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Political Drama – What Drama?

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Quintin Oliver (Director, Stratagem)

As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, Stratagem hosted a political drama film and discussion event at The MAC.

Stratagem Director, Quintin Oliver, explained how he was motivated by a gift request from his son for a box set of the West Wing series. “He said it would be educational. I realised it was as much for me as it was for him,” Quintin said, making him ponder why there wasn’t a similar political drama series for “the Hill, in the Bay and at Holyrood” (Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament). “Is it because we don’t find our politics interesting enough, or are we too cynical even to watch politicians?” he asked.

Arlene Foster MLA (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) remarked on the strength of the creative industry in Northern Ireland. She also said that local politicians are able to take the satire or other dramatic portrayal, but “does the audience want it? Would they watch it? Are we mature enough for political drama here in Northern Ireland?”

A montage of clips from political dramas elsewhere was shown — learning about filibusters (West Wing), forming a coalition Government (Borgen), making life difficult for your political opponent (Party Animals), and the hard personal and political perspective of conflict negotiations (Mo).

The subsequent discussion panel included Simon Heath (Producer, BBC 2 series Party Animals), Tim Loane (Lead Writer, Teachers), Neil McKay (Producer, Mo), Mads Qvortrup (Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Cranfield University), and Lesley Riddoch (Broadcaster and Commentator).

Earlier in the day, Lesley and Mads discussed political drama with Wendy Austin on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme:

And later in the day, Neil McKay and Tim Loane did the same on UTV Live Tonight:

After the Stratagem event, I had the pleasure of joining the panel guests for dinner. Mads educated me on the origin of Borgen — a Dutch book about internal Conservative Party politics (Solitaire Royale) inspired a Dutch film of the same name, which in turn inspired a Dutch celebrity chef, Adam Price, to write Borgen.

We also carried forward the discussion on fantasy political drama projects. I made a pitch for a piece of political fiction — the American patriots don’t achieve a conclusive victory in the War of Independence; Westminster acknowledges and funds an American Loyalist Assembly (probably situated in upstate New York); and the Founding Fathers have to include this dimension as they draw up the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unsurprisingly, none around the dinner table got excited about my proposal!

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Film review – Good Vibrations @QFTBelfast

Good Vibrations is a film about Belfast music legend, Terri Hooley, who was responsible for discovering The Undertones and recording Teenage Kicks (which radio DJ Jonathan Peel famously played twice in a row).

UTV film critic Brian Henry Martin described Good Vibrations as “born, bred and buttered” in Belfast. The film is a total local production, from screenplay, casting, directing and production. This always runs the risk of the output being a bit twee, satisfying for the nearby residents but failing universal appeal.

Not so with Good Vibrations. It is an amazing film.

Brilliant in every way. The acting is top quality, by lead actor Richard Dormer and all others. The contextualisation is handled very well — challenging to set the scene during the Troubles without it getting too depressing. The direction is spot on, keeping the story moving along and ensuring a consistency of performance (just one scene where a female pedestrian walking alongside them was a distraction).

And superb editing, which film editor Nick Emerson explained during a post-screening Q&A session,  as part of QFT Film Club:

Nick learned about the Good Vibrations film project while finishing another on the film Cherrybomb, in 2008. A lot of time was spent in raising funds to ensure the film could get made.

He told us editing challenges. Any film has a “long film”, that from which you edit. In the case of Good Vibrations, this was two-and-a-half hours long, complicated by their desire to keep adding material! Another challenge was the fact that they were dealing with someone’s legacy (and of someone still alive as well as everyone who experienced the events). The film was “fun to do, but there was stuff not to be trivialised,” Nick said.

Nick expands on this by describing how so many involved with the film, the directors, producers, cast and himself, all grew up during the Troubles and were affected by it:

“We spent a full week watching [the archives]. It was very, very traumatic. There were some very unpleasant things to watch … We were all from here. Belfast made us the way we are: even if you tried not to, you couldn’t help but bring Belfast into the piece.”

Simon Wood from Northern Visions asked Nick whether he was afraid of meeting real people on the street, who might react negatively to their portrayal in the film. “At the end of the day it’s not a documentary. You need to be true to the story,” answered Nick.

Nick described Terri Hooley’s involvement in the film. Glenn (Delaney?) had a series of conversations with Terri over years, and Terri was present on the set during filming, but Nick added that Terri was respectful of the process and didn’t interfere.

In regards to music selection, “it was a pleasure when you were dealing with so many great tracks”. I asked Nick if there was going to be a soundtrack, as well as where we could get an unabridged list of tracks he dealt with. “We’re working on it” and “Spotify” were his replies.

The final comment from the audience was from someone who knew Terri “for a very long time”:

“I always knew Terri as a person with a great love for music. He had a great love for people, so he did. As a matter of fact, he gave me a lot of records, never even charged me for them.”

Nick replied, “I hope that came across [in the film]. Terri has a heart of gold. He’s such a good soul … He undoubtedly did a tremendous amount for the kids here in the 1970s and 80s.”

Good Vibrations is indeed a heart-warming and uplifting story of a man and place in troubled times.

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Good Friday Agreement codifies civic rules of the Northern Ireland game

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Although the DUP dismisses the Good Friday Agreement for all its faults, it is hard to deny that that long-negotiated document set the framework under which our politics takes place, with its separation of powers (perhaps too separate), all-inclusive Executive (though lack of collective responsibility), and peculiar voting systems (bifurcated communal designations).

Yet this Belfast Agreement contains crucial elements that would be found in any enduring democracy — equality of treatment under the law, mutual respect for one’s national identities, and a pledge to develop human rights and improve community relations.

It is easy to feel disappointed by a loss of optimism since the euphoric achievement of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement fifteen years ago.

But that would be a cynical exercise of faulting party politics, while neglecting the potential of a new Northern Ireland.

And why would we leave it only to politicians to deliver a new Northern Ireland?

One vital dimension of our society that helped us reach agreement is our civility.

Our collective civility towards one another thankfully outweighed our barbarism towards one another.

As is often said, you can’t legislate for peace. But we need to give better recognition of how we behave towards one another outside the framework of formal law.

I call this the “civic rules of the game”.

This was part of a “civic conversation” sponsored and convened by RSA Ireland (and facilitated by the International Futures Forum), chaired by Denis Stewart and held at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.

I argue that the Good Friday Agreement codifies a set of civic rules of the game, but too many of us haven’t noticed.

What are the civic rules of the game?

Our conversation started with talking about respect — our historical context of respect for neighbours, theories of social capital etc. This might be constrained by the power of the churches and the level of segregation in a community.

There are also the rules of protest. Civil disobedience is OK –- but what are you trying to achieve, what is your strategy, and how are you going to communicate what you are doing?  Who decides what uncivic behaviour is, and should transgressors be punished and how?

How do we make altruism the norm — giving more to society than taking from it. There are issues about existing distributions between the better off and the less well off.  What is the role of the state –- in the original shared future policy, the document described the state as a neutral arbitrator, able to facilitate change.  We need a longer conversation on that –- the role of the state in civic society is important.

We talked about the rules of debating -– better ‘critiquing’.  Learning the skills of conversation, critiquing, risk-taking, exploring ideas. Debate is win/lose; critique is not.  Lawyers are trained to understand and represent the other point of view. This skill needs to become more widely evident in our public discourse, not least among politicians and community leaders. We meet politicians and community leaders who seem to understand another person’s point of view. But on a public stage they behave very differently.

The role of the arts came up. If you want a civic conversation that does not step into big politics then do it through the arts: ICAN and the Theatre of Witness programme at the Playhouse Theatre are amazing, as are Replay Productions’ engagement with young people.

Self-esteem is a necessary prerequisite to have the courage to critique. There is a lot of work to be done with/through our school system for the benefit of young people –- and their parents/carers as well. Inter-generational projects are valuable. We need to get serious about where some of the problems lie.

There is potential to share our rich cultural stories (arts, science, technology, etc.). As UK City of Culture 2013, Derry-Londonderry is turning that into an asset. We should be able to do that across the whole of Northern Ireland.

We concluded with Denis’s suggestion that we could think about the possibility of developing a sort of ‘Northern Irish Constitution’ -– through conversational processes that mixed the political and the civic aspects of our society. Mari Fitzduff (founding director of the Community Relations Council) has said that people rarely change identities, but they can change behaviour according to norms and incentives.

So let’s write down some norms.

What are the values of Northern Ireland? What are our aspirations and desires?

Can we grow a genuinely shared Northern Irish identity, not as a national identity but as a civic identity? Our national identity is already established:  British, Irish or both.

How do we then codify the rules of civic engagement, reflecting our values?

I very much want you to be part of further civic conversations. Starting now with your comments please.

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Review – Andy WARHOL @TheMACBelfast

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Self-Portrait with Hand to Cheek (1977/1978), Andy Warhol

Another art exhibition review in less than a week. This isn’t my day job, honest.

After a work related meetup at the MAC Belfast, I toured the Andy Warhol exhibition. This was my first time at the MAC, so I was inspecting the venue, too.

I’m excited that Belfast has at long last a contemporary arts venue, after decades of going into the Ulster Museum to be greeted by a dinosaur. (The renovated Ulster Museum still greets you with a dinosaur; the modern art is usually spiralled away on the top floor.)

A greeter at the entrance of the MAC said hello. That welcoming feeling soon wore away when I asked for a gallery map, and was told there was one in the £3 tour guide for the Warhol exhibition. Three pounds for a gallery map?

The MAC is actually better described as a venue for examining and exploring creativity. The rooms are all disjointed, on all levels. Great when seeking a hideaway space for solitude or collaboration. Not so great for exhibitions that span more than one room. I wasn’t the only one who got lost in trying to follow the sequence of rooms.

And the exhibition itself?

Not bad actually.

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I reckon the exhibition starts in the basement, with “Warhol: A life on film”. A 28-minute loop film was running, showing interviews with those who knew him. After getting the gist, I climbed the stairs and searched around for the next room, “Warhol on marketing, celebrity and himself”. This was predominantly two walls of film posters that showed the evolution of Warhol the brand. My favourite was “Il cinema di Warhol”, with the artist’s name incorporated in a Pepsi-Cola logo.

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In this section was a room that contained an installation of floating silver, rectangular balloons. Perhaps inspiration for Jeff Koons’ balloon art?

I thought that the way to finish off painting for me would be to have a painting that floats, so I inverted the floating silver rectangles that you fill up with helium and let out of your windows.

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Next room was harder to find, but the largest by far. And this is where the curation worked best for me. Plenty of space to stand back and take in the large silkscreens. Appropriate for a Northern Ireland audience, there were “Repent and Sin No More!” and “The Mark of the Beast”. Both works are dated 1985/1986, near the time of Andy Warhol’s death and when I was making his discovery in my university art history courses. (I should have made an effort to see him during an exhibition in Newport, Rhode Island, the year before!) The works on display in this room bear out Warhol’s preoccupation with war, death and religion. A fitting finale to this pop art icon.

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It was good to see the MAC so busy on Easter Tuesday, which was open for this public holiday only observed in Northern Ireland. (I still don’t understand why the God-fearing people of Ulster don’t observe Good Friday, but that’s another issue.)

I look forward to returning to the MAC for future events, having passed an initiation of navigating its modern architecture.

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Breadboy book launch

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Breadboy is Tony Macaulay’s sequel to Paperboy, growing up as a young teenager in Shankill, West Belfast. I was delighted to be invited to the book launch, having also been to the one for Paperboy, three years ago.

Like then, friends and colleagues gathered, this time in the basement of Eason news shop,  literally a stone’s throw from Belfast City Hall, the focus of much recent unrest over a community relations matter of the display of the Union flag. To paraphrase Macaulay’s book’s introduction — reflecting “a city still feeding off ancient rivalries”, while perhaps “well past their sell-by date”, still appetising for some.

Patsy Horton from Blackstaff Press began by remarking that they wished they had published Paperboy, now recognising the power of Macaulay’s voice in telling the story of life as a young person during dark years of the Troubles.

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Tony Macaulay read generous extracts from his new book. For those of us who read his previous book it was a comforting reminder of the cast of characters; for others it was an engrossing invitation, with Macaulay speaking in vox in situ.

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After giving his thanks and acknowledgements, there were a few remarks by Mr Wesley McCreedy (aka Leslie McGregor). This was a live reminder that these books are honest accounts of actual events, superbly told:

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Barbara Stephenson’s “old friends” reception

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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.

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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!

http://mrulster.podomatic.com/swf/joeplayer_v18b.swf

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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.

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Borrowing e-books from Belfast Central Library

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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:

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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)
Taoiseach

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.

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‘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.”