February 10, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Brendan Harkin

Brendan Harkin is a 23 year old legal assistant, observer and wit from Belfast. His talents are multifarious, including amateur photography, blogging, gaming and many other disciplines. Schooling at Belfast Royal Academy, Brendan studied Law at the University of Wolverhampton. He now lives in South Belfast with a lively curiosity and appetite for engaging in the fluid and ever changing online world. A true avatar of the new and emerging Northern Ireland. 

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Brendan Harkin:
"I’d say I first heard of the Easter Rising when I was a kid and that was through a song. My family had an album of The Dubliners and on one of the CDs was “The Foggy Dew”. A fantastic song but as a child I had no idea what it was about, it was just like a story sung along to a tune to me. I first properly learned about the Easter Rising around the age of 11 or 12 as I started to read more history books and found myself on the topic of Irish history. I would then go on to cover the topic in school as part of the history syllabus when I was 13."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" BH: 
"The Rising is a difficult topic now that I’m older. In my early teens, I found myself caught up in the sectarian mindset; the romantic narrative of Republicans had me view the Rising as a valiant effort by Irishmen to righteously claim back the land of their forefathers by an invading force, something that I SHOULD completely support without question. It  was more about the “feeling” the Rising gave, as I listened to evocative songs like The Foggy Dew, rather than looking at the facts of what was done and who carried it out. 
Now that I’m older and my views have “matured”, I find myself thinking of these things as an Irish unionist and the entire thing becomes a lot more “grey” in nature. 
As an Irishman, the idea of a ragtag force of poets, teachers and complete eejits, trying to take on the British Empire with barely any arms or support, will always inspire a sense of pride and admiration in me. 
As a democrat I must however recognise that this “ragtag force” acted to the displeasure of the local population because they would not wait for the democratic route to work. Their impatient attitude of “glory now, politics later” cost Irish lives and led to huge damage to Dublin and now means that Home Rule and what could’ve followed is just merely speculation for us. 
The proclamation’s ideals of civil and religious liberty, of equality and universal suffrage are things I identify with and respect. I think in a modern context, as I live in post-conflict Northern Ireland and support the right of the Northern Irish people to remain in the UK, that I will inherently feel uncomfortable given the militant nature of the proclamation and the Rising in lieu of a political approach. But I must recognise that it was a key part of the historical chain of events that led to Irish Independence and the establishment of the country I call my home. And for that the Rising means everything."

BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" BH: 
"I’d say I first properly learnt about the Battle of the Somme early than I did the Rising. As a kid I’ve always loved history and especially enjoyed reading the beloved “Horrible Histories” series by Terry Deary. I felt a natural fascination with topics of war, as it so often shapes world history, and ended up reading about the World Wars from a relatively young age. The Battle of the Somme is obviously something that is culturally significant to the Protestant/Unionist communities of Northern Ireland but at the time I was completely oblivious to this. I read about the Battle in the context of history books where a simple set of statistics and maps of manoeuvres kept it feeling as foreign and disconnected to me as would reading about a battle during the era of the Roman Republic."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" BH: 
"The Battle of the Somme brings to mind many mixed feelings much in the manner that the Easter Rising does. 
On a basic human level, I can respect and admire the men who put on a uniform and fought an enemy that as far as they were concerned were there to subjugate them and destroy their way of life. There is an understanding of the simple, primal need to protect what is yours and the willingness to die fighting for it. 
As a humanist, it’s a tragedy. Thousands of men of numerous nationalities were sent to a violent death in a muddy, cratered hellscape in France, by leaders who were acting to preserve and advance the vanity of their Empires. 
It’s when I view the Battle in the context of being Northern Irish that it becomes so much more complicated than a set of statistics in a book. Having studied the historical context, I have to consider the political motivations behind those that volunteered, hoping to influence the progress of Home Rule, alongside with their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country. I then see the event politicised and used as a dividing line for “them and us” in Northern Irish politics; the usual thing of “awk well if you’re getting a Somme memorial then there should be a Hunger Strikers one” and vice versa as if those things are equal to each other. 
I can respect the willingness of a human being to give up their life, in order to protect and defend the land they call their home. I cannot respect that the reason they even have to do that is due to a game of Empires and colonisation that thrived off of doing the very thing they were supposed to be fighting against. I will never respect those that use the event as a jingoistic tool to draw tribal lines in modern Northern Irish society."
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?" BH: 
"The Rising is highly important to my sense of identity as both an Irish and a Northern Irish person. 
I would argue that it’s important to everyone on this island as it set forth the chain of events that led to where we are and who we are today. The Rising led to the Revolutionary War. That war led to partition and the Irish civil war. Partition led to the Troubles. The Troubles have led us to the peace process and power-sharing. It’s a strange thing to contemplate that as Padraig Pearse sat in his classroom thinking of “freeing Ireland” that his actions would be part of a chain of events that eventually leads to a group of people standing outside Belfast City Hall waving the Union Flag for an hour every Saturday. 
I find that this constant referring back to a “chain of events” is why I can’t help but find the influence of the Rising in so many aspects of why our country exists in the manner that it does now. 
The Rising was one of the root causes behind why I can call myself “Northern Irish” as a nationality. It is also one of the reasons why the tricolour is the flag I identify with and why returning to my family’s native county of Donegal requires going over a border. There is also no denying that Rising commemoration rhetoric around 1966 and the idolisation of revolutionaries by Republicans is behind the motivation of a lot of members of the modern IRA factions and a lot of the tensions that sparked the explosion of sectarian violence in 1969. So whilst it has its good and bad aspects and positive and negative influences on history (which can change subject to your cultural identity of course) I think it is still an important event to remember as both an Irishman and as someone from Norn Iron, regardless of how hard the Republicans try to use it to fire up their supporters."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" BH: 
"I’d say in this regard, I would by default just say the Somme offensive has much less direct significance to my identity in comparison to the Rising. 
I should have clarified at an earlier stage: I grew up on the Antrim Road in a pretty middle class area. There were no colourful murals of fiery phoenixes bursting out of GPOs or silhouetted soldiers with their helmeted heads bowed in reverence against a sunset painted on the walls of the houses. There was no local tight-knit community that held images of men clutching rifles (either British made or German “imports” if you get my meaning) with great veneration. 
So in terms of the 36th Ulster Division, they weren’t even remotely within my radar outside of the context of history books giving them a brief shout out. Perhaps the disconnection I feel with the Somme and its cultural significance in Northern Ireland is a side effect of growing up in an Irish Catholic background. The 36th Ulster Division were not “our thing” and the First World War wasn’t “our war”, despite the tens of thousands of Irish volunteers so from the start it was never really something to think about. 
I can’t help but draw the parallel with the Rising. Irishmen took up arms to fight a foreign foe and gave their lives to defend their homeland. It’s hard not to recognise the significance of that sacrifice and speculate that if they had not done so maybe Ireland might’ve been under the control of the German Empire instead of the British Empire. 
I honestly haven’t put that much thought into the significance of the Somme to my Irish identity but as I dwell on it now, maybe if we as a people are supposed to commemorate the actions of those that faced the artillery shells of HMY Helga across the streets of Dublin, we should really give equal commemoration to those who faced the shells of the German Empire across the fields of Northern France."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" BH: 
"I’m intending to visit Dublin around the time of the commemorations to check out some of the events that are taking place. I’ve yet to decide which ones I’d like to attend due to the sheer number of them but obviously this is the best time to take advantage of visiting so I’ll see what coincides with a weekend. 
I’d like to attend Somme commemorations but I’ll need to find a suitable one to attend. Orange Order involvement and UVF veneration would be personally off-putting for the purpose of commemoration although interesting regardless to watch." 
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?" BH: 
"As a Northern Irish person I’m of two minds on this (who saw that coming). 
Belfast is a cosmopolitan success story. We have top class restaurants (some of which now have Michelin stars), superb pubs and an unbeatable local music scene. We get rave reviews from visitors who thoroughly enjoy our hospitality and the abundance of tourism facilities (and bus tours) that are on offer. 
Where once a few decades ago you’d have found yourself standing on a street sealed with a checkpoint and armed soldiers, you can now find yourself drinking gourmet coffee at a table outside (provided it isn’t bucketing down) and watching the shoppers go by as if you were in any metropolitan city on the continent without any thoughts of car-bombs or incendiary devices. 
However it’d be severely deluded to say we’re not without our problems. The old divide and archaic bigotries still mar the pseudo-bohemian face of 21stcentury Belfast and life at interface areas is still wrought with poverty and discontent. 
From flag protests to peace walls to petitions of concern, we aren’t quite the perfectly modern shared-space our tourism board would like to present. And as long as play park names and curry yoghurts send our representatives into a frothing-at-the-mouth political crisis, the old “set your watches back to 1690” joke still has a bit of mileage in it yet. 
Regardless, I feel incredibly fortunate to live in the transitional era that we’re in at the moment in Northern Ireland and I’m glad that future generations of children, will grow up playing in their gardens without a nervous looking Fusilier crouching behind the wall telling them to get inside. Hopefully they'll go to a school where their mate’s surname or how they pronounce the letter h doesn’t even occur to them as something to think about. It’s less than perfect right now and there are some major problems to solve, but we’re on our way." 
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" BH: 
"After the previous verbal diarrhoea in my answers, I’ll TRY to keep this one short and to the point. 
A shared Northern Ireland with pride in its own identity and shared culture is my ideal future for the province. Integrated education and an end to segregated housing would be a high priority and the Irish and Ulster-Scots language and cultures would be embraced as our one shared Northern Irish culture. On the constitutional question, we would remain in the UK as per the preference of the majority of the country but this fact would not be used to trample over those who do not view themselves as British as we have seen with such behaviour regarding flags and parades. We would remain a European nation and have an open border with the Republic. An opposition in Stormont would hold the executive to account and hopefully a political evolution through future generations will mean that any changes that are made are being made for the better and not for the bitter."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." BH: 
"I suppose the key thing that the questions have brought to mind is the parallel in terms of why the Somme Offensive and Easter Rising are significant to the two communities in Northern Ireland. The hardliners will argue different facts and loyalties for the purpose of their divide, but it is obvious that Republicans and Loyalists share the admiration of those who will fight and die for the freedom of the people they call their countrymen. Whilst both these events are politicised so that those at opposite ends of the political spectrum will view either event as belonging to “themmuns”, they both have their significance to both communities in ways they may not have thought about or want to think about. In a way they just showcase the Northern Irish situation; shared Irish and British histories that are inherently interwoven and inescapably contribute to who we are as Northern Irish people but are held by bigots to be completely separate in order to protect the tribal divide to promote their own narrative. I’m sure I’ll probably get shouted at by some angry person for that implication but awk well."

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