March 23, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Conor Houston

Conor Houston is a 32 year old who lives in Holywood, Co. Down. Conor is a social entrepreneur, influencer, lawyer, change agent and active citizen. 

Conor born in Holywood but moved with his family to Surrey, England at the age of 3 where he spent 10 years of his childhood. Conor returned to Northern Ireland in 1996 and attended Our Lady & St Patrick's College, Knock.

He is a graduate of the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and obtained his masters in International Human Rights law from NUI Galway & QUB before studying at the prestigious European Public Law Group Academy in Greece.

Conor Houston is Programme Director at the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building and is leading on the “EU Debate NI” programme, which is seeking to stimulate and inform debate on the issues NI must consider in the upcoming UK Referendum on continued EU membership.

Conor is a Steering Team member of Young Influencers who are committed to growing the good; building the new in Northern Ireland and realising our Vision2030 "that by 2030 NI will be one of the greatest places in the world to live, work, create and visit." 

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Conor Houston:
"My first memory was when I had just moved back to Northern Ireland from growing up in Surrey in 1996.  We were studying Irish history and the Rising was part of the syllabus.  I have to say, having grown up in England, I had little understanding of Irish history at that time. 
In fact, my understanding of Northern Ireland was extremely limited - I remember at one stage I thought Sinn Fein was a physical place of which Gerry Adams was President!  The great thing is that from the age of 14 I got to make my own mind up on issues here."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" CH:
"As an Irishman, the Rising and the history surrounding it are part my identity, however, my opinion towards the rising has developed as I have challenged my perspectives and tried to understand the complexity of the competing narratives that were prevalent at that time.  
There is of course a romanticism to the rebels as the founding fathers.  They did give their lives in the cause of Irish freedom and in this period of history, Ireland was not unique in using force to achieve independence.  Historical context is extremely important in this regard. The Proclamation is a document that again must be viewed in the context of the time - I have often argued that it should have been the 'Irish Covenant' and signed by the people of Ireland, not just the rising leaders.   
The political descendants of the Rising were the architects of the Irish state and kept power well into 1970s.  An almost singular narrative was promoted around the 1916 Rising -  Eamon De Valera who was present at the Rising was President until 1973!     
Irish history teaches these were the men and women who took the first step towards creating the Irish Free State.  The Rising played a pivotal part in leading Ireland towards independence and partition.  I would say the same about the First World War or the Ulster Covenant. 
For me the key is the ability to understand that the events took place in the context of the time.  Many try to root their identity in this event.  I am not sure I can do that - my culture, history and identity are shaped by much more than this event or indeed this time.  I believe that identity is a fluid thing which should evolve and develop."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" CH:
"I had much more understanding of the Somme from early childhood. We learned about the First World War when I was in primary school in England and also lived next door to an elderly Major who had served in both the First and Second World Wars in the British Army.  He was a remarkable man (always wearing a beret and cravat) who used to tell me stories about the war. 
I studied the war poets and was always reminded of the sacrifice and indeed horror of the First World War."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" CH:
"I respect the sacrifice of those men who gave their life in the Great War - they went to battle believing this 'war would end wars' and in pursuit of freedom.  The reality of war was bloody, horrific and caused a catastrophic loss of life.  So many of those who died were teenagers.  There are towns in England where 1 in 3 men did not come home from war - it's hard to imagine the impact.  
I also recognise that 50,000 Irishmen fought in this war and I hope that as we reflect on the Rising we constantly remember that as the Rising took place, tens of thousands of Irishmen were fighting in the First World War."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island? Q: As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" CH:
"I will answer these questions together.  My upbringing in England - where I played rugby, cricket, sang God Save the Queen and grew up in the Irish community in London shaped my perspectives enormously.  There has never been any contradiction as an Irishman in loving Britain and respecting the interconnected nature of our identities.  This of course does not mean blind devotion to either Britain or indeed, Ireland. 
Living in Northern Ireland, I have always been greatly frustrated by the "box" culture - the need to simplify everything to 'Catholic: Protestant', 'British: Irish', etc - identity, culture and history are far more complex than this.  I truly hope that in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding we can begin as a society to understand the entwined and interdependent nature of our history and more importantly, our future. 
The 1916 Rising and the Somme commemorations are part of a tumultuous period of history on this island. We are in the middle of the 'decade of centenaries' which includes these events and which are 'booked ended' by the Ulster Covenant at one end and the partition of Ireland (and civil war in Ireland) at the other. 
This entire period of history is defined by war, violence and division. 
Each event is inextricably linked to the other.  It's also a period of history I call the "what if" decade.  'What if' the rising hadn't happened - would home rule have emerged and avoided partition? 'What if' the rising leaders hadn't been executed - would the rising have become a historical footnote? These questions are of course provocative and overly simplistic.  But I have a strong enough sense of identity to be prepared to contemplate other narratives and perspectives. 
These events left thousands dead and Ireland divided.   
As I explained, my identity is far more complex to be defined by one act or period of history. I am much more interested in the growth and evolution of my identity. 
One of my greatest friends in life is a British soldier.  We come from 'different communities' but that has never defined our relationship - we seek to understand each other's cultures, histories and identities.  
We attended together the Royal Albert Hall as guests of the Irish President during his historic State Visit to the UK in April 2014. We stood shoulder to shoulder and sang each other's national anthems.  No contradictions, no being defined by our pasts.  For me our relationship epitomises the possibilities that now exist between these islands where we can celebrate our entwined histories, cultures and identities." 
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" CH:
"I will be attending official events to mark both commemorations.  I am open to attend events which try to critically unpack the complexity of this period of history."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" CH:
"I was honoured to attend the unveiling of the Irish Government's Centenary Programme of events at Dublin Castle.  I was hugely impressed by the ambitious and innovative programme which promises to ensure a "year of rich and diverse activities when the full complexity of the last 100 years on this island can be explored and celebrated."  
Much of the discourse and media focus has been on the official events around April 2016 at the GPO.  However, the programme is far more nuanced and far reaching.  It includes events looking at the role of women, community participation, global and diaspora involvement and examination of alternative narratives of 1916. 
One that particularly caught my imagination is the "1916 Ancestry Project" in which all primary and post-primary students in the Republic of Ireland will be invited to explore their family trees back to 1916. Of course, what this will reveal is that the vast majority of Irish children will discover that a member (or many members) of their family were involved in the First World War.   
Like my own family tree, it will show many traditions, identities and untold stories which help the next generation understand the complexity of history.  It also demonstrates the maturity of the Irish state to encourage its young people to examine the influences on their identity.  
I am pleased and welcome Arleen Foster attending the event in Dublin - it shows a willingness to engage in respectful debate around the past."
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?" CH:
"I think we have come a long way in a short time.  We need to be more gentle on ourselves and with each other and develop a more compassionate discourse for debating issues - past, present and future.   
Last May I witnessed an incredible moment in this history of this island, when the Republic of Ireland voted in the referendum on civil marriage equality. It was a beacon of pioneering and positive hope to the world. It was a defining moment in the history of Ireland – a social revolution. Families voted together, people travelled home to vote, personal stories were courageously told. Most importantly, the debate was dignified & compassionate. 
I want to see more moments like these on the island.  We have much more to do in Northern Ireland but I believe that we are heading in the right direction.   
I attach a link to 'Defending Equality Promoting Compassion' - an article I wrote on eve of NI Assembly motion in favour of civil marriage equality which perhaps provides a context for bringing about change."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" CH:
"I am very positive about the future - I want to see Northern Ireland realise it's enormous potential.  I am not naive to the complex difficulties we still face, however, I want to see Northern Ireland as a driving force on these islands - the place in which we can be proudly British, Irish or both.  Compassion at the heart of our discourse, collaboration in the best interests of our people and believing in our potential.  
Last December I gave a speech at Queen's University Belfast to mark the 20th anniversary of President Clinton's historic visit to Northern Ireland.  I was asked to speak about my hopes for 20 years from now.  I decided to imagine the letter my 6 month old nephew might write to him."
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