Civil Society Network launches – Conor Houston’s address dedicated to his new nephew Ollie

Civil Society NetworkCivil Society Network launched in Belfast on Friday morning. Over the last year or so, many different commentators and observers have suggested that Northern Ireland needs to pull itself together and move on in spite of the dysfunctional politics up at Stormont.

This network brings together people from many different organisations and communities, including Congress of Trade Unions, CRC, Equality Commission, Training for Women Network, Churches, Further and Higher Education Institutions, Churches, Alternatives, Policing Board, CBI, Co-operation Ireland, Young Influencers, NICVA, Intercomm, City Centre Initiative, Make It Work, Community Organisations and Peace Building Organisations.

Conor Houston was one of those who addressed the launch. His words resonated with many and are reproduced on Slugger O’Toole with his permission.

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I’ve stuck around this hole far too long. I’m telling you, it’s a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end! And everybody in it goes crazy sooner or later! Everybody! Now, even though you refuse to acknowledge the fact, I’m leaving forever… And you know why I’m going, don’t you? Because I’m twenty five and you treat me as if I were five. But worse, far worse than that because we embarrass each other. And even though I’ll be on that plane tomorrow morning I’ll have doubts; maybe I should have stuck it out. Maybe they did have feelings. So now say it, say why don’t you stick it out for its not such a bad aul bugger of a place. Go on say it! Say it! Say it! Say – oh my God – say – say – something…

What are we going to say? That is the question we must dare to answer today.

I don’t endorse this as a description of Northern Ireland today – in fact, I love this wee place. It’s stunning landscape, it’s rich culture, it’s realness – but most of all, it’s people.

But the dilemma that Friel described vividly in his 1964 masterpiece Philadelphia Here I Come remains a reality for too many of our young people.

It’s not about building a big fence and locking them in. Rather it’s about ensuring no one feels they must leave. And for those who do, that we celebrate their achievements and ensure they are our proudest ambassadors.

We know the reasons too many of our young people feel they need to go.

Our society has faced enormous challenges. Many complexities remain. We have deep trauma which is not just grievously affecting victims, but our society collectively.

Today let us start by being more gentle on ourselves.

We have made an incredible leap.

Conor Houston at Civil Society Network launch

I was fifteen, in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It was a moment of hope. Whilst I had only returned from England two years before, but I understood that this was a chance for a brighter future.

And it was.

My understanding on Northern Ireland was limited when I came back from a childhood in Surrey, so much so that I though Sinn Féin was a place of which Gerry Adams was President and thought the term ‘dead on’ was a threat!

I’ve learned a lot since then.

I’ve been lucky to watch my home, the place I love grow.

I’ve been lucky to gain incredible education and opportunity.

I’ve been lucky to see so much of this beautiful world and the wonderful diversity of its people.

But others haven’t been so. Opportunity has evaded too many.

Today, we must collectively ask how we change this?

What are we going to do to empower the most disenfranchised in our society?

Today I ask us all to dare to dream. To show courage, humility and compassion.

What are we going to do? What are we going to say to those left behind?

Well firstly, we need to find ways to be more kind to each other.

We need to start to find a space for new collaborations – for new voices – generationally – our ethnic minorities, our artists, our police, our writers, our innovators, our offenders, our disabled, our poets, our public servants, our LGBTQ community, our thinkers, our mums, our dreamers.

We need to find new perspectives – let us be confident about our place on these islands – to celebrate our unique position in the UK and on the island of Ireland. Let us fully realise our voice in Europe – in the world. Let us be the change the world so desperately needs. Let us be the hope. Let us be bold & to imagine.

We need to stop pretending that everything would be perfect if it weren’t for the politicians.

In fact, I have to confess something. I have many friends who are politicians in all our political parties. Not only that, I like them. I respect them. I don’t always agree with them, but I admire them for dedicating themselves to public service and for trying to pursue change.

I see today not as a chance for “us” to blame “them”. In fact I see today as the end of that narrative. We need to find a new ways to work side by side to find a new relationship. A voice that says to our politicians – “how can we help?” A constructive voice that provides solutions to our politicians and perseveres with them to ensure delivery.

We need to start by asking ourselves what can we do differently – how can we challenge ourselves.

In this century the world will change more than it has in the past two millennia. We need new models of collaboration and leadership to deal with the fast unimaginable change that is coming faster than we can even comprehend.

We need collective values and vision.

A society truly at peace with itself. We could all agree to that, couldn’t we?

What about an imaginative sustainable economic plan for NI?
To create jobs for our young people. To connect our universities, business community, unions and politics to deliver prosperity and opportunity. Dare we become “the Hong Kong of Europe!”?

We must say our young people that this is a place of opportunity – where they can fulfil their potential – a place we encourage dreamers, innovators, creators and lovers of all kinds.

Last month I became an uncle to beautiful Ollie who came a little early. He is alive thanks to the expertise, professional excellence, technology and teamwork of the brilliant medical staff who treated him. They displayed the compassion, world class service, energy and power of collaboration. They embody what we can achieve when we work together.

You see, we already have everything here we need, we just need to find ways to deliver solutions.

Today is about Ollie.

He is likely in his lifetime to see the centenary of the Good Friday Agreement and perhaps even the 22nd century.

So today let us say to Ollie: We turned up. We challenged ourselves. We gave it our all. We were brave. We empowered others. We dared to dream. We did all this today so that you can proudly call this place – your home, the place that you fulfilled your potential, your dreams, a place at peace with itself and the place you love.

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