February 16, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Neil Wilson

Neil was born in Cyprus by virtue of his father's occupation at the time. He was educated at Methody and then Liverpool John Moores. He now lives in Bloomfield, East Belfast. By day Neil works in marketing for a tech company. Occasionally he's an NI Conservative candidate in East Belfast.
Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Neil Wilson: 
"I’d heard wee bits growing up but I first got to grips with it aged 13 in Michael Foy’s history class. We spent a whole term learning about the entire period of 1912-1922. It was fascinating."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" NW:
"Not particularly, I’m quite content with the fact that they were all a little odd. I consider the Proclamation nothing more than a codification of abstract ideas. And like most abstract ideas, they have no grounding in reality. Interestingly, Sinn Fein increasingly seem to share this view. There’s nothing in it about constantly nagging the British taxpayer for more money and becoming more dependent on the UK."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" NW:
"It was something I’ve been aware of for as long as I can remember. Though I first became aware of my family’s connection to it one day at my Granda’s after school. I was telling him about what we were learning in history. He told me that his father was there and was wounded. My Granny’s father was also there. That exam was the first thing I ever got an A in."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" NW:
"Yes. I’m proud that men from here were the only unit to accomplish all of their objectives on the first day of the Somme. As a fact of military history it was quite a feat. But I tend to shy away from the glamorisation of it because these were ordinary people who had their lives turned upside down by war. Many of them suffered for the rest of their lives because of what they went through and I genuinely can’t contemplate the sacrifice of one’s whole known existence in that way. In a way I’m grateful for that."
BJS: "As a British person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" NW:
"No. It’s something I look at fairly dispassionately as a political event or an event that’s culturally significant. My analysis is that it was largely negative. It wasn’t an act of national liberation but rather an armed insurrection against mainstream opinion. It drove this island down a violent path that was neither necessary nor desirable and I’ve got nationalist friends who feel exactly the same. However, it happened and I’m comfortable enough in my Britishness not to be threatened by its commemoration."
BJS: "As a British person, is the Somme important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" NW:
"It’s hard not to see it as part of my identity. My forefathers were there and as Shankill men they took part in the infamous assault on the Schwaben Redoubt. If they hadn’t returned I wouldn’t be here. But my Britishness runs far deeper than the legacy of the Somme. My British identity is a civic identity, one I share with people in Belfast, Bellshill, Blackpool or Bangor (the one in Wales!). Magna Carta, the Battle of Britain, Shakespeare and Burns are equally part of who I consider myself to be."

BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" NW:
"I commemorate the Somme every year. I’ll stand at the end of my street and watch the parade go down the Beersbridge Road. As far as the Rising is concerned I’m yet to make up my mind. I’ve an invite from a friend in Dublin that I’ve yet to accept. Despite not feeling any cultural affinity with the event, I’m not intimidated by it either. And it’s important to remember that there were two sides – a handful of rebels and everyone else, so I don’t see why the term ‘commemoration’ would be naturally be taken to mean ‘of republicans’. 41 Irishmen died wearing British uniforms. They’re worth commemorating."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" NW:
"Not really. I do feel that there is a particular conception of Britishness that screams insecurity. We’re suspicious of change, whether that be through free markets, immigration, same sex marriage or whatever. The future of the Union relies on our ability to make it preferable to the alternative and pro-Union politicians need to live what it is to be British, rather than it just being a knee-jerk default position based around symbols."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" NW:
"Prosperity that can only come through the primacy of economic debate in the public sphere. We need to rediscover that spirit of Northern exceptionalism that made Ulster a place apart in 1916. Those concerned with commemorating the Somme in particular should consider what Carson, Craig et al would think of Northern Ireland now. Would they consider 70% of GDP being public sector generated a successful outcome when they left a place of entrepreneurship, trade and innovation? I would think not."
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