Yet another election?

I have to say that this is the most interesting election for a long time.  Why?

I was talking with my brother last night about PM May and, inevitably, we had our differing opinions on her.  Students of politics often cite Brown’s failure to call an election.  Will they now cite PM May’s acute sense of strategy to triumph over the political field?  It is extremely interesting that there are voices in Europe that hope for this outcome.

I have three things to say.

Opinion polls on May’s leadership and her lead over Corbyn do not exactly correlate and translate to a landslide in what she quite rightly noted is a, ‘Brexit election.’  The UK is divided North/South and East/West.  I fully understand her reluctance to embark on this path.  This decision may tell us a lot more about PM May’s sense of where she sees herself in History, her legacy, but this may still prove to be a careless deviation from the reality of a divided UK that has fumbled towards this historic junction, led by ego driven visions of those who saw their names light up in History, long before the commentaries were written.  A dangerous game to play?  The polls flatter to deceive, as they always do.  Opinion polls often massage the ego and Brown’s caution may yet prove to be pertinent.

Secondly, this is a real opportunity for parties who are against the the ‘Tory’ vision of a top down version of Brexit.  Democracy exists to allow society to frame the political discourse.  It has never existed to empower the few to manufacture visions that fracture and impoverish the nation, visions that leave the disenfranchised powerless and destitute.  What the UK public should never accept is a political framework, Brexit or not, that fails to deal with the poverty and the disenchantment that exists within our society, where the youth feel disempowered and  directionless and where the vulnerable, the elderly and the sick feel abandoned.  There is an alternative direction that envisages a renewed society and the voting public are free to choose this alternative vision in this election.  Every election is about transforming and motivating our political representatives to enact changes that benefit society as a whole.  This election is not just about Brexit!

Lastly.  Northern Ireland really doesn’t need another election.  Northern Ireland needs political leadership and those who believe in truth, reconciliation and progress.  This election creates yet another opportunity to slideshow what division looks like.  A sideshow that diverts, once again, form the decisions that could transform and heal.

However, in the UK and Northern Ireland context, this is an opportunity for progressive voices to reintroduce alternative possibilities and new directions.

Civic Voices Northern Ireland.

The Civic Voices Oral History Project was initially created by the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The project facilitated the collection of oral histories by secondary school students in partnered countries, an oral history archive that would vividly recount the story of key activists who enabled significant change within their national narrative. These interviews were transcribed and uploaded to the International Memory Bank, an archive that would allow the comparative analysis of the stories featured, from countries including the USA, Columbia, Georgia, Poland, Mongolia, South Africa and Northern Ireland. The movements investigated by students, included the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S., the Velvet Revolution in Georgia, Anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa and those who contributed to peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as the continued work of politicians and activists within Northern Ireland to embed new political structures in a society emerging from a recent conflict.

The NASUWT in Northern Ireland, in partnership with their AFT colleagues, was the key vehicle by which the project was introduced to schools in Northern Ireland. The late Karen Sims, former national organizer of the NASUWT in Northern Ireland, led the project and the initial local training of teachers and beginning teachers, before they returned to their schools to invite their respective students to embark on the process of researching and contacting a potential interview subject. To date, Northern Irish students have amassed a highly impressive score of sixty interviews, interviews that add key insights into the Troubles, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights story of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the story of Integrated Education, the emergence of peace in Northern Ireland and the continuing importance of Stormont in the delivery of governance in the post-conflict environment.

In my own school, Magherafelt High School, the project has been a key part of Year 10 Citizenship classes for the last five years, and occasionally, Year 13 Government and Politics classes have recorded an interview as an intrinsic part of the their Northern Ireland Politics study. In some schools in Northern Ireland, the project has also been delivered through English classes.

Civic Voices has formed a key part of the Magherafelt High School Year 10 Citizenship study of democracy and the importance of civic engagement. It has allowed the students to actively participate in recording key insights into the importance of human rights promotion and the current workings of the democratic processes, while the project has also afforded different classes with the opportunity to log and learn from the historical narrative that they record personally. The narrative collected from every interviewee is individual and unique to every group, who are given the responsibility for recording the dialogue. This is the core strength of the project. Every student is responsible for adding a piece to the jigsaw of knowledge that helps to explain Northern Ireland’s journey. The project allows students to lead throughout the whole process. Students are responsible for locating, for researching and contacting a potential interviewee, then, they organize and schedule the interview date, prepare the questions and analyze the responses to find the key element and message within the interview. Consequently, two hundred students, to date, have been involved in contributing to the historical archive. The enthusiasm that each group has brought to their respective interview has proved the value of this project. The buzz of excitement on the day of the interview is incredible, as they all know how important their role is on the day of the interview. The interviews are a fun part of the academic year for the Year 10 students. Students from all ability ranges can take part. They love it.

The students in our school have been fortunate to interview many key actors in the Northern Ireland story, from Baroness May Blood (Union Activist/Women’s Coalition) to Bernadette McAliskey (Civil Rights), from Richard Moore (Children in Crossfire) to Chuck Richardson (Spirit of Enniskillen Trust), from former Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie to Alan McBride (WAVE), from Donna Traynor (BBC) and Paul Clark (UTV) to Finlay Spratt (Prison Officers Association) and Mary Hamilton (Claudy Victims), from Michael Gallagher (Omagh Victims) to Father Maningi (Children in Crossfire). Stormont and our local MLA’s, particularly Sandra Overend, Ian McCrea and Patsy McGlone, have been amazingly supportive of the project. Last year, despite the pressures of the looming European election, our students were able to interview MEP candidate, Mr Jim Nicholson and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr Mike Nesbitt, on the recommendation of MLA Overend. As a school, we remain really grateful, on behalf or our students that the vast majority of those who they approached agreed to be interviewed. It made their year!

Every year, the classes develop a theme for the year, a perspective that they would like to interrogate. Classes have looked at Stormont, Civil Rights, Media perspectives on recording the Troubles, the difficulty of policing in a divided society, victims and the disappeared, as well as local activism and making a political difference in the national and international arena. Students have looked at the difficulties for prison officers in Northern Ireland, the remarkable stories of forgiveness that inspired change, youth projects such as the Spirit of Enniskillen that empowered students to lead change, while also looking at Amnesty International and Children in Crossfire and the importance of caring about making a difference internationally. Donna Traynor’s recounting of her excitement as she delivered the breaking news of the announcement of the first IRA ceasefire was a really special moment for the students involved.

As a school, utilizing and adapting the original Civic Voices Project to suit the material that is taught, has enhanced the curriculum that is delivered and allows students to get involved in recording, editing and adapting the filmed sources, and to identify snippets from the interviews that could be added to a future interactive timeline, a timeline that should be used by future students and teachers. Civic Voices is one part of the wider Oral History project in Northern Ireland that seeks allow students to interpret and learn from the past, to engage with the legacy of the past, while also pointing towards future directions. Students are the recorders and the analysts, the key actors who will potentially build a very different Northern Ireland in the next generation. All of the material that has been recorded, thus far, in many different projects, will have to be joined up in a central timeline, as the Stormont House Agreement envisaged. It is essential to keep students at the core of this wider project. The skills that students obtain through this project are invaluable to their future career pathways.

An important additional note must be added. It is absolutely clear that Civic Voices works perfectly in the Northern Ireland context, but the project would work equally well in other areas of the United Kingdom. The basic value of the project simply envisages allowing students to gain a personal insight into the struggle for rights and democracy. This can be translated in many different ways. In the UK today, there are many examples of activism that engages different communities in their fight for political change. The story of the growth of the SNP and the story of referendum is one that should be recorded in Scotland. There are petitions led by organizations such as that are often fuelled by the groundswell of local opinion and activism. Right across the structures of governance in the regions of the UK, there are examples of people asserting their democratic right to be heard. The Civic Voices project simply records these voices and aims to engage and inspire the students in doing so. All that is needed is a simple recording device, video or audio, a little bit of background and community research and then students can begin the interview process.

Ultimately, the aim remains to involve more schools in the project, and the NASUWT in Northern Ireland has been extremely supportive in the local context. Sadly, there are key voices that we failed to record, as sickness and age intervened. It is crucial that the legacy of the original project builds on what Karen Sims and her international colleagues envisaged, an adapting and self-sustaining Oral History project, that allows students to continue to record the key community voices that have defended, promoted and asserted democratic values in the local, national and international context. In Northern Ireland, it is essential that we record as many of those voices that can interpret the past failings and successes of the story from a personal perspective and vantage point, before that generation passes. There remains a huge amount of potential interviews and perspectives for students to record. It is a fantastic project.

The challenge of teaching history in Northern Ireland.


This article sets out five of the challenges facing Northern Irish history teachers as they attempt to teach the history of a recent conflict to students in a society emerging from that conflict. It investigates the pitfalls that lie in wait for an ill-considered approach and suggests methodologies that could be employed to navigate through the maze of community sensitivities that relate to the recent conflict. In conjunction with this, the article considers the importance of history teaching in re-imaging and reimagining in a society that was previously torn apart by conflict.          

The Challenges of Teaching History in Northern Ireland


 This article intends to set out the main challenges facing history teachers as they attempt to teach sensitive, controversial and often contentious material in a post-conflict setting, framing lessons that allow students to explore and interrogate the multiple perspectives that attempted to explain the outbreak and duration of the conflict, while also encouraging students to analyse all the causes and consequences.

There are five main challenges. Understandably, in a society still emerging from conflict, for many within the community, dealing with the ‘legacy of the past’ is still a live issue. The teacher needs to be sensitive to the feelings and sensitivities of the community when framing lessons. Lessons need to aid reconciliation, healing and peaceful conflict resolution, rather than fuelling anger and prejudice. There is always a real danger that an ill-considered approach could cement innately prejudicial feelings towards the perceived ‘other side.’ Many aspects of the material have been a matter of dispute at the political level and within the local community. A whole vocabulary exists to describe previous involvement in the conflict, from people with conflict related convictions, politically motivated ex-prisoners or politically motivated former prisoners. [1] The simple use of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim,’ would have negative connotations to the political ex-prisoner, but for many of those deeply affected by the conflict, the notion that their loss could be justified politically, could prove offensive. And yet, almost twenty years on from the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the teacher needs to feel free to teach the whole story, introduce all explanations and disputes, because it is through the totality of the story that a full understanding is gained and reconciliation is founded. No stone should be left unturned and no subject should be considered taboo.


Thirdly, the teacher must ensure that the other significant stories that arose throughout the conflict are told, those who campaigned for peace, those who continued with life despite the Troubles and the very significant music scene that existed in Northern Ireland in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, extolling the young to embrace an, ‘alternative ulster.’ [2] Gordon Wilson lost his daughter in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, but he resolved to set up the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust to bring young people from the both communities together. [3] The band, Stiff Little Fingers,[4] extolled their fans not to waste their life.[5] The story of the young people of Belfast and beyond embracing the punk rock scene as an alternative to the life that existed on the bomb-affected streets is an important part of the whole picture, as music broke down barriers and created shared spaces.

It is also clear that ways need to be found to allow students from the different schools to discuss and discover together, whether through joint classes, internet collaborative classes or through joint interviews. One possible vehicle for real collaboration and a mechanism that would allow the students to discover together is the joint oral history interview. [6] The key aims of teaching the Troubles to classes must remain to promote reconciliation, break down barriers, encourage positive choices, enhance understanding and improve community relations. There has to be a sense of shared history and student dialogue in safe spaces for this to become a reality.

Finally, a key challenge for teachers is the vast amount of material that exists online. Ensuring that the students leave a course of lessons with the ability to fully locate the particular political spin that might underpin a visual source or video, to uncover the propagandistic twist, to test the sourcing and to synthesise conclusions based on multiple perspectives, is one of the most important lessons that they may learn for modern life.

These challenges are relevant to all societies emerging from conflict.

The Northern Ireland Educational Context

Northern Ireland emerged from thirty years of conflict in 1998. The Troubles led to the deaths of 3,600 people between 1966 and 1998. The story towards peace had many twists and turns, false starts and setbacks, but the overall story has proved one of remarkable success, given all that had went before.[7]

The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement noted that, ‘An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.’ [8] The Agreement was clear that the educational framework within Northern Ireland had to adapt and change to the new circumstances and the reference to integrated denoted an acknowledgement that largely segregated schools were not necessarily the ideal way to promote a culture of tolerance from a very early age.

Despite this significant entry into the Peace Agreement, Education within Northern Ireland remains largely segregated into mainly Protestant and mainly Catholic schools. There are also a relatively small number of integrated schools, catering for parents who wish to educate their children in this environment. [9]   Many reasons may partially explain why the religious educational divide remains in Northern Ireland, such as the current economic climate, parental support for current arrangements, lack of political agreement on the way forward and the fact that while there have been many significant voices indicating a real need for movement towards further integration, this has not materialised into focused pressure.

The current political and educational focus is on ‘shared’ education.[10] The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has outlined the social, educational and economic cases for pursuing shared education.[11] The document indicates the necessity of promoting the ‘interaction in learning between pupils from different community backgrounds,’ as one crucial way to, ‘break down barriers, nurture and improve community relations,’ amidst the background of a largely segregated education system. The Shared Education Programme (SEP) facilitates joint classes at post-16, so that students are educated together, choice and opportunity is maximised and barriers are broken down as students cross campuses. SEP also funds other schemes to allow schools to collaborate on different student projects.

The history teacher in Northern Ireland has a key role to play in teaching the history of the Troubles in a way that contributes to the above framework. History should allow the students to investigate the multiple perspectives arising out of the conflict and equip them with the tools to bust myths that arose out of the divided narratives, as well as afford them the opportunity to investigate ignored or avoided histories. Teaching history to Northern Ireland students holds the very important task of dealing with the ‘legacy of the past,’[12] in a sensitive and open way, delivering lessons that deal with victims, perpetrators, political actors, the impact of the conflict on the local community, the alternative perspectives that existed, while also including lessons that investigate the history of Northern Ireland within the wider historical and international framework. To fully meet the guidelines stipulated, ways should be found to teach history collaboratively to groups of students from several schools, so that genuine respect and understanding is fostered and community relations are improved significantly.

While this is not necessarily an impossible task, it certainly is a daunting one.

A sense of ‘our’ shared history?

 Between 2012 and 2023, the communities in Northern Ireland will have a series of commemorative events, to mark the 100th anniversary of historically significant events. Commemorative events will focus on the 1912 Solemn League and Covenant, the formation of the UVF, the First World War, 1916 and the Somme, the Easter Rising, the Partition of Ireland and the Formation of Northern Ireland, the Irish War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Civil War that followed, before the final journey towards the formation of the Republic of Ireland began. A number of excellent resources have been created to help teachers navigate their way to 2023.[13]

The key element in all of this is to try and give all students in all settings the chance to challenge and ‘myth-bust’ as they explore each of the historical events.

Two separate historical narratives of ‘how we got to here,’ have always existed to represent the two main traditions in Northern Ireland. One hinges on the Plantation of Ulster, the Siege of Derry, the Boyne, the fight to stay in the Union, ‘the Ulster Crisis,’ and the brave sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme that led to the creation of Northern Ireland. The other depicts an Ireland conquered and repeatedly ravaged by the British and a long journey of Nationalist awakening and Gaelic Revival, that ultimately resulted in the beginning of the removal of the British from Ireland, a process hastened by the tragic and romantic self-sacrifice of the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916.

The historical narratives formed, created a ‘mythical’ super-structure from which all understanding was founded. Not only could the separate states, North and South, build their national identity on different founding ‘myths,’ but also the paramilitary groups of the 1960’s and 1970’s could partially justify their campaigns, on the basis that they continued a struggle that had existed for centuries. This approach was not entirely credible, but as the conflict raged and as communities were further driven apart and fenced in, physically and mentally, street murals depicted aspects of the ‘separate’ founding ‘myths.’ Flags, colours and murals became important ways of announcing the allegiance of the community. The sense of ‘identity’ created should not be underestimated. There is also absolutely no doubt that this is a key reason why it is difficult for politicians to agree on ‘flags, parades and the legacy of the past.’ [14] Inevitably, there are a lot of contentious issues to resolve.

Nevertheless, significant aspects of ‘our’ shared history have been explored in the context of the First World War. For different reasons, the shared experience of World War One was neglected until recently. The fact that many Nationalists fought in British Regiments in the First World War did not fit in with the emerging post-war Republican narrative. In recent years, the Irish Government has began to commemorate the Irish fallen in the Great War and there are many interesting projects that seek to ensure that Remembrance has a distinctly ‘shared’ element, such as an ongoing project to research the ‘Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers,’ who died in the 1914-18 conflict. [15] Equal numbers of Ulster Volunteers and Irish National Volunteers joined up when World War One was declared and they fought in many theaters from Gallipoli, the Balkans and on the Western Front. In the end, given the horrific losses that accrued, what remained of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster divisions fought together in the final campaigns of the war.

Schools, including my own, have successfully been able to work collaboratively with another school, across the segregated educational divide, to create a project that encourages the students to investigate and discover the ‘shared’ nature of the First World War and how commemoration of this conflict is important to the whole community in Ireland. Allowing students to ‘myth-bust’ in relation to the First World War has also led to students being able to investigate aspects of the Easter Rising together. Of course, this is within what is now a well documented, accepted and supported area of shared history, but it is an excellent introduction to the events that led to the Partition of Ireland and the consequences that followed.

It serves as an introductory chapter, before tackling the more contentious ‘Troubles.’

The History Teacher’s Dilemma and ‘the legacy of the past.’

 Teaching the history of the Northern Ireland conflict cannot be entirely divorced from contemporary political developments and the mood ‘on the streets.’ It lies with the political realm to deliver an environment that is conducive to dealing with the ‘legacy of the past.’ The teacher has to be absolutely aware of community sensitivities and deeply held views in relation to teaching particular topics. The teaching of controversial and divisive history cannot be delivered in isolation from current events and an environment that can alter from moment to moment, as was seen with the so called, ‘flags protest,’ where sections of the Unionist community protested against Belfast City Hall’s decision to only fly the Union flag on designated days. [16]

In dealing with victims of the Troubles, the teacher has to choose from a variety of narratives that span all the direct and indirect consequences of conflict, without opening up a class dialogue that simply blames ‘the other side.’ Dealing with the impact of the Troubles on businesses and Northern Ireland’s image in the world, before dealing with the immensely sensitive issues of those who died and were disabled by the conflict may be one approach. Some schools may find it impossible to deal with the motivations and perspectives of those who the supporting community consider to be the key, ‘perpetrators.’ It is also absolutely clear that for many, ‘The Troubles aren’t History yet,’ as one report was titled.[17] Teachers have to be acutely aware that the history they are teaching in a segregated setting does not fuel deeply held stereotypes, rather than promote reconciliation and a fuller understanding. In this, it goes without saying that the teacher must be self-aware and guard against offering an opinion on sensitive events. It should be remembered that for many teachers, teaching the history of ‘their’ times may prove extremely challenging and poignant, and there are deep scars that affect many in the community, parents and grandparents who might find aspects of the lesson material unacceptable.

Another plausible hypothesis might find some students disengaged as they see the Troubles as something that has little to do with this generation, twenty years on, whereas others, the ‘Youtube’ generation, may access material that fits their already fixed mind-set. Students must also be constantly reminded that, while very few were totally unaffected, there were sections of both communities who totally rejected the conflict. Many campaigned against it and for peace.[18] An ‘Alternative Ulster’ always existed.[19]

Keeping all of this at the forefront of the mind demands that all lessons must be thoroughly planned, thought out fully and examined for potential flaws. Detailed guidance to teachers has been published on Teaching Controversial Issues in Northern Ireland.[20] There is also a very powerful model provided for teaching difficult subject material, one created in response to the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, Miriam’s Vision. This provides an approach that is relevant to teaching history, where the material covered still resonates and stirs deep emotions today.[21] The Northern Ireland history teacher, in whatever setting, has to consider how to move from the long-term causes and the many consequences of the conflict to deal with the more controversial and divisive material that many have, understandably, avoided until this point.

The teacher then has to consider, in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, how to deliver an aspect of this programme within a ‘shared’ setting. A key goal must remain, at the very least, to create mechanisms of collaboration or develop further the online communicative capacity to allow students from all the educational sectors to investigate a range of themes in a ‘safe space.’ Only the whole community working in partnership with each other can break down the psychological and physical barriers that were created by the conflict. Inevitably, a central element of this wider project is the work that is carried out in all schools with their respective students.

Rebranding, Re-imaging and Reimagining Northern Ireland

 The rebranding of Northern Ireland has been largely a success story. It is now largely famous, ‘for tourism, not terrorism,’[22] as well as Golf and Game of Thrones.

In relation to the rebranding project, an interesting discussion continues in relation to murals and street art. Given the fact that murals in Northern Ireland often depict paramilitary groups and sectarian messages, there has been a raging debate on how this fits in with the re-imaging of Northern Ireland. Are they really tourist attractions? [23] This debate is placed again within the whole argument on, ‘the legacy of the past.’ It is impossible to re-image without the consent of the local community and, at times, this consent has been given. [24] At other times, there has been a negative reaction against attempts to impose a re-imaged reality. A lot of recent news has focused on controversial paramilitary images being repainted in various localities.[25] [26] At the same time, there have been a lot of interesting montages and images going up in recent years that depict subjects that are historically relevant to the local community.[27]

The history teacher in Northern Ireland has to be fully aware of political developments, events on the street, the ever-developing community dialogue and consciousness and the demands of the specified curriculum to deal with the ‘legacy of the past’ in a sensitive and balanced way, while exploring possible collaborative links with other schools. The history teacher should empower and allow the students to investigate all the angles, to question everything and gain the tools to interpret all the information. Success will be measured by how well schools equip their students to reimagine and refashion a Northern Ireland with a different future. Then, we can consign the history of the Troubles, the murals and the dilemmas, to a purpose built open-air museum.[28] Finally, it will then be possible to treat the past conflict as history.


[1] From Prison to Peace: Learning fro the experience of political ex-prisoners, 15.

[2] The Film Good Vibrations tells the story through the memoir of Terri Hooley.

[3] The story of Gordon Wilson:

[4] Documentary on Stiff Little Fingers:

[5] Stiff Little Fingers – Wasted Life:

[6] Various oral history projects exist such as Civic Voices:

[7] For an extensive online background to the Troubles:

[8] The Agreement, Reconciliation and Victims of Violence, 18.

[9] For a history of integrated education:

[10] Shared Education:

[11] Sharing Works: A Policy for Shared Education, 6.

[12] BBC Northern Ireland has made their landmark resource, Legacy A Collection of personal testimonies from people affected by the Troubles available to all teachers in Northern Ireland.

[13] Creative Centenaries:

[14] Flags, parades and the legacy of the past:

[15] The GAA Volunteers who went to war:

[16] The Flags Dispute:

[17] The Troubles aren’t history yet:

[18] The Peace People:

[19] Stiff Little Fingers – Alternative Ulster:

[20] Northern Ireland Curriculum:

[21] Miriam’s Vision:

[22] In a typical ‘Norn Iron’ (Northern Ireland) accent, both words can sound the same, which may create occasional confusion.

[23] Professor Bill Rolston on Murals:

[24] The removal of a South Belfast Mural:

[25] The repainting of an East Belfast Mural:

[26] Belfast Telegraph Opinion:

[27] Images on the Donegall Road:

[28] Interview with Heidi McAlpine:

Brothers in Arms.

My brother turns 50 today.  How does life always fool us into imagining that time is infinite?

One reason may be that it seems like yesterday when my two brothers were playing the lego formula one game in the front bedroom.  Funnily enough, Alan Jones was my brother’s favourite driver.  He fixed that lego game to ensure that Jones won.  Scalextric tracks in the attic, where Alan Jones from Australia was winning again.  Blue pillowcases and unknown Christmas presents.  It later transpired that our Australian adventurer had already found all of them.  Funnily enough, in the attic and other assorted hiding places.

Another reason may be that life doesn’t assume that memory will last forever.  Nothing is unforgettable or significant unless it is spoken and shared.  Unfortunately, I will have to share that Flock of Seagulls record that my brother loved and the whole 1980’s pop culture that he decried.  Why?  He was journeying down the Telegraph Road with Knopfler.  I liked Human League, Tiffany and the Bangles.  Whoops!!!  My brother invited me to the land of Rock.  I listened to Band of Brothers on the old turntable, about 1000 times.  Interestingly, this knowledge allowed me to score a pointless answer on that Pointless TV show that everyone loves or doesn’t.  I was absolutely obsessed by an musical compilation album called Impressions in 1987, one that included Knopfler.  My brother got it for me and then he went and scored the ultimate success by queuing to get me The Joshua Tree cassette on the night of release.  Jeez!!!  That was an amazing album.  When I heard ‘Where the Streets have No Name,’ I hadn’t heard anything like it.  I bought a trench coat and a waist coat that never fitted.  (funnily enough, it still doesn’t fit.  I still have it.)  For some reason, I then went into my Guns and Roses and Metallica phase.  Point is.  When we were travelling through the snow to watch Larry Norman, we didn’t expect our memories to last forever.  But, they have.  Spoken and shared.

Thirdly, we didn’t share as much time as we wanted to with our brother Gareth.  We all had our legendary fights with him.  Darryl thought it would be a good idea to throw a snooker cue at his head.  He was Steve Davis.  We were Alex Higgins and Jimmy White.  In our imagination.  Nevertheless, in those days of him being an eejit and Darryl being so sensible, we thought that these moments, while forgotten, would be remembered together.  And.  They are.  While I went through my complete meltdown and everybody gave me endless space,  I think that we all arrived at the same place.  Eventually.  I know that Darryl was essential in making that a reality.  Right enough.  I used to love playing tennis.  That was until I played Darryl with his spin serves.  One day in Lisburn, I got so annoyed, I started to aim my serves at his head.  That was a bit unfortunate.  It also ended my tennis career.

Time slowed.  Time healed.  We travelled.  Australia was amazing.  We did the whole boat thing in Brisbane and saw where he was born, chased a few banana trees and toasted the birth of Keelin in Cairns.  We got a bit ‘toasted’ on the way out, due to Japan Airlines being so fantastic and got talking to some bloke who was hoping to find a shower in Tokyo.  He and his wife found the shower.  We collapsed and got ready for the next leg on Japan Airlines.  Goodness.  1999 ended my brief encounter with the high life.  That was an amazing trip.  We had one epic fight in Cairns.  New Zealand was incredible.  We met Andrew, munching on his sushi in Christchurch.  New York, New York, the Yankees and San Francisco and everything else in between.  I imagine that we have had a few epic fights here and there.  I am not mentioning the legendary argument that we had in Paisley.  He completely misunderstood what I was saying.

If life does always try to fool us into believing that time is infinite, I imagine that it fools the memory into believing that life’s movement is motionless.  Nevertheless, the memories we have are emotion(full) and are as lasting as the steps we take.  Memories really do last forever, despite the fact that we have no control of the passing of time.

That was a slightly more complicated way of wishing my brother a Happy 50th Birthday!!!  I have a lot more to say.





I woke up at 3.30am on Friday morning to watch the end of the referendum results and I couldn’t fathom the figures. When Dimbleby declared the result at 4.40am, I was profoundly depressed with a real sense of sadness, with a desire to disappear for several weeks or months. This may appear an irrational response to political machinations, even a decision of this magnitude, but this was a significant psychological shock to me and I know that many would have reacted in the same way. I have been trying to work through in my mind as to why this referendum result has knocked me for six in this way.

Before I do so, I want to make it absolutely clear that I respect every voter’s right to express their viewpoint democratically as these periodic opportunities arise, and I do not want to add to the mountains of extremely good commentaries that are dealing with the technicalities of this decision. I value all my friendships, leave and remain, and understand that everyone had their own considerations that led them to mark their ballot paper in the way they did. I also have absolutely no idea how this will turn out, in the short-term or the long-term, for good or ill, nor do I have an answer to the question on everyone’s lips, ‘After Brexit, what now?’ I am definitely not an economist or a legal expert. There is already some exceptional analysis out there. I have made absolutely no secret that this was not the decision that I thought was best for the whole of the UK, but I have also clearly indicated that we need to get on with dealing with the implications of this decision together, as a society, as devolved polities and as a nation. The complexities that define the nature of this nation, nevermind the complexity of the negotiations that will follow, demand the most capable team to drive forward towards an agreement that best creates an arrangement that is in the best interest of these new circumstances. I am not embarking on an exercise of wishful thinking. I now agree that there have to be definite steps forward. It is best for everyone.

So, why was I personally devastated by this result? I am a ‘liberal unionist,’ and in Northern Ireland terms, at times, you would be right to wonder if this voice is a significant force. I believe it is essential. In my heart, I believe in the UK. I also support fully the new arrangements put in place, through several negotiations, that allowed a devolved Stormont, within the UK and with excellent relations with the Republic of Ireland, politically and economically. Northern Ireland is a wonderful place. I have said it before, even despite the fact that I inevitably complain bitterly about them occasionally, we have a growing number of extremely talented local politicians, from all sides, who are working extremely hard to redefine Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, in considerably weakened economic circumstances, even before Brexit. This referendum result potentially weakens the union that is a key element of identity for all shades of unionist opinion. I genuinely agree that it was essentially bizarre that some interpreted this differently. I remain to be persuaded differently. I don’t believe that this will harm or hinder our embedded peace and there are positive voices that seem to be willing to work together to deal with the question, Northern Ireland, at the edge of Europe, what now? For me, despite my determination to support their efforts in these new circumstances, even through my inevitable grumblings at their lack of progress, I am still worried as to how other developments in the wider settlement will redefine my personal sense of identity, in an environment where it is no longer relevant.

Secondly, I am saddened that the campaign that led up to this referendum, created a sense in some communities that migration undermines, rather than enhances our country. Why is it a bad thing that people within Europe should seek employment and bettered circumstances across Europe? There are a million arguments that have been overplayed in relation to this. However, added to this, right across Europe and in the UK, a general sense of helping and welcoming people in distress is being eroded in favour of a rush to build fences and strengthen borders. Where is this coming from? I simply do not accept that we can’t cooperate to offer a new chance to people fleeing desperately from devastating conflict, often conflicts that we contributed to through our decisions. I am not advocating that we open our borders to everyone, I am pleading for people to reassess how they are interpreting these scenes. We have an absolute imperative to help and assist these people. I fear sadly, that people are wrongly interpreting what is really leading to the impoverishment of their localities, the lack of investment that has been targeted to those areas by our Government. The whole referendum campaign allowed itself to be hijacked by those peddling these fears successfully. The fact that these fears resonated with many people more than the countless experts that correctly predicted the chaotic post-Brexit economic environment is depressing. These same neglected communities will not necessarily see a Brexit dividend, because, it now seems, that nothing that was said to them was really true. Political amnesia has set in. Again, I can’t forecast one way or the other, but I can say that some aspects of this journey displayed the worst of who we are as a collective society. It definitely didn’t point to a positive direction. In connection to this, I also feel, that for all the failings of the European Union project, the message that it has essentially proved extremely successful and beneficial, was the central message that should have been promoted. The European Union has been extremely important in the Northern Ireland story. We have to hope that the renegotiation period and those who lead it make this absolutely clear to everyone. It is imperative that ‘true’ messages are relayed to the people at every stage of the talks.

Thirdly, what is entirely depressing is this, who will be the unifying figure that will unite the whole of this nation and society behind a positive renegotiation? Cameron gambled too far and has departed. Osborne, the ‘political chancellor,’ didn’t prepare the ground satisfactorily for this referendum, some Tories don’t want Boris, Gove is hardly a unifying figure, IDS is steering clear, so who? Nicky Morgan? This referendum was based on an endless Tory squabble and forced upon the Nation by a PM who believed that he would emerge unrivalled. It is absolutely horrific. By the way, against the odds, this was the very PM that delivered the Conservatives a majority. On the Labour side, Corbyn doesn’t seem to have any sense that he is losing votes at a catastrophic rate, the same voters who were somewhat duped by the Leave campaign, but voters whose gut feeling is that Westminster, both Right and Left sides of the house, do not represent them. This is a real crisis for a Party that legitimately represented the best interests of the working classes for one hundred years. I urge important voices within the Labour movement to take this seriously and consider the ramifications of not acting decisively. We have a deeply fractured society and we need a new centre ground to reintegrate society into the political process. All parties need to cooperate in this venture. This referendum has left 48% deeply anxious about the decision that the 52% have taken. Yes, the decision is final, but the way it is implemented needs to make it appear legitimate in the eyes of the 100%. These anxieties are playing out in desperate and frantic attempts to reverse the decision. If ever you wanted to see an exercise in the imperfections of referenda in determining matters of immense significance, this is the perfect case study. It will never be bettered. Nevertheless, the decision is made. What reassurance can this process offer the younger voters in society that this result has not irretrievably monumentally screwed up their future? I take these voices seriously, as a 21 year old who looks at this result and realises that this process, on top of the austerity brought on by the 2008 crisis, may not enhance their opportunities until after the renegotiation period and well beyond that. What a message and legacy to give to this generation and the future. We need to get on and fix this. All of the legislation relating to this renegotiation cycle will need to be timetabled in Parliament and the drafting process related to it will be extremely complicated. We don’t need to rush, but we do need to start.

Personally, I firmly believe that understanding is enhanced by the European cultural and educational exchanges that exist at all levels. I think it is massively important. I don’t think that this has to change. I just want to add that we have benefited massively from the enhanced historical understandings that are promoted and funded by Europe. This has to continue.

Finally, we will now embark upon answering the bigger question, what does this mean for Europe? I have significant worries that if we don’t work together in the same meaningful way that we have worked previously, we are entering a dangerous period. This may seem a perverse thing to say post-Brexit, but this vote reveals the necessity of working together with our European partners to maintain the long period of stability that we have had, by forging a settlement that works for all parties. It is extremely important that we all get this right. What alternative do we have? We should never have had this vote. Nevertheless, here we are, on the other side, trying to find a way back in again. It won’t be as good, it may have advantages and disadvantages, but what else can we do?

I feel emotionally drained by this whole experience.  I have a lot of worries that this could have cataclysmic ramifications.  I am definitely saddened and depressed by what some of the implications of this decision could be for the whole of society.  Nevertheless, like other better commentators than me have noted, I simply don’t know how bumpy the ride will be towards the final destination, or how long it will take, or what twists and turns the whole European story will take on the way.  At some stage, we will be inevitably drawn back towards Europe, diminished and outside the main club.  Will this be better?  I don’t think so.  I am very happy for you to tell me that it is, when and if we arrive at that point.  I am hopeful that this is not based on unfounded optimism.

One final thing.  Seriously.  Has anyone located George Osborne?


My Lucky Coin!!!

It is funny what you think about when you are on the edge of a big decision.

In 2006, I made one of the best decisions of my life.  I decided to listen to Diane and just went for it.  My lucky coin is lucky in so many ways.  Well.  Our bosses on the Fulbright Exchange had decreed that we shouldn’t gamble in Nevada.  We didn’t gamble, although that didn’t stop our US partners gambling.  We were allowed to watch.  One of my good friends gave me this coin as a memento of our time of not gambling in Reno.  I don’t really have a head for gambling anyway.  I don’t like taking risks.  One day, when it is is safe, I will tell the story of the Fulbright Rebellion.  It didn’t involve gambling.

My lucky coin represents the strength of friendship.  My parents used to package me off to central Germany on the Methodist tours!!!  We had so much fun.  Every one of the friends I made back then are still important to me now.  That was 1986-1989.  I will never accept the negativity that surrounds the Leave Campaign.  In the US, I met an amazing student activist who led the Georgian movement for democracy.  Recently, I met another amazing Georgian in Belgrade.  They love Rugby.  We love Rugby.  We really got on.  I have met people from all corners.  One fella did tell me to shut up about History and then told me to tell him where to find the best whiskey!  That was very funny.  That was very Irish.  I guess the spirit of the Irish and the Northern Irish lives within many people.  My Great Grandfather would approve.

My lucky coin represents the choice you have to make.  You have to vote.  Whether your decision is for or against, you have to make a choice.   You have to be happy to roll the dice according to how you see it.  We will calculate the loss and gains after everybody plays.  It is important to vote.

My lucky coin represents me and the friendships I have forged.  I am going to throw it up now and hope it falls on REMAIN!!!  Our stories are similar.  Our stories our parallel.  Our stories are intwined.  Our stories fuse to forge a common journey through life and a common narrative.

The most important thing.  Vote.  Make a decision.  Roll the dice.

We will all work together to build the future after the choice is made.





The HTANI – The History Teachers’ Association of Northern Ireland.

Where did it begin?  In time, more capable biographers will describe the full detail of the journey.  For now, I will explain the seed of thought that inspired the idea.  The magic beans that we held in our pocket?

To be honest, as always, necessity was the mother of the idea.  In the sea of time, there once existed a different age, one that allowed History teachers to meet together at the end of the year to display and discuss best practice and new resources.  There once existed a central conduit of help that allowed teachers to learn from each other.  Teachers benefited from exploring ideas together.  For whatever reason, this all disappeared.

Corrymeela, several years ago.  A mythical organisation called Euroclio showcased all the ways in which History teachers from all across Europe were collaborating with each other to develop and deliver lessons and resources to suit the needs of all History teachers.  Of course, it will hardly surprise you, that I was extolling the importance of collecting and storing Oral History narratives, memories that would help explain the Troubles to future generations.  Perhaps – we will create a CGI character to deliver these lessons in the future?  Hopefully.  I initially met with a really interesting Croatian academic who was an expert on Soviet Historiography.  I was extremely impressed.  Fortuitously, I headed out to Belgrade to attend at an evaluation of the Council of Europe’s Shared Histories for a Europe without Dividing Lines and I met some great people.  This project invited History teachers and academics to contribute to, shape and deliver a FREE resource to teachers throughout Europe.  I was massively impressed.  Even more so, as the short presentation I delivered on the importance of music and memory was mentioned in the last summing up.  I was very humbled actually.  Just saying.  That resource is amazing.  And absolutely free.

Skype conversations followed with Euroclio central.  Alan, our leader at UU, helped push forward the idea that it would be great to host a Euroclio Conference in Belfast.  Honestly, I am amazed at how successful the event was and I have already attributed that success to the Euroclio gang, who worked tirelessly in advance of the event.  They were fantastic.

One of the key goals of the Euroclio Conference was the foundation of the HTANI.  As is the way in Northern Ireland, we had discussions about discussions and parallel working groups and a founding plenary at the main event, plus a wonderful occasion at Titanic Belfast.  I think we managed to irritate some people.  We had a very pertinent conversation on the last evening,  where everything was laid on the table.  We cleared the air.  I can’t analyse exactly why it didn’t materialise initially.  I think that some people thought that we were setting up a strange cult.

What I know now is that the magic beans (the essential and necessary idea) we held in our pockets had not yet been distributed to the key characters who could make our Association a reality.  This has now happened.  We have assembled a core group of the creative, the journalistic, the retired, the motivated, the talented and the committed.  Our launch event was filled with positive vibes and allowed us to enlist more teachers to lead the venture forward.  The HTANI is beginning to develop roots.  It is becoming a reality, thanks to everyone who is now getting involved.




Father’s Day.

What is the greatest gift that any Dad can give his son?

Today, my Dad ran a temperature that was not necessarily in the safe region, and this was modified to take into account how many windows were open.  He started spasming.  That was the MS.  He lost interest in everything.  That was the temperature and the MS.  We had a brief discussion about this and that.  I was absolutely able to determine that he hadn’t had a heart attack or a stroke.  Thank goodness.  Well.  My Dad was able to reassure me that he hadn’t.  We phoned Dalriada and thankfully my sister came home.

Father’s Day.  What is the greatest gift that any Dad can give his son or daughter?  My Dad always encouraged me to do everything.  He took me to the airport.  He used to stand at the window, cooking up a storm, when I came home from work.  Curry evening.  Fry evening.  Every evening.  My Dad was there to support me.  And when I drove around Ronnie’s corner and up Corkhill, towards my house, my Dad used to say, ‘It is good to see him back.’

So.  What is the greatest gift that this son can give back to his father?  I must build on the impossible strength that he has always demonstrated.  I must acknowledge that every step that I take explains his life, and how he never expected us to divert from any challenge or life experience.  I must recognise that behind every illness and trial, lies a mother or father who holds every burden within themselves.  Most of all, I must be thankful for who I am and for the journey that my parents initiated.

The greatest gift that I can give my Father is an absolute acknowledgement that I am who I am because of you.

Samuel Bowden

Back when I was a GCSE student, in 1989-90, I met the most remarkable man.  Samuel Bowden. I was compiling research for my coursework on the Belfast Blitz.  I have no idea how I got to meet Sam. My mother and father will have to fill you in on all the details.

When we arrived, I had my pen and paper ready.  He started talking and then, suddenly, he began to recite poetry.  Verses from Tyrone.  He commented, ‘The only way to keep the mind lucid is to keep it active.’  I was a fifteen year old boy and I was so impressed.  He was amazing.  He then started talking about the Belfast Blitz and the devastation wrought by the bombers.  Sam was in the emergency services in Belfast and witnessed everything.  To this day, I still remember him talking about the firefighters who climbed up the ladders and tried to deal with the flames that enveloped the city.  They had an impossible task.

On this 75th Anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, I would like to remember Sam.  Every time I visit Belfast, I remember what he shared with me.  Every time I visit HMV, I vividly picture how it was.  Thanks to Sam’s testimony.

Sam.  You will always be one of my heroes.

75th Anniversary of the Blitz.


Rational man.

The Enlightenment, the Rights of Man, the US Constitutional Convention, coffee parties in the various salons, calls for tolerance and the birth of rational man.  You and I?

The Enlightenment may or may not have existed, as my old teacher, Mick Lemon, used to say.  Rational man should act, ‘in accordance with reason or logic.’  In my whole life, I have not experienced a period where humankind has acted within the realms of what might be deemed to be rational, according to how the original thinkers defined it.  This really worries me.  Voltaire wrote the most amazing satirical expose on the inexplicable and attacked the perceived justifications for why life was explained in the way that it was.  That was more than two hundred years ago.  Put simply, it is essential not to accept things as they are.  We can all make a difference, if we choose to act and live differently.

What of the Enlightenment?  It may or may not have existed.  Are we more enlightened now?  I am really not sure.  Will life progress to a point where we all act together to ensure our mutual survival, based on the original conception of what it originally meant to be ‘rational?’  That point has yet to be determined.  The point is this.  We all have the capacity to collaborate and determine our future together, if we bother to try.  That would equate to true Enlightenment.

Rational man would exist and I would be less worried.