Tis an honourable thing apparently… Lessons from a Polish Sojourn.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit Rzeszów in South Eastern Poland. Rzeszów has a rich history and was seen as a strategic city in many battles, including the 2nd World War where it was the centre of Polish Resistance after German occupation in 1939.

Rzeszów is a beautiful city with stunning architecture surrounding the market square and beyond.  I visited in January and snow hung softly in the air, while Christmas decorations still lit up the night sky.

My visit was work related and I had the opportunity to spend time with entrepreneurs and community activists from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Finland, a fascinating time and in no way a taxing sojourn.

As part of the trip I had the opportunity to spend time in a local Job Centre to find out how a regional city in Poland dealt with unemployment and I was struck by the extremely low rate of economically inactive citizens in the region,  unemployment was less than 3 %.  I asked the simple question, ‘how in these times is the rate so low?’

The answer hit me hard, really hard and has resonated ever since; 

‘In Rzeszów, there is no honour in not working.’   BOOM!  What a statement.

Honour, a word that is so overused and overlooked in our language never mind society. I wanted to write about it there and then but couldn’t, I had a blockage… maybe I still do! You be the judge.

I started thinking about the word and what it actually meant. The first time I ever heard it was at Sunday School, ‘Honour thy father and mother.’ Something I learnt verbatim, to be honest I hadn’t a clue what it meant, but hey it sounded good.

Then later on I heard childhood heroes like Glenn Hoddle tell me is was an honour to play for a club like Tottenham Hotspur… Just before he departed for AS Monaco. Yes I am still bitter.  

Then we have the honours system in the UK when deserving and in many cases undeserving people get recognition for the things they have done, or have allegedly done.

Researching AKA googling the word honour was quite arduous, such a strong word often came across as trite and probably like love, overused, abused and devalued. This wasn’t the same word used so passionately in Rzeszów, a word that really bounced about in my soul never mind head.

It got me thinking, which causes my wife much concern. Do we really honour anything in our increasingly individualistic world, is honour a word we throw about too easily without giving attention to its real meaning.  

In NI sometimes I feel we honour one thing with the sole aim of sticking two fingers up to someone else. Surely that is wrong. To honour something is a standalone gesture, to elevate something of huge worth.

Is honour of little value in 2015? Maybe.

Or maybe it’s just me, I might be an auld cynic that was simply struck by the response in Rzeszów, maybe I have lost the concept of honour myself, maybe I need to see value in what we have in this society, and recognise the privileged situation we find ourselves in and not just take things for granted.  On the other hand, perhaps I’m an old romantic looking for value where there is none.

In NI we have a history of honouring this and honouring that, much of which appalls those who aren’t from one tradition or another. However in reality I want to ask, do we have a culture of honour? Do we respect and recognise the achievements, opinions and culture of themuns. I’m not sure we do, and one thing is certain, the majority of our politicians don’t. 




While we honour what suits us, only elevating what glitters within our paradigm, we at best Ignore everything that , at worst we skew it into something unrecognisable. 

I believe we are often guilty of dishonouring the concept of honour! 

That is borne out daily at Stormont where many things are seen as black and white, as absolute with straight lines between opinions, a place full of conflicting narratives and little common ground. But that does not reflect real life, life is blurry, messy and at best abstract and worse just downright nuts.

Maybe we need to honour the good in what we don’t understand, many in society do it everyday, but I won’t hold my breath for the political leaders to catch up.

The best we can do is honour the good that we see day to day, and that may just start with a smile and a thank you. 

To quote Alexander Pope, ‘Act well your part, there all the honour lies.’

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I’m Saddened but not Disheartened

I woke on Friday morning with a bout of manflu having had to depart an evening out with colleagues early the night before because of this dire affliction.

As I stirred my phone bleeped, wearily I focused on the single word text message that read

‘Gutted!’

This did not augur well on the morning after the night before.  The election that is, not the work do, I’d left early, remember! I started scrolling through Facebook and Twitter to see what was so gutting about the news, and 2 things hit home. Firstly the Tories were heading for an outright majority and Naomi Long, despite increasing her vote had lost out to the ’44k Leaflet Clubs’ agreed candidate. 

Neither of these things were good in my mind, mainly as I lean to left of centre in my politics so therefore a Tory victory isn’t palatable, and Naomi is one of the few articulate voices in NI that does not use the politics of fear and paranoia for personal gain.



At 8am through streams of snot and empty paracetamol trays I posted;

‘Individualism, driven by the politics of fear has won out.  Do we no longer care about those less fortunate ? 

Today I have lost a little bit of faith in mankind.’

The last statement in hindsight was wrong. Later many people who had never spoken, posted or tweeted about politics before began stating their disappointment, surprise and concern about these events. It gave me some hope, not that things will change any time soon but hope that people are now taking politics more seriously, realising that apathy is not an option.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a fear for my kids’ futures is what has activated me from being agitated to being an agitator, and changed me from someone who hated politics to some one who recognises that we either have to put up or shut up.

So to all those who today are frustrated, annoyed, surprised and fed up; harness those emotions and show up in the public space. You may not like your local MP, you may not agree with them, but they represent you not just those whose votes carried them across the line.  

Hold them to account, question…. Don’t wait another year until you get annoyed at the Stormont 2016 results. Show up, affect change, communicate, lobby and don’t stay silent.

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I want to live in a society, not an economy. 

‘I live in a society, not an economy…’ This was the start of a Facebook status update from a childhood friend last week and it has resonated with me ever since.

In the political arena in 2015 everything is based around the economy, talk of corporation tax reduction, cuts to public services, austerity and political parties fawning over big business.  Of course, society needs an economy to prosper but an economy relies on a sound society to function.

In a recent article, Armando Iannucci stated 

‘Politics was about passion, and imagination, and foresight. Now it’s just accountancy.’

I can’t help feel that he is on to something here, although his creation Malcolm Tucker may well disagree.

Now I am not against wealth and legitimate wealth creation in any way, it is a vital cog in society’s machinery. What I do struggle with is how big business seems to dictate the direction of party policy more than societal need. I also get frustrated when political arguments get boiled down one basic thing, 

 ‘Vote for us and you will be better off.’ 

Will I?

Okay I may have a few extra pound in my pocket! But what about my neighbour? What about those who need more and haven’t necessarily had the opportunities that I have been blessed with, through no fault of their own? Is it ok that I get more and they are left behind?

I don’t want to live in a society where ‘I’m alright jack,’ is the mantra, but sadly it seems I already do.

Individualism has trumped community, and that’s something that looks like continuing. 

You may say, ‘but we are individuals,’ and of course that’s right, we are all unique, but we are all also created equal, a strange oxymoron. I think we have lost the balance somewhere along the road. Being an individual is a good thing in many ways and individualism is necessary for boundaries to be pushed and progress to be made, but for the greater good, for the development of society, not just personal gain. 

We somehow have to find that balance between our individuality and our sense of family and community that gives us a sense of belonging, those things that remain when everything else gets stripped away.

I want to live in a society of fairness, a community of those who look out for each other, not a rat race where trimming the weakest from the herd is deemed ok.  I want to live in a society where a persons value is not calculated by accountants. 

For that to happen more people need to #showup in the public space, we have to meet the need in front of us and not just hope that someone else will come along and do it… What if they don’t? 




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Hope not fear… Our only… Ummm, Hope.

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” –Soren Kierkegaard

Sometimes decisions made for all the right reasons lead to circumstances one never could envisage. These are sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes the result is joyous and sometimes painful.

But taking the decision to do what is right regardless of the result is the most important thing.

We can all sit back disgusted, offended, pained at events that are contradictory to our moral compass, but if we dare not stand up and try and change things we are complicit in that which rails against our very being.

I have learnt a lot in the last year or so, things about myself that have surprised me, excited me and sometimes simply freaked me out. Things about others that sometimes disappoint and downright confuse me.

These are all valuable lessons, but the greatest lesson is this, it is worth taking risk for good rather than sitting on one’s hands wondering ‘What if?’

Risk brings unforeseen bruising, risk brings uncertainty, risk brings disappointment… However risk also brings opportunity, new relationships… Risk brings change, risk brings progress. Nothing changes if people do nothing.

Nelson Mandela once said “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

If your fears drive you then circumstances will remain… In fact entropy dictates that they will worsen, a fact of life.

If hope drives you then there is reason for taking risks, fear stagnates, hope presses on to something new. It’s scary, you will get slapped about I’m sure, but ultimately to change things takes courage.

It is no surprise that those who try to maintain the status quo are the ones who gain. Isn’t it time we challenged this?

Maybe a little risk is what we all need. I am committed to living my life in hope rather than fear. I will not cease to take risks …
My wife is delighted at this of course.

What risks are you going to take for good?

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The Only Vote that’s Wasted is the one that’s Unused.

In case you hadn’t noticed there are elections coming up. Voting for both European and Local Councils will take place on 22nd May. The elevated litter that are candidate posters are starting to join the flags on our lamp posts. Flyers are dropping through Mail boxes and well intentioned activists will soon be knocking on your door.

This is the first election since the Good Friday Agreement, 16 years ago, in which I have taken an active interest. I’ve blogged before about being a recovering apathetic and I don’t want to rehash old ground, but I do want to make it clear why I think not voting is not a great option right now, why I don’t believe abstentionism is a protest and why we owe it to our kids to start the change now.

Growing up I always knew my parents wanted my sister and me to have a ‘better’ life than them, and as a Dad I feel exactly the same way for my kids. It’s just a natural desire for parents and I’m sure any parent can relate.

My fear is that while my folks and theirs both got to see their dreams for their children come to fruition, we may not.

The reason for this is simple, the governance we have in NI is ineffective and has us caught in an unhappy marriage. An unhappy marriage where bickering, accusations and mistrust are the order of the day. An unhappy marriage that we the electorate allow to stay together.

The bickering is stifling the future, not necessarily for you but the next generation. GeNI* if you will, those born after the GFA.

Our education system is in stasis with no consensus on academic selection, no replacement for the Education and library boards while we have some of lowest results in the UK in our inner city areas.

Our health system is on it’s knees while the Minister plays the violin on the walls.

Our economy is now being left behind, youth unemployment is at 22%, and is much higher in many wards. Yet we spend more time and money talking about flags and perpetuating division rather than promoting a future for all. Our leaders need to help fix the root cause of disenfranchisement and deprivation in many areas through education and proper support rather than standing idly by.

Our current government is incapable of looking forward, they are perpetually caught up in personal ideology and run scared of the extremes. They pander to their ‘own.’ Despite having a mandate to govern for all.

If you don’t vote as you don’t think it will affect you, that is maybe the case, but it will affect the GeNIs. To allow the conflict politicians to govern a post conflict generation is doing our kids an injustice and I believe there are alternatives out there to change this place for the better.

We cannot have a mature society without mature politicians and our current crop have proven they aren’t up to it.

So please if you think not voting is the only option, think again. Vote for change, rail against the established cartel, make your voice heard. You owe it to your kids and the younger generation!

* GeNI was coined by Dr Glenn Flint after a recent visit here. Our version of the Born frees of South Africa.

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Leading from the front. Lessons from a Lion.

I had the pleasure of being in an audience to listen to one of my heroes this week, and I’m pretty sure I acted like a giddy schoolboy when I met the great man afterwards. Now I am not one for celebrity or swooning at the sight of famous people, but when someone reaches the pinnacle of their chosen profession or sport through hard graft and no little talent, and shows integrity, leadership and dignity throughout their life, then they are worth listening too.

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Willie John McBride is one such individual. He represented his club Ballymena RFC, his province Ulster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions in the 60s and 70s culminating in leading the lions to an unbeaten test series in South Africa in 1974. The rugby nerd in me loved all the anecdotes and tour stories McBride replayed for his eager audience, but he was there to talk about leadership… Not management… leadership from his rugby days and his career as a bank manager through some of NIs darkest times.

What marked WJMcB out as a leader wasn’t just his playing ability, there were better locks in the game, it was his ability to engage people and convince them to fight alongside him, not behind him but with him.

He was a player who did the grunt work as well as the decision making, who ran the hard yards as well as picking his colleagues up (sometimes quite literally in the brutal 1974 test series.)

WJMcB had the ability to make unpopular decisions and bring people along with him. No decision was more difficult than agreeing to lead the Lions to play in apartheid South Africa in 1974, he was vilified in some quarters as were his team mates, some in fact withdrew from the tour.

WJMcB took the team regardless simply ‘to win a test series,’ which they did emphatically. But the decision to tour then resonated for longer that the summer of the games.

The tour didn’t end apartheid, and there’s no way it could have. Apartheid would remain in South Africa until 1994, but former Springboks forward Morne de Plessis says the comprehensive 3-0 Test series defeat he and his team-mates suffered at the hands of the Lions twenty years previously led to soul searching and widespread social examination.

Du Plessis, who would later become team manager to the South Africa team that hosted and won the 1995 World Cup, says.

“For their team to take a drubbing, reasons were sought.

“The selectors were blamed, the players were blamed, but I think we all came to a pretty quick conclusion that part of the reason was isolation – that we’d fallen behind – and then the reasons for that isolation must be addressed.”

It took a group of men, with a leader who showed courage in the face criticism and anger from the establishment to go and do what seemed uncomfortable at best and immoral at worst. Yet in time the 1974 lions were seen as the greatest team of all time where people from 4 nations rallied behind their captain and won their test series and in time did something much more.

A title, role, position or mandate does not a leader make. It takes much more than that.

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I like this so I don’t like that!

When I was growing up I loved listening to music. My taste was and still is broad and eclectic, yet I had very strong opinions on certain bands I liked and didn’t like:

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Duran Duran – Not Spandau Ballet (please blame my sister for this, she had appalling taste in music and I was a mere child )
Pearl Jam – Not Nirvana
Oasis – Not Blur
Muddy Waters – Not John Lee Hooker

My preferences meant that I disliked the perceived rivals, in some cases without even listening to them, and I was not alone. Thankfully I grew up and realised what I was missing, at least in the cases of Nirvana, Blur and John Lee Hooker.

More recently I met some new people, and I was asked if I was into football, I’m not, but know enough to pass myself in a conversation. Did I say this, no I said

‘I’m more of a rugby man.’

At what point was I asked a question to which this was the answer? I wasn’t, yet I instinctively showed my preference for a perceived rival sport, distancing myself from the individual who was simply making polite small talk. I felt like an idiot.

Later on the same evening I was chatting with a group of friends about authors, books and the like. Someone asked the group

‘Who do you like? Writer A, or Writer B? ‘

As sure as eggs are eggs, individuals quickly answered quite passionately supporting their chosen writer while in some cases disparaging the other, resulting in a close to 50:50 split. However I didn’t answer, well not immediately, silence does not come easily to me. I do have a preferred writer of the two choices (writer A if you’re curious ) but not at the exclusion of the other. I agree with my preferred choice more often than the other guy, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t think that Writer B is of no value. I made the point that these writers are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

In the same vein, my 5 yr old son recently started shouting ‘Liverpool Stinks,’ now I know he has never been to Liverpool to find out whether this was true, so I assumed that it was football related. I asked him why he said that, his answer was ‘because ManU rules.’

He is 5 years of age, doesn’t even watch football in the house, I am a rugby man after all, yet has decided that ManU is his chosen team, meaning that his default setting is that he dislikes Liverpool, or in his words ‘Liverpool Stinks.’

These are all very lighthearted examples of a strange human instinct, an instinct that means we exclude things, people, events from our lives because we perceive that these are the opposite of what we enjoy, what we do or who we are. The truth is, we don’t know what we’re missing because we have arbitrarily excluded experiences and people on what is little more than a whim.

So my point is that many of us build rival camps that don’t really exist, this isn’t a major issue when we are talking about rock bands or writers, but when these same attitudes permeate public life, religious institutions or communities it becomes a problem. Something that is wholly evident in Northern Ireland right now.

Sadly when we refuse to recognise the value in something we have decided is a rival, we not only fail to learn and enrich our own lives, we also put barriers up stopping others from from seeking to learn about us, our preferences, our values and culture. This then pushes individuals and groups to become more entrenched, untrusting and isolated from the wider world often resulting in a reactive, defensive mentality.

How do we get past this?

I’m no psychologist, and any psychologist reading my blogs will attest to this fact, but I believe that recognising that our own behaviours have built barriers is vital, then we need to start to break these down before expecting others to do the same. These behaviours may have been for good reason at a time, but in order to progress our walls need removed or we will become more and more isolated, more distant, more introspective, more unreasonable and perceived as irrelevant.

This makes us vulnerable and it takes a brave person to do this, but as they say, ‘fortune favours the brave ! ‘

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