The Gamechangers: No. 2 – Paul Doran

The Gamechangers is a series of interviews with social activists who are based in and around Belfast that explore how they see the world and what they are doing to change it.  The second in the series is an interview with Paul Doran, a journalist and co-creator of Tenx9 (pronounced ‘Ten by nine’), a storytelling event where 9 people have up to 10 minutes to tell a true story about their life.


Hello Paul. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m 49 years old. I’m from Derry originally but I’ve lived in Belfast for 30 years. I came here for University and been here ever since. I’m a journalist in the BBC specializing in politics and political programmes.

Tenx9 is a little side line that I run with Padraig O Tuama. We’ve been running in Belfast for over 3 years now. The idea is that 9 people have up to 10 minutes to tell a true story. We’re not interested in creative writing or fiction or super confident performances, the only thing is all the stories have to be true. We’re interested in stories that haven’t been heard before. We try to create the space where people can speak freely. And a very important thing is that it’s always free. We never charge an entrance fee.

What type of people come?

Initially we would have had about 30 people, most of whom we knew. Many Padraig would have come across in his work or were friends of his. Now, it’s a very different crowd that come. We have a very good range of age and gender. It’s been helped by working with different festivals. We get a lot of people turning up to tell stories who we don’t know. That’s what we’re aiming for. There’s a nice mix.

How do you find people to tell stories?

Initially it was bulling, intimidation and threats! And a little bit of bribery. What I find is there is an element of contagion about it. People come along and think ‘I would like to do that’ and then they come along and tell their first story.

How do you choose the themes for the stories?

We sit down and go through ideas and try to make them wide ranging in their interpretation. They are very often one word but can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes it’s the time of year, Christmas or summer, or in January we had ‘beginings’. It’s about picking something that can be interpreted widely enough for people to tell a story. The range of stories that we get around the theme are very often so different that it indicates that it’s working.

Do you ever get ones that are way off the beaten track?

Always. You never know what to expect. When we did ‘Courage’, as you would expect we had a lot of stories about illness and facing up to certain things. But they were also extremely funny. People have a wry way of looking at things. You never know what to expect.

How did it begin?

The first one was in Belfast in the Green Room at the Black Box. There were about 30 people there. That was in September 2011. Now we get crowds of about 150 plus.


Every month?

Every month. And always on a Wednesday.

Have you always had it in the Black Box?

We have had it in other places but its spiritual home is the Black box. We’re well established there.

What other places have you had it at?

We’ve done it at different festivals. We’ve done it at Greenbelt in England. Bounce, the disability festival at the Lyric. We’ve done it at Corrymeela. We’re taking it to East Belfast for the C. S. Lewis festival. We’ve also done Pride and the Belfast Comedy Festival, Culture Night, and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

I’ve heard there are other Tenx9s?

There are other Tenx9s. The first one to start was in Nashville and it’s still going strong. There’s one in Chicago. There’s one in Balham in London. There’s also a variation in the Netherlands as well. These are all people who have come and seen it in Belfast. The Nashville guy used to come to the one in Belfast and learned the rules and asked if he could start one there.

Why do people come to Tenx9?

I’d like to think they come because of the human connection. The audiences are always very, very respectful. We get a lot of very funny stories but we also get a lot of touching and very sad stories. And there’s always that variety. I like to think that people just connect with the human behind the story. That’s why we’re only interested in true stories.   For us the audience is as important as the person telling the story. It’s a two-way relationship. If people don’t listen what’s the point in telling?

I think there’s a great desire to hear human stories and there’s a great desire to tell human stories. People do it for different reasons. Some people are great storytellers. For others it’s catharsis. For others it’s about honouring people who have touched their lives.

What’s your favourite or most memorable story?

There’s a few. One woman told a story about the flags dispute and how it impacted upon her and her neighbour. It was an incredible story. Another woman told one at the disability festival. She spoke very slowly and was severely disabled. She was from a traveler family and there was about 20 of them. It was about her mothers relationship with a middle class woman and how the woman would give her the remains of her perfume because she had an 11 year old daughter. It was a stunning story and it was a lot of effort for her to tell it. There was silence at the end of it. It was stunning.

What about the future?

We would love to get a tenx9 up and running in Derry. We would also love to get a publication together so that some of these stories can be circulated more widely. And we’d like to get a podcast up and running too. That would be recording the event so if people miss it they can still hear it.

How do you find out about when it’s on?

We have a website, Twitter and Facebook page. Our tagline is ‘Everybody has a story. Come tell yours.’

The Gamechangers: No. 1 – Frances Shiels

The Gamechangers is a series of interviews with social activists based in and around Belfast that will explore how they see the world and what they are doing to change it.  The first interview is with Frances Shiels, one of the founders of FOCUS: THE IDENTITY TRUST, a peer support group for transgender and intersex individuals and their families. 


Dave : Hello Frances, I know you are currently involved with an organisation called FOCUS:THE IDENTITY TRUST. Tell me a bit about yourself and your involvement in the Trust.

Frances : Hi Dave, it’s great to be given this opportunity to talk about me and more importantly the work of FOCUS. I am a 62 year old woman of Transgender history. I was born on Easter Sunday 1952 into a Catholic family, the oldest child of 7, I have 5 brothers and 1 sister. I have known from my earliest memory that I am female but always knew it was something I couldn’t dare tell anyone else. So I did my best to be the best boy, and then man, I could possibly be, not for me but for all those around me who thought I was and expected me to be and behave as the male they saw.

I was very successful outwardly at being that person, however I lived a life of fear for 60 years. Fear that I would be rejected, fear that I would lose my family, or my career, or that I would have violence visited on me. The fear and stress caused me intense pain which eventually resulted in chronic physical and mental ill-health.

It wasn’t until I started to attend the Transgender Peer Support Group attached to the Regional Gender Identity Service in Northern Ireland that I got to meet other Transgender individuals and got to know that my experience was not unique. That room was the only space in which I didn’t have to speak to explain myself, that I knew everyone understood, that I was truly accepted, that I could reach out into and get the support I needed to be me, to feel at ease. It is no lie to say that without that Peer Support I would not be alive today. But in June 2013 that group was put into permanent suspension.

It was then that that a core group of us got together to form FOCUS: THE IDENTITY TRUST to meet the need for Peer Support for transgender and Intersex individuals and their families in Northern Ireland and also the Border Counties of the Republic of Ireland, there was no regularly organised Peer Support North of Galway on the West Coast or Dublin on the East Coast.

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What is unique about FOCUS Peer Support Groups is that we only accept referrals from formal Gender Identity Clinics or Registered Medical Practitioners. Our Groups are totally confidential with clear guidelines so that anonymity and safety for those who need it can be totally ensured.

Very often Transgender and Intersex individuals and their families can feel totally isolated, for this reason experienced members of FOCUS provide individual “buddying” of individuals and families in a location suitable to them until they reach a situation where they are sure our group support services are appropriate for them and they are ready to join our formal support group sessions. We know from personal experience how difficult it can be to walk into a group situation for the first time.

I am part of that buddying network and facilitate our Northwest Peer Support Group.

Dave: I hear how important Peer Support is and how passionate you are that Transgender and Intersex individuals and their families get that vital support that they need. Are there any other facets of FOCUS’s work you are involved in?

Frances: Yes. In the Trust we recognise that a lot of the recurring issues raised in our support groups are to do with the lack of understanding of our medical condition in mainstream society at all levels which leads to prejudice and discrimination in all areas of our lives, if we are genuinely going to make a real difference then FOCUS needs to be more active in challenging misconceptions, prejudice and discrimination. It is for this reason that I have chosen to be one of the more visible members of FOCUS. I deliver most of our awareness raising sessions, and our training on Human Rights and Equality issues. I do a lot of lobbying with politicians and policy makers to have our issues recognised, understood, accepted and acted upon.

Dave: Tell me a bit about the lobbying you do. What are the main issues for Transgender and Intersex individuals and are they the same in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Frances: Our condition, Gender Dysphoria is a life-long medical condition which impacts every aspect of our lives from the day we are born and assigned the wrong sex, through school, through puberty, into adolescence, and on into adulthood right through to old age and end of life care.

It affects our education, our employment and training prospects, our relationships with others and our physical and mental health.

If I am forced to highlight particular issue common to both jurisdictions I would have to say the first is the question of access to specialist healthcare provision, particularly surgery and post-operative care. There is no provision for our specialised surgeries to be carried out anywhere on the island of Ireland so there is no expertise in the delivery of aftercare either.

In Northern Ireland there is consistency of approach and delivery of specialised treatment as we have formal Gender Identity Services organised on a regional basis through Brackenburn Gender Identity Clinic for adults and the recently developed KOI service in the Regional CAMHS service for Gender nonconforming children and Transgender adolescents. In the Republic at the moment there is no definitive treatment pathway for those diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria. Access to and how Treatment is delivered is a lottery with no consistency of approach and depends solely on the interest, knowledge and preference of individual General Medical Practitioners.

The second huge area of concern on the island of Ireland is access to appropriate Human Rights based Gender Recognition processes. The Republic of Ireland is the last country in Europe not to have any form of Gender Recognition Legislation and has been found to be in default of European Human Rights Legislation. Yet despite this Dr Lydia Foy (who has been seeking for many years to have her gender recognised and who took her test case to Europe) is still waiting for her gender to be legally recognised and to have a birth certificate issued in her true gender.

In Northern Ireland despite the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Transgender individuals in the UK still don’t “own” their true gender, having to rely on a medical process of diagnosis and treatment regimes to be able to gain recognition of their true gender identity. Unlike the rest of the UK, Transgender individuals in Northern Ireland in a marriage or civil partnership have to have that legal relationship dissolved prior to being able to have their true gender legally recognised.

Dave: How can wider society assist with the obviously huge concerns for Transgender individuals and their families?

Frances: Transgender and Intersex individuals are part of society, not apart from it. We are your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your aunt, your uncle, your mother, your father, even your grannie or granda. We are part of your community, your faith group and your workplace. All we want is to be accepted and treated with the same dignity and respect that everyone else expects and largely receives.

We are not seeking additional rights over and above anyone else but look forward to a society of equals where each is valued individually for their unique talents and enabled to positively contribute positively to the common good of their communities.

Each and every one of us can help to make that change a reality by educating ourselves and others on the issues of all marginalised groups – not just the issues of Transgender and intersex individuals – by championing the rights of others, by challenging all instances of discrimination, hate speech, inappropriate language, by coming to the aid of victims of any of these incidents and by reporting to the relevant authorities any incidents of bullying, harassment or physical violence perpetrated on any vulnerable members of our communities.

Finally I would like to thank you personally, Dave for giving me this opportunity to share this information about myself and FOCUS:THE IDENTITY TRUST. It is only allies like yourself who will enable change in society.

Dave: You’re most welcome. Thank you for sharing so much of your life and work. Your courage to speak out, your activism for equality, and the work of FOCUS, is an inspiration.

Frances: Finally, I would appeal to everyone reading this transcript to share our website address at every possible opportunity—YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WHOSE LIFE YOU MAY CHANGE FOR THE BETTER BY THAT ONE SIMPLE ACT.

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A Review of Jun Tzu’s first album: ‘The Troubles’ & a chance to win the CD

Belfast isn’t widely known for its hip hop.  That could all be about to change next month when Jun Tzu releases his album ‘The Troubles’.

Jun Tzu - The Troubles

‘The Troubles’ is about much more than the music.  It’s a very personal record that has been 7 years in the making.  All the music was contributed by Jun Tzu’s family and friends.  For those who still like to read the lyrics there are 16 pages of beautiful artwork with the cd (for details how to win a copy of the cd see below).

‘The Troubles’ will be like nothing you have heard before.  In a world of conformity and imitation this is a genuinely unique piece of work stuffed full of style and substance.  It’s a musical and lyrical autobiography that wrestles with the head melting dichotomy of growing up British in Northern Ireland and Irish in Britain.   It’s about coming to terms with growing up as the son of a political ex-prisoner in Northern Ireland.  It’s about the day to day struggle of a young man trying to make it.  It’s an antidote to cynicism.

Jun Tzu doesn’t pull his punches.  In ‘Wee Jonny’ he explains his frustration with much of the music industry:

‘I’ll tell you what pisses me off, right? See all these rappers?  There’s loads of them.  And they all sit there and they all write their songs their whole lives and it’s just lyric after lyric of bullshit.  They have nothing that they feel they need to say. There’s no real content.’

‘The Troubles’ is a collection of stories told with brutal honesty that move effortlessly between anger, humour, compassion, and confession.  There are stories about growing up, trying and failing to make it, and watching while everything around you goes to hell.  These are songs that will appeal to people who feel they are on the ropes and battling against the odds.  In ‘Irish Eyes’ Jun says:

‘It’s hard to smile when your life is a shambles’.

Jun Tzu

Photo by Darren Anderson

Fans of Jun Tzu will love new versions of ‘Born in Belfast’, ‘Wee Jonny’, and the powerful ‘Here lies a Soldier’.

The album is packed full of humour and self depreciation, classic Northern Irish traits.  ‘My Daddy’ recalls growing up in Rathcoole, eating sliders (ice cream), and visiting Belfast zoo.  Newtownabbey has never sounded so cool.

‘Bloody Brothers’ follows Jun when his family moved away from Northern Ireland, first to Wales and then to Manchester.  In Manchester Jun and his brother were labelled Irish by their peers – a strange experience for the sons of a former Loyalist prisoner – and they didn’t take it well, getting into all sorts of trouble on the way.

‘A Cause Worth Living For’ is written from the perspective of Jun Tzu’s father ‘Packie Hamilton’, who was brought up in Rathcoole and lived near a young Bobby Sands before the conflict erupted in the late sixties.  He recalls being beaten up and thrown into a river by a gang of Catholics as a child.  From this experience he learnt two things: how to swim and not to play to Catholics.

The song goes on to tell how Packie later got involved in the conflict and joined the Tartan Gangs and the UVF.  He was then sentenced to spend time in the Maze prison, being labelled a ‘hopeless case’ by his mother, before undergoing a religious conversion while still in jail.

‘Here lies a soldier’ is the final song on the album and deserves a special mention, not just for how it is crafted musically but for the maturity of the lyrics.  It’s a song about the futility of violence and the human cost of conflict, and pays tribute to combatants from all sides who lost their lives in the conflict.  It ends with this dedication:

‘This song is dedicated to the men who have laid down their lives, to the men who have fought and died in the wars of mankind.  This song is dedicated to the women, all the women who have suffered, and to the children, the children who have been scared and affected by the Troubles.’


To be entered into a draw to win a copy of ‘The Troubles’ just do two things:

1. Share the public post about this article on my facebook page before 11th August

2. Like Jun Tzu’s facebook page.

Winner will be announced week beginning 12th August.


Jun Tzu will be performing the full album live at the Stendhal festival, Limavady, on Saturday 9th August.

You can buy the cd version of the album through this LINK or  at shows from 9th August, or on iTunes from 29th August.

For more details keep up to date with Jun Tzu on Twitter or like his page on Facebook

Check out  ‘Born In Belfast’, the first track on ‘The Troubles’, below:

“I lived most of my life in fear” – Why we need a Trans Manifesto

Tomorrow, on Wednesday 2nd July, a Trans Manifesto will be launched at Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, by Junior Minister Jennifer McCann.  Speaking in support of the manifesto will be Dr. Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner for the Equality Commission, and Norma Shearer, Chief Executive of Training for Women Network.  Others to publicly support the campaign include MEPs Martina Anderson and Jim Nicholson, as well as MLA Anna Lo.


The Trans Manifesto has been developed by Focus: The Identity Trust.  Focus: The Identity Trust works to support Transgender people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the issues which face Trans people are different in each jurisdiction.  They hope by developing it that it will transform how Trans people are viewed across the island of Ireland, north and south.  It is also hoped the Trans Manifesto will act as a guide for policy and decision makers on issues relating to Transgender individuals.

The launch of this Manifesto is important for a number of reasons.  For many Trans people the T at the end of LGBT is at best a silent one, and nor is the inclusion of T in LGBT even appropriate (see here for more info).  In short, while LGB is about sexuality and attraction, T is about gender.  They are different issues.  Public understanding of Gender Dysphoria – a recognised medical condition  – is limited.  The language used and the narratives constructed around Trans issues need to be formed and shaped by those who identify as Transgender rather than those who identify as Cisgender.

Focus say they don’t want extra rights for Trans people, just the same rights as everybody else.

“I lived most of my life in fear,” said Frances Shiels, secretary for Focus: The Identity Trust.

“I don’t want all of the Transgender and Intersex individuals yet to be born to have to endure the same pain I suffered, afraid to reveal my true identity. Hopefully the launch of this Manifesto and its endorsement will lead politicians and everyone else in positions of influence across the whole island to effect positive change in society that will directly impact on the lives of Transgender and Intersex individuals. After all Transgender rights is a cross –party issue which needs government support. These proposals , if acted upon, will have a hugely positive impact on the lives of many Transgender individuals and their families.”

The Trans Manifesto is made up of three core statements around dignity & respect, empowerment, and imagery:

  1. Regard Trans individuals as equal citizens with equal rights.
  2. Empower Trans individuals to be authorities on all aspects of their own lives.
  3. Encourage diverse, representative, realistic & positive portrayals of Trans individuals.

The Trans Manifesto also makes 2 specific requests of all political parties:

  1. A commitment to include positive images of Transgender individuals in all Central Government publications to increase positive visibility.
  2. A commitment to the speedy introduction of Human Rights based Gender Recognition legislation across the whole of Europe , which is independent of any necessity to fulfill any requirements or to undergo any medical procedures.

The full text of the Trans Manifesto is available here.

Trans issues are among the least understood in the media and society at large.  Many people simply do not know what the issues are and what they can do to help.  One easy thing to do is to read the manifesto and understand the issues better.  Another is to raise awareness of it by sharing it on social media.  Another way of showing support and solidarity is to write to local MLAs and MPs to show support for it.  Transgender rights and equality are not only cross-party issues, they are issues for everybody who claims to stand on the side of equality and justice.  In the end there is no true equality for anyone unless there is equality for everyone.


‘I am sick of hearing all Muslims tarred with the same brush’

After a week when you could have been forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland was going to hell in a handbasket, a community worker in a Loyalist area posted this rant about Muslims on Facebook:

This is message is for all my friends. I am sick of hearing about Muslims this Muslims that, They are all not bad there is moderate Muslims just like Loyalist and Republicans. My daughter married a Muslim from Egypt and went down to stay with his family for a month in Alexandria and was treated like a lady amongst Muslims. As most people know I am from a loyalist background which I am proud of and I work with all sections of the community regards religion and colour.  I am sick of hearing all Muslims tarred with the same brush as my daughter was treated with the upmost respect in the middle of a Muslim country.  If any of my friends don’t like what I have put on then just delete me of your friends list.

It struck me there is more wisdom and courage in that statement than most of what we heard from our religious and political leaders in response to the events of the past week.

Just to put it in context a little, this was said by a man who if he looked at you the wrong way on the bus, you’d probably get off at the next stop (I hope he forgives me for saying that).

The Muslim community in Northern Ireland needs to know that there are people here who have their backs.  Some of us do trust you.  Some are even willing to lose friends over you.

I contacted the author of these comments and I asked him if I could share them in this blog post (with names removed).  He agreed and added a little more about something else that happened last weekend.  He said:

…took son-in-law to baptist church in [town] with me this morning wot a reception he got he thinks northern ireland people are brilliant and so friendly as my daughter had told him about all the negative stuff that was going on…..told everyone he was a muslim not 1 person was negative towards the lad.

There are different types of prejudices of course, and it’s a brave person who claims to be above it all.  Maybe it’s Muslims, maybe it’s Christians, maybe it’s Loyalists, maybe it’s Republicans.  Whatever it is, all it takes is the right set of circumstances and our lofty ideals are toast.

Racism runs deep.  It’s not just about how we treat people.  It’s how we talk about people.  It’s how we think about people.  It’s how we feel about people.

Some people claim racism is a working class problem (it’s all those poor folk who are the racist ones, right?) but just watch how quickly things kick off in Cherry Valley if a group of travelers were to move in at the bottom of the road.

The good news is that racism is not natural.  Racism is learned and it can be unlearned.

Thank you to the good people of Alexandria, Egypt, for teaching a Loyalist community worker that not all Muslims are bad.  And thank you to the same community worker for teaching the rest of us.

‘Listening to your enemies’: Jo Berry and Patrick Magee

skainosLast night crowds of people walked through a protest and lines of riot police to listen to two people talk about what it means to move forward when you have more reason than most to look back.  It was a pretty intimidating entrance, but the place was packed full of people (photo on the right by Glenn Jordan).  You can see some of the press coverage here.

The event was called ‘Listening to your enemies’ and was part of the 4 Corners Festival.  It was hosted by the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.

The event was chaired by Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll and featured Jo Berry and Patrick Magee.  Jo Berry lost her father, Sir Anthony Berry, in an IRA bomb in a hotel in Brighton in 1984.  Patrick Magee was a member of the IRA at the time and one of the bombers of the hotel.

In the past fourteen years, the two have appeared together at over a hundred engagements.

The evening involved some reflections from each of them, followed by a long question and answer session with the audience (I have written this piece based on notes I took at the event).

Jo Berry began the discussion by talking about why she wanted to meet Patrick Magee.  It was her who sought him out, and after asking a few times, he finally agreed to meet her.

Patrick Magee reflected that ‘It’s difficult sitting with Jo because I killed her father. Even after 14 years of dialogue [with her] it’s still difficult.’  He added that coming to East Belfast (which is mainly Loyalist) to continue that dialogue was particularly poignant for him.

Patrick Magee said that when he first met Jo Berry he felt it was the first time since he got involved in the Republican campaign that anyone had really listened to him.  He said that Jo Berry’s willingness to listen to him had disarmed him.  Having met her he quickly grew to have tremendous respect for Jo, and realised that she was a intelligent, brave, and very fine human being.  As a result he began to realise that her father had been a fine human being too.  ‘And I killed him’, he added.   He said that this was a deeply profound thing to have to carry with you.  It is ‘a loss that can never be made up.’

Magee reflected that during conflict you can’t help but have a reduced view of the world.  You don’t see human beings.  And you don’t see the human cost.

He said the reason he continues to do the work with Jo Berry is that, ‘hopefully you can stop other people taking up the same course.’

Most of the questions from the audience were directed toward Magee, understandably so because of the significance of the venue on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.  I personally would have loved to hear more from Jo Berry, and I hope that I get another opportunity to hear her again soon.  After the event there was some discussion on stage between Gary Mason, Jim Wilson, and Harold Good about where Northern Ireland could find a ‘Mandela moment’.  I would suggest we don’t have to look far.  You would have to go a long way before you find a more dignified and saintly human being than Jo Berry.

Magee was asked if he had a message to dissident Republicans, those who continue to believe in the legitimacy of a violent campaign.  He replied that he was bewildered with dissidents.  ‘They are going nowhere.  I don’t think anything can be achieve through violence in the situation we find ourselves in.’  He added that he believes some dissident groups are looking for an exit strategy (a view that would be supported by this recent article in the Newsletter).

He reflected that ‘It’s hard to argue that any life was worth what we went through.’  He later stated that he hopes political leaders can embrace compromise.  Jo Berry added that it would be wonderful if political leaders would try to understand the other community.

One member of the audience asked, ‘How do you deal with your emotions?’  Patrick Magee replied: ‘You don’t just leave your past behind.  You carry the ghosts of that past with you.  You carry it.’  Jo Berry replied: ‘Anger and pain can be transformed…every time I’m listened to it helps me transform my emotions….There is the potential to move on with emotions but never to reach the point of closure.’

One man stood up towards the end of the questions and said he had attended the event by accident.  He said he had been looking for an AA meeting and had seen the police and the protest outside and had wondered what all the fuss was about so had come along.  He said that it was a privilege to be in the audience and hear the dialogue.  And so it was.  A huge well done to the 4 Corners Festival, Skainos, all involved in hosting the event, and all who attended, despite having to walk through a protest and police lines to get there.  Spare a thought as well for the police officers who had to protect the building, and for those who were injured doing so.

Jo Berry closed the evening with some concluding remarks, before both her and Patrick Magee were quietly ushered out of the building.  Before she left she offered the following statement: ‘Pat is my friend, beyond any label.’  I suspect Mandela was looking down and smiling.

Here’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me


This was the scene last week when a bomb scare in Belfast caused the evacuation of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops on a busy Friday night.  Some of my friends are in that picture.

This and other bomb scares in the run up to Christmas have reminded me of an incident I witnessed growing up.

When I was 11 I saw a bomb explode in Belfast.  I never want to see another one. 

It was so utterly normal in those days that it didn’t really scare me at the time.  It does now.

I was standing inside the train station at York Road – now Yorkgate – with my school pals, waiting for a train to take us home.  They used to keep all us schoolkids in a big waiting area before letting us on the platform.  We would visit the shop for ice-pops and frozen drinks while we waited.  I remember it was always a scramble to see who could get the best flavours of ice pops before they were all gone.

york road

And that’s where we were that day, dozens of kids waiting for a train to get home, when there was an announcement to get out of the station: ‘bomb scare’.

In those days it happened all the time.  I remember thinking it was no big deal.  In my childhood innocence I thought it was more of an inconvenience than a threat.  We were taken up the road and stood a few hundred yards from the train station, laughing and joking and wondering how long it would be until we could get back into the station and home.

It wasn’t long – maybe ten minutes – before the bomb went off.  I still remember the explosion.  It seemed to go on forever.  Bits of buildings flew up in the air and took an age to come down.  I remember being shocked at how far the debris traveled towards where we were.  There was the rumble of concrete walls and roofs collapsing, and a big dust cloud where it went off.

It turned out the target of the bomb was not the train station but the hotel next to it.  The bomb destroyed the hotel.  I don’t remember how we got home that day but it wasn’t by train.  The train station was so badly damaged it had to be completely rebuilt.

In those days there was supposed to be an early warning system to protect civilians.  In our case it worked.  We were the lucky ones, many others weren’t so fortunate.

That’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me.  Bomb scares remind me how incredibly lucky I was.  They remind me that life is precious and short, and that we only get one go at it.  They remind me of my moral obligation to help contribute something positive to the place where I grew up to make it a better place to live.  I’ve always believed doing nothing is not an option.  If you live here you are part of the mess.  It is up to all of us to sort it out.

Jager b

It’s also why I find it distasteful that in the last week some bars are offering ‘bomb scare special’ promotions (see picture on right).  While perhaps not as bad as the more reprehensible ‘Irish car bomb’ shots that are sold in some bars in the U.S.,  I refuse to believe that this is the best Belfast can come up with.  We can do better than this.

I am thankful that I am yet to see another bomb go off in Belfast.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to all those who helped build the peace we now enjoy, as well as those who continue to do so.  The peace process may not be perfect but we owe it to them, and all those who were not so lucky, to keep it going.

Some reflections and tips for surviving a viva

The viva is the oral exam exam you do at the end of a PhD or MPhil.  What follows are some reflections on my own experience of doing a viva and a mixture of things that people told me that proved useful.  There is a list of tips at the end.  Thanks to all those who gave me advice and who have contributed (anonymously) to this piece.

I hope this post will be useful to others.  Let me know if it was.



Practice presentations 

It is difficult to recreate the conditions of a viva.  One useful thing to do in the months leading up to a viva is to take the opportunity to do some talks/presentations to groups – on your research topic.  In the lead up to mine I was able to present my research at a conference and also to present a seminar at another university to some staff and other research students.  In both cases I was asked questions afterwards by those in attendance.  This type of feedback is invaluable.  I found both of these experiences to be good preparation for my viva.

Re-read key texts and know your thesis

In the few months before submitting a thesis reading becomes less of a priority, as the pressure to finish writing and edit existing work takes over.  After submission you now have some breathing space before your viva.  Use it wisely.  Reread some key books and articles relating to your topic.

Another thing you can do for the first time is to print out your completed thesis and hold it in your hand.  Reread it from start to finish.

Preparing for the questions

It is vital to be familiar with the format of the viva and the type of questions examiners might ask.  There are three main areas that they will focus on:

  • The methods that were used to carry out your research
  • The theory used in the thesis
  • The ‘so what?’ questions: what is unique about the research?

I was very fortunate to have the benefit of some very experienced academics who took the time to help me to prepare by offering advice and asking questions.  Although it’s not much fun to be grilled and put on the spot, it’s great practice.  You might want to even ask if your supervisor will arrange a ‘mock viva’ for you.  If you have grown accustomed to being asked difficult questions then it will be much easier on the day.

Examiners will often begin a viva with a general question such as, ‘Tell me about your thesis?’  This is your chance to show off what you know but also be able to show that you can give a clear and concise summary of your work in a few minutes.

One thing I found useful was to write a short summary of my thesis and practice saying it out loud.  I did the same with a list of obvious questions.  I even asked a friend if I could rehearse my answers in front of him – which was a little awkward but good practice.

On the Day:


A good nights sleep the night before is vital.  It may seem obvious, but a viva is stressful enough without being tired as well.

Be early.  In the morning of my viva I went to the university first thing so I wasn’t worried about running late.

Remember, you are allowed to bring a copy of your thesis with you into the exam.

The viva experience

The examination room is laid out very simply.  In my case I was sitting across a desk from the two examiners.  Your supervisor (or 2nd supervisor) can also be in the room but can’t say anything during the exam (in my case he even sat behind me so I couldn’t see him).

There are two examiners – one from your own university and one from another university.  Both my internal and external examiners were very friendly and did their best to make me feel relaxed.

The questions are, generally speaking, all about seeing how much your know about your topic.  In my case, many were open ended.  ‘Tell me about ‘X, Y, and Z’.’  Some were comments on what I had written, ‘I think you’ve been a bit hard on ‘such and such’.’  Others were things like, ‘How do you know your data is reliable?’

It’s important to fight your corner and not crumble under pressure.  However, it’s equally important not to appear argumentative or arrogant.  While discussing one point my external examiner said to me: ‘I don’t agree with you but that’s okay, you don’t have to agree with me.’  I was fortunate to have a very gracious examiner.

A viva usually lasts up to two hours.  After the viva is over you go out of the room while the examiners make a decision.  This is the worst part – while you wait on the good or bad news.

It’s a strange feeling afterwards, someone described it to me by saying that even if you pass, you might feel like you’ve failed.

I’m glad to be able to say that when my examiners called me back in they shook my hand and told me that I’d passed with minor corrections.  Then they gave me a report with whatever changes they wanted made outlined and and talked me through what changes to make.

It took 2 full days to sink in that it was over.

With the benefit of hindsight, the anticipation was much worse than the event.  I’ve listed below my top pieces of advice for students preparing for a viva.  I hope they are useful.

Useful tips for surviving a Viva

  1. Think of the examiners as consultants that you have hired to make your thesis better.
  2. You can’t predict the questions but prepare like you can.  Learn a summary of your thesis and the answers to some obvious questions.
  3. Read your whole thesis again in the few days before the exam.
  4. The examiner wants you to pass.  Remember this.
  5. Take time to breathe before answering a question.
  6. Take a glass of water.
  7. You may, at some stage, go off-topic.  Don’t panic.  If this happens it’s fine to ask for a reminder of the question.
  8. You’re not on TV.  You can pause to think.  Don’t put extra pressure on yourself by trying to give the perfect performance.
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the question or to clarify what they mean.
  10. You can use phrases like, ‘That’s an interesting question,’ or, ‘There are a couple of things I’d like to say about that.’  This gives you more time to gather your thoughts.
  11. Try to look the examiner in the eye.
  12. Be confident but not aggressive.
  13. Be serious, but don’t forget to smile.
  14. It’s okay to admit weaknesses but never say ‘I might have got that wrong.’
  15. Always emphasise the positive aspects of your research.
  16. Try to enjoy the experience – you will grow from it.

‘Your pain is our pain. God bless you.’

A bunch of flowers in the Shankill memorial garden this week that said from ‘the good people of the Ardoyne’.


(tweeted by UTV’ s Judith Hill)

There was no ‘sorry’.  There are times for ‘sorry’ and there are times when, if the truth be told, ‘sorry’ doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.

Many of those who were victims or who lost loved ones don’t want to forgive and they don’t think they should have to either.  And who are the rest of us to judge them, they who are haunted by the ghosts of their loved ones daily?

The poet Phillip Whitfield wrote, ‘It is not the dead I pity.’  If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of the survivors you’ll know what he meant.

The flowers were a simple symbolic act of empathy.  True empathy says something like: ‘We know you are hurting. We offer no excuses or explanations.  Without words or preconditions we acknowledge your suffering and, in our own way, we also suffer because you are suffering.’

Empathy and compassion connect me to you, and you to me.  Without empathy and compassion we will be forever disconnected, and forever at war.  Without empathy and compassion there is no peace.  Empathy and compassion can reach out over the abyss of decades of political and social segregation, and connect people who have never met but who have suffered the same loss and felt the same pain.

Frederick Buechner wrote: ‘Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you.’

This was illustrated this week by a powerful moment on UTV live, hosted by Paul Clarke.  Sometimes journalists get a hard time for only reporting bad news and whipping up tension so, with that in mind, it is worth pointing out that some of them do a brilliant job.

Two of the men on the panel were Charlie Butler and Mark Rodgers.  Charlie Butler lost three members of his family in the Shankill bomb.  Mark Rodgers lost his Dad in a revenge shooting three days later at the Kennedy Way cleaning depot.

In the twenty years since, the two had never met but when Mark Rodgers crossed the studio to shake Charlie Butler’s hand, they embraced.

“God bless you,” Mark said.

“And yourself. Your pain is our pain. God bless you,” Charlie replied.

Cornel West wrote: ‘We must never let our own suffering blind ourselves to the suffering of others.’

When we feel the pain of others it is no longer possible to hate them or ignore them, because we are a part of their suffering and they are a part of ours.

Those of us who want to build a more peaceful future must, like Mark Rodgers, cross our own metaphorical studios, whatever they may be, and say, ‘God bless you.’  And along with Charlie Butler, we must be able to say, ‘Your pain in our pain.’  They have shown us how to do it.  The rest of us no longer have an excuse.

In a week when our political representatives were busy yelling whataboutery at each other on the usual television and radio shows, ordinary people were busy moving forward without them.

Thank you Mark Rodgers, Charlie Butler, and the good people of Ardoyne, for showing us the way.

‘Not really being very democratic’: Loyalists Against Democracy, part 3

LAD3This is the third in a series of posts that came about after I asked, several times, those behind the Loyalists Against Democracy site to meet up with me.  They refused.

I am not the only person to object to LAD.

In parts 1 and 2 I asked 12 influential people to offer their opinion on the Loyalist Against Democracy website.  These were a combination of community relations workers, community workers, writers, academics, a politician, and a church leader.  They were male and female, and catholic and protestant.  Together they have hundreds of years of experience of peace work.

They raised concerns about the mendacity behind LAD.

LAD laughed it off.

The first thing to say is that LAD should not make light of the views of those who have together spent hundreds of years helping to build the peace they now enjoy.  It is one thing to mock those you think contribute to the violence.  It is quite another to mock those who have contributed to peace.  It is arrogant in the extreme.

It is interesting that LAD featured uncritically on BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘The View’ this week, as their ‘tweet of the week’.  Perhaps next week ‘The View’ might want to use the one below?


Others in the media have started to question LAD.  These include journalist Brian Whelan, who in a tweet referred to LAD as ‘the Loyalists Against Democracy joke (that got a bit old)’.

On Friday at the Political Studies Association of Ireland conference ‘Alan in Belfast‘ said it was time for LAD  to ‘wise up and grow up’ (part 2 20:25).  Likewise, panelist and journalist Alex Kane (part 3 3:00), warned against the tone LAD takes.

LAD have every right to say the things they do.  What they don’t have the right to do is complain when the same mirror that they hold up to other people is then turned back on them.  Claim you want to expose sectarianism and bigotry?  Then don’t complain when people point out your own bigotry and prejudices.

LAD claim to have noble intentions.  They claim to be providing a public service in exposing sectarianism.  They do this through a process of the public online shaming of individuals that they decide need shaming.  Aside from that not really being very democratic, I wonder how many of these individuals have been convinced by LAD’s tactics and now hold a different worldview?  I would imagine there aren’t many.  With this in mind it’s probably worth asking if they have actually helped in any way to eradicate sectarianism?  Probably not.

It is one thing to speak truth to power.  It’s quite another to attempt to speak ‘truth’ – if that is what this is – from a position of anonymous, unaccountable power, as LAD do.

A number of people have contacted me telling me who they think LAD are and who they are connected to.  One of the concerns some people have about LAD is that they have cranked up sectarian tensions.  I have no intention attempting to ‘out’ them, but Loyalists should at least know that LAD are not part of some Republican agenda against them.  LAD are self-loathing Unionists.  Unionist self-hate is nothing new.  David Ervine said that Unionists invented the word Loyalists so they could separate themselves from those in their own tradition that they considered ‘scum’.  That tradition is alive and well today.

Another interesting feature about LAD is that they thrive on anonymity.   It’s easy to make fun of people when you do it behind a mask.  I have a problem with anonymity and unaccountability, whether it’s on the streets or on the internet.  I suppose LAD would probably be critical of those who pull on a mask and go out on to the street bullying people, the same should apply to those who pull on a mask and go on the internet bullying people.

I know LAD don’t think they are bullies – bullies never think they are bullies – but this is what a female friend – fed up with LAD – wrote to me: ‘Those LAD dicks are simply bullies that the middle classes can like. I do despair for this country sometimes.’  They also might want to consider why some of the contributors to my previous two blogs were so worried about LAD’s bully boy tactics turning on them that they did not want their names included.

One feature of democracy LAD claim to be exercising is the ability to engage in open public debate.  When we step out of line there are people around us to pull us back in (indeed, that is what LAD claims to do).  No one is above criticism.  No one, of course, except LAD.  Object to their discourse and you get told you are a ‘tit’, an ‘arsehole’, a ‘c**t’, or an ‘ass’.  When LAD is offered any sort of critique, it just reverts to exactly the kind of bully boy tactics that it claims to oppose.

Instead of striking out at the most powerful, LAD often strikes out at some of the most vulnerable.  Is having problems with literacy funny?  If you know someone who struggles with literacy and the stigma that is attached to it then you know that it is anything but funny.

The pleasure that LAD seems to take in mocking literacy levels is alarming.  LAD argue that if you are sectarian (again, by their definition of sectarianism, where it seems only working class unionists can be sectarian) then your lack of literacy is fair game for ridicule.  I would ask LAD that if people are sectarian and also have cancer is it also fair game to make fun of them for having cancer?  I wouldn’t think so.

I can think of something much more productive LAD could do instead of laughing at people who struggle to read and write.  LAD could pour their creative energy into setting up or helping out at homework clubs in Loyalist areas where there is educational underachievement, in order to tackle the poor literacy levels they like to highlight.  That way they could really start to address the problems facing Loyalist communities instead of laughing at them.  I can’t imagine they will, but I would be happy for them to prove me wrong.