March 02, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Matt Johnston

Matt is 43 and is a dad among other things. While his parents would have a long history with Northern Ireland they met in England and Matt was born there. They returned to Northern Ireland with little Matt in 1974 believing that the growing Troubles would blow over soon. Matt inherited such optimism.

Matt is confidently Northern Irish, "I don’t pretend to be English or Irish."

Matt was raised as a Catholic. His father was a lapsed Presbyterian. Matt dumped the Church and the trappings upon majority. Rathmore Grammar in Dunmurry was school. He had stones thrown at him and his younger siblings walking home from school were threatened by two bigger lads from the local PUL-dominated housing estate on the way home and rescued from a certain beating by an off-duty soldier walking his dog. "I witnessed a bomb that killed soldiers at a Fun Run in Lisburn" he told me.

Matt went to Queen's and got a degree in Genetics but he has only ever worked in the IT industry, "it’s treated me well despite the difficulties provided by Northern Ireland."

He has been married twice. He owns an IT business that never depended on any grants or free money and affords him a little bit of arrogance when talking to economic development professionals. Here's some more personal information in his own words:
"These days I’m trying to figure out what to do. I’ve got kids here so I’m limited in my aspirations until they’re older but I don’t want to stay here. I find this place extremely limited in career aspirations (and due to work I’ve been required to do in the “communities”, I think if I was going to do my education and career preparation again, I’d have gone into organised crime.)."
Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Matt Johnston:
"My history teacher in Grammar School. He was a relatively prominent Republican but I found his treatment of the subject to be remarkably balanced and detached. It didn’t feel like the Easter Rising had anything to do with the Troubles. It was just something that happened in another place and the people it happened to were all long dead."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" MJ
"I don’t know a heap about it. I mean, it’s a hundred years ago in another country. Yes I consider Ireland a different country to Northern Ireland because we are part of the UK. We can wax lyrical about what it should be but I find geographical borders (like water) to be just as preposterous as political borders (like the border between NI and Ireland). Should I go and read about it? Will it actually be useful to me in the future?"
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" MJ:
"After school I briefly dated a girl who was working at the Somme Centre. And I think I had to read a book that took place then - but I barely remember it. But again, long time ago stuff that happened to other people in other places. Academically interesting but of pretty much no relevance to me."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" MJ:
"I used to describe myself as a patriot but I now see patriotism that leads to violence to be the domain of the thug and the bigot. I find it hard to justify loyalty to an institution that does not display signs of loyalty in return. I can’t remember the source but I heard reference to the Irish as “the Bog Wog problem” - maybe one of you more interested historians can find the reference."
BJS: "As a Northern Irish person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MJ:
"Absolutely not. It happened generations ago to people I don’t know in a different place. If I had to be pushed on a feeling about it, it feels like it was the real start of the Troubles and I think I might loathe everyone involved on both sides. It really affected my childhood. It makes me want to leave."

BJS: "As a Northern Irish person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MJ:
"Nope, I know nothing about it. I know it’s a big deal for people who like commemorating wars but from that point of view it’s kinda toxic. We make a big deal of it here but we were such a tiny part of it. And nowhere else makes such a big deal. 
We spend all of our time remembering and holding grudges rather than building bridges."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" MJ:
"Not knowingly. I think 2016 could have been a great opportunity to mend things here but I just see further division. Anyone who still feels butt-hurt about the Somme or the Easter Rising is a bigot and an idiot. I hear the First Minister isn’t going to attend Easter Rising events? Well, no surprise there. 
I don’t see why these things can’t be celebrated by all or not at all. But that wouldn’t play nicely into the brinkmanship of our politics."
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)?" MJ:
"I don’t care. It’s as relevant to me as Easter or the start of the Vietnam War or any other commemoration of stuff that happened a long time ago to different people. 
The Easter Rising is a big deal for Ireland so fair play to them. It’s a big deal to Republicans  up here. It does seem churlish that our First Minister hasn’t the political moxie to brazen it out. But then I’d like to see David Cameron attending some of them. And if Cameron could, then Foster would have no excuse.  Are the Royals attending any of them? I don’t know, because I don’t really care."
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?" MJ:
"Absolutely not. 
This place, to paraphrase Edwin Poots, is the backwoods. We are afflicted with a terrible disease of stupidity. 
We hear about a lesbian couple offended by Jim Wells on their doorstep but in their interview they confess they have always voted DUP. I don’t understand how people can vote tribally when there’s the environment, education and the economy at stake. And I don’t see things getting any better. 
The rest of us have to put up with being bounced between celebrations of PUL and CNR cultures but we never get coverage on the media and we never get included in the numbers. Where are the 200,000 people who voted Yes in the Good Friday Agreement and then never voted again. How did we get to the point where we let these shysters dismantle ideals and ruin it. The GFA didn’t bring peace  -  it brought cultural stagnation and one-upmanship. 
I think the people are generally broad minded, if a little old fashioned, but that’ll be sorted out in a generation. I just wish it hadn’t happened to my generation. I’ve only ever known the Troubles and I don’t see the progress that everyone claims to see. The guns went under the table, the threat never went away. Did we forget about the bomb outside the cafe in Cathedral Quarter? If we don’t have the republicans and unionists dominant in government, you can be damned sure the guns will come out again. We’re still held to ransom by these bastards."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" MJ:
"My hopes are that we have either an Assembly collapse or a revolution. I can’t see a way out of the deadlock. Things look like they’re working but it’s like a disaster movie. Every time there looks like a bright ray of hope, it gets shat on. 
I think I might actually hate it here. 
It just represents so much misery and people wallow in it. It takes about 3 seconds to turn a mild nationalist or unionist into a raving republican or loyalist. And people like me are called names by both sides. I’ve enjoyed being called a “yellow bellied Unionist” (from some faceless PUP supporter) and also “Brit scum” from some equally famous Sinn Fein supporter. 
I joined NI21 because to me it represented change and hope. Of course, I wasn’t to know about the peccadillos of individuals or the people that couldn’t be trusted and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of attacks, personal and in real life, from activists  - notably the venom from the Alliance. The other parties were actually pretty okay and happy to have debate. And I was punished professionally for participating in our politics. This is not, in any sense of the word, a civic society. 
I also didn’t have the support of my best friend in the world which hurt. And now I don’t think we are friends. 
I left the political stage not because I didn’t win a seat but because I don’t trust any politicians. I’ve not met a single one who had any principles."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." MJ:
"The one that springs to mind is “Why am I still here” 
2015, following the election was a very hard year for me, personally and professionally. I had a few bright moments but cocked them up royally. My happiest time that entire year was sailing off the coast of Spain. Because with one hand on the main sheet and the other on the tiller, you don’t have spare hands to check your Twitter feed for whatever latest atrocity has come out of the Assembly. 
At one of the TEDxBelfast talks, Fransuer Mukula spoke about children and aspirations. He said that the young women he worked with in Kenya were philosophical about their situation and their problems with poverty, drugs, AIDS. He said they referred to their situation as the result of “poor choices”. I took that to heart. We all have choices and some of them don’t work out the way we hoped but they may have been right for the time and place. I just think it’s wrong to punish people forever for choices made in adversity. 
But I don’t like to dwell on the past. It’s a foreign land where stuff happened to other people at another time. Letting your future be dictated by the past is a poor choice."

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