk at the Border Agency.
The book is divided into four sections, reflecting the main dimensions of our airport experience — Approach, Departures, Airside and Arrivals.
I like de Botton’s philosophical insights into the otherwise mundane, or at least those aspects of daily life that we usually don’t think twice about.
For example, airport hotels. Even with their poetic menus, which de Botton does his best to elevate, an airport hotel is functionary; unlike their countryside siblings, you don’t select an airport hotel for its environmental surroundings.
Though there’s no harm in trying to appeal to aesthetic beauty. Terminal 5 “wanted to have a go” at replicating the experience of arriving at Jerusalem’s elaborate Jaffa Gate, to welcome those who have travelled great distances to the promise and prospect of a new country.
But baggage retrieval and finding your car in the parking lot (or silent taxi transfer) quickly erases such euphoria.
de Botton’s strength is inserting the human condition in every aspect of life. Lest you think he doesn’t really recommend airport travel, de Botton is an unfailing romantic (and thankfully so). When he describes our human encounters — in this case with hotel staff, fellow passengers, border control agents, and those we’re departing and reuniting with — de Botton evokes the universality of our existence. At least those of us who have ever experienced airports.