March 19, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Brendan Heading

Brendan is from North Belfast and was educated at St Therese of Lisieux primary school, for the first five years, on the old site at 65 Somerton Road, and latterly at the "new" school at its present site
on the Antrim Road. Brendan passed the 11+ and studied at St Malachy's between 89 and 97. He graduated in Computer Science at QUB in 2001. He is currently a software engineer living and working in the greater Belfast area.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" BH:
"I don't remember hearing about it at all until I was at St Malachy's. We did not really discuss history or politics at home, except in relatively general terms. I ended up doing American history for GCSE there, so I missed out on getting into detail about 1916."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean
anything to you?" BH:
"That is really three different questions so I will go through each one. 
I have to confess I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the stated ideals in the proclamation, so I had to read it carefully before answering this. Having done so, it's obvious that you could write a book analyzing the meaning of the words. 
Reading the document now, I'm struck by the juxtaposition of two broad aspects; one is the historicity, assertion of right to use arms to achieve the republic, and the confidence that the use of arms is not only right and necessary, but will be successful. I find most of that pretty abhorrent, and with the benefit of hindsight, substantially unjustified. And these days, invoking God's blessing just sounds dated. 
The other aspect of the document defines the republic in terms of the kinds of ideals that defined the American and French republics. Monarchy is as abhorrent to me as unnecessary militarism, and I think these are not only ideals, but truths which are self evident. Of course there should be full civil and religious liberty, equal rights and universal sufferage - who could oppose this? 
That brings me to the question of the men who participated in it. I try not to be disrespectful about them, as I know it's something which is important to a lot of people, including some of my family members, and it is no small thing to volunteer to fight for something and face death in the pursuit of an ideal. But I think many of the men were motivated by militarism, and even a bit of bloodlust. The leadership of the Rising were on a suicide mission, and they believed that Ireland could only get independence through a sustained bloody war which they proposed to start. This nothing other than madness, a tamer version of the same ideals that motivate Islamic fundamentalists today. 
The act was little more than a skirmish that got out of hand, and which led to a great deal unnecessary death, as well as the destruction of a lot of property. It was substantially viewed as such at the time. The only reason why the act came to count for anything was because the British chose to execute those who organised it."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" BH:
"About the same time I learned about the 1916 Rising."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their
loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" BH:
"It should be stated at the outset that some of those who fought for\the UK during WW1 did so on the premise that, in return, the UK would speedily enact Home Rule at the end of the war.
I would never be disrespectful to anyone who volunteered to serve in an army, and the same point about having courage to fight and die for an ideal applies. But I'm not sure loyalty to Britain was the motivation, especially not of those who were loyal to Carson. The Home Rule crisis fundamentally was not about loyalty to the UK, it was about maintaining separation and special status on the island of Ireland, and those who asserted themselves against Home Rule were prepared to overturn Parliamentary authority in order to do so.
I see the Rising and the actions of the UVF, and their supporters in the Tory Party, as two sides of the same coin. Each were committed to overthrowing Parliament to get their way. They were cavalier about violence, committing themselves and other people to it without care for the damage that they could end up doing."
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 people behind the 1916 Rising do not reflect my attitudes or, ultimately, the ideals that have come to pass in modern Ireland or the modern UK. 
I must admit, I've never felt a massive sense of belonging in this place. I don't have a flag - flying either of the two major national flags in Northern Ireland is more often than not a crude throwback to sectarian posturing that we need a lot less of. I'm more Irish than British, but avoid asserting this as far as I can, as it doesn't seem to completely describe my identity."
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:

"See my previous answer."

BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events
in April and July of this year respectively?" BH:

"Absolutely not. I'm fearful in Northern Ireland in particular that we will see crude sectarian displays of jingoism and one-upmanship. I really hope we don't."

BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the
Irish State?" BH:
"I disagree with the Rising; it was a violent act of sedition committed by a small band of people which ultimately succeeded in obtaining nothing more than a technical alteration to the Home Rule bill. But it is for the Irish government and the people they represent to decide how it is appropriate to commemorate the event. From what I've seen so far it seems relatively measured, although I'd like to see a little more reflection of the fact that a lot of innocent people died during the Rising. 
I must say, the recent re-adaptation of 1916 is something that is interesting. I'd be happy to stand corrected but, apart from in 1966, when there was a major parade in Dublin and the main Irish railway stations were renamed after the leaders of the Rising, the Irish government, since independence, made few serious attempts to commemorate 1916 until relatively recently. If I recall correctly, the current practice of holding a military display at Easter was started by Bertie Ahern, who wrote in his autobiography that he wanted to see to it that ownership of the event was reclaimed from Sinn Féin."
BJS: "And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" BH:
"Since Arlene feels the same way about 1916 as I do, I would be hypocritical if I said that I had a problem with how she has approached this matter. 
That said, I do find the basis of Arlene's objections to be a little hypocritical in and of themselves. The 1916 Rising was not the only act of sedition; the UVF gun running and threat to overturn the will of Parliament was equally seditious, and they were in fact the firstBto threaten the government. Yet celebrations of the UVF from that era went ahead in Northern Ireland not long ago. I feel that Unionist politicians have not acted to place distance between the UVF of that era and the modern day criminal organisation of the same name. 
It is important that all of our politicians show due respect to all of the traditions that we have. We can't build a future out of calculated public snubs."
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:
"In respect of the Irish republic, it is very difficult to find fault in the progress the country has made. I lived in Dublin for a year between 1999 and 2000, and I often find myself missing it; there is a vibrancy about that city that is unique. I knew Protestants there, who were from NI - one was from Coleraine and his father was a Methodist minister who preached to Orangemen. He told me that the local authorities had gone out of their way to support the small Protestant religious community that he was a member of. I won't say there is no further work to do, but to me it is clear there is progress. Ireland has been quick to embrace European values, as well as legislate for marriage equality and it tries to do what it can, politically, to move forward in other areas. 
We don't have any of that up here in Northern Ireland. We resist change. We've got way too many ministers who bring their religious views - on matters such as the earth being 6000 years old - into the political sphere where it does not belong. There is insufficient respect for the rule of law, and for the honourable British political tradition of wielding the executive and legislative power of the state with care. Not long ago, Peter Robinson as First Minister asserted that it is necessary to retain devolution so that we can resist abortion reform and gay marriage. As a lifelong devolutionist I feel that this, and other things, are an unrecognisable perversion of what we negotiated devolution to do. It was never the idea to vote people into a permanent stalemate that would be used to block social progress. 
I feel that republicans and nationalists are equally to blame for this as unionists are, because while republicans feel free to assert their progressive views on some of the issues I mention above, they're unwilling to build coalitions across the community to support it. Republicans act as if Irish reunification is around the corner, and when it comes, it will solve everything. Neither of those two things are true, and I fear that republicans wish to simply replace one divided, tribal state with another one. 
We're lagging badly behind in Northern Ireland with social and political reform, which has knock on effects on our economic progress. We need to stop kidding ourselves that just because we're not killing each other anymore that there is no longer a problem. While we're at it, we need to demand higher standards from our politicians."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" BH:
"I think that for the place to make any progress at all people are going to have to stop categorising themselves as a shade of Orange or Green. We're a long way from that point, but I feel there are cracks starting to show in the edifice - an edifice which comprises all four of the major parties as well as several minor ones. The established parties are beginning to lose seats to non-aligned parties and I believe the number of MLAs designating as "other" will be greater following this May's elections. That trend needs to continue. 
A greater number of unaligned politicians means that we can get together and make the case for more integrated schooling, more mixed social housing and more rules to limit excessive displays of public tribal bravado. This is how Northern Ireland will eventually change. 
Referring back to how the human mind works, people tend to think incrementally, rather than exponentially. Changes in history almost always occurs in ways that nobody anticipates. In 1998, the idea of Ian Paisley sharing power with SF would have been beyond a joke. Who knows what the accepted norm in 2026 will be? Whatever it is, I'm optimistic that it will be much better than what we have now."

More from Brendan on his background:
"Background wise, it's a bit more complicated. My surname comes from my paternal great-grandfather, who was a British soldier with the 20th Foot/Lancashire Fusiliers. His wife was from Cork - it was a mixed marriage - and they settled here, after he'd served 27 years as a Private, in 1892. He was from Huntingdonshire, and the family there dates back approximately 1000 years to a Norman knight called Ernulf De Hesding, so from there I share common ancestry with the Counts of Perche, William of Orange's wife Mary, and at least one of the witnesses to the Magna Carta, as well as millions of other people. 
On my mum's side it's a similar story. Her father was a strict Scots Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother. It's funny, as when he converted he became a devout, practicing Catholic. I respect that in a lot of ways; in for a penny, in for a pound. His family refused to attend the wedding. There are a lot of stories like that; my other paternal great grandfather was a devout Catholic; his daughter married a born again Christian, and he disowned her. The Catholic Church actively discouraged mixed marriages and many practicing Catholics from that time believed they were of the devil.; and the anti-Catholic message of firebrand Presbyterian preachers in Victorian Belfast (and later) is well documented. 
I'm mentioning the background stuff because I think it's relevant. I think a lot of people like to think of themselves as true green, or true blue. The human mind, from an early age, tries to make sense of the world by categorising and quantifying it, and developing little rules about the world as a result. It's discomforting and disruptive when these rules are broken, but by embracing this we begin to see that life, in practice, is a lot more complex, and more importantly, that we can't really control it."

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