TED comes to town
Today, I had the privilege to be one of a surprisingly select few that attended TEDxStormont in Parliament Buildings. Given the range of speakers and wealth of talent on show I was surprised to hear that only around 100 tickets were actually released and more thankful then that I got in early and got a ticket.
The TED talks are designed around ‘ideas worth spreading’ and a more indepth description can be found at TED.com. The TEDx moniker indicated that it was independently organised by the TEDxStormont team but carried the ‘blessing’ of the TED organisation.
And, boy, were there some ideas worth spreading.
Breaking New Ground
Having lived through some of the darkest periods of ‘The Troubles’ I never would have imagined sitting at an event that was introduced by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness on an equal footing. But they opened it well – especially with Martin McGuiness’ anecdotes regarding the importance of learning to fish. While I have had no love for Sinn Fein (or DUP, for that matter) in the past I do know that one of Mr McGuiness’ first decisions whilst Education Minister was to grant permission for the establishment of the school that I now currently work in. Mr Robinson surprised a lot of people with the strength of his opening remarks regarding the ‘Educational Apartheid’ that exists in Northern Ireland – something I would like to come back to at a later date.
I wonder, sometimes, does Mr McGuinness ever think of the impact of decisions that he has made as this is one decision that changed my life forever and the lives of hundreds of children and their families. I never picked up the courage today to lean over and thank him (we were sitting in the second row directly behind him and Peter Robinson) and, in retrospect, regret this missed opportunity. I hope it comes again.
To see the Great Hall bathed in the red glow of the Ted logo was breath-taking to say the least and the staircase leading up to Lord Craigavon’s statue glowed in the red hue. It was a stunning back drop and very obviously managed to be as slick and as professional as the setting deserved.
TedxStormont marked the 15th Anniversary of the singing of The Good Friday Agreement – and was remarked on by Dame Jocelyn Bell Brunell with the quip ‘Celebrating any agreement in Northern Ireland is a good thing.’
Like any 15 year old teenager, ‘New’ Northern Ireland is in the ‘inbetween’ stage – growing up, finding its feet, working out what its principles are and what path it will take in the future. In the intervening time since the signing of The Agreement, Northern Ireland has gone through significant change and, despite the best efforts of some, continues on its journey to maturity on the global stage.
I think TEDxStormont was a fantastic coming of age event where we were able to see, first-hand, the current impact that Northern Ireland is having on the global stage through the pioneering work and creativity of some of its most gifted and talented people. As well as this, we were given the opportunity to hear the ideas of thinkers, artisans and innovators and how their ideas might help the new Northern Ireland find that identity. What also struck me about the day was that you felt that you were a participant as opposed to an observer – watching the talks being delivered. The positive energy in The Great Hall was tangible and I felt charged up as speaker after speaker asked us to #imagine. To take a risk and see what can be done. In a tweet that I sent out, I said that I felt that we were being asked to ‘face our past, accept our present and change our future’ and I feel this even more today as I put these thoughts down on the screen.
Political Correctness Gone Mad!
Getting the opportunity to listen to some of our politicians speak about issues that were not partisan rabble-rousing nonsense was another experience that I have to thank TEDxStormont for. Far too often, we are subjected to the usual Northern Ireland tribalism when we hear politicians speak on the airwaves but this was an opportunity to see where interests and motivations actually lay in being in the public eye. Whether it was Martin McGuinness’ reminiscence on the importance of fly-fishing in his life; Peter Robinson’s call to end the Apartheid of our Education System; Simon Hamilton looking at the expectation gap between government and people; Jo-Anne Dobson’s call to improve organ donation or Dolores Kelly speaking about child poverty it was refreshing to hear about things that made a difference to their lives and, in turn, impact on ours. If we had more of a chance to see this ‘coalition of positive thinking’ on a more regular basis I wonder of the public’s perception and respect for politician’s would change – I think it would.
Northern Ireland does punch above its weight on the global stage. Our historical contribution was referenced many times but it was enlightening to hear about the current contributions we are making. Dame Jocelyn Bell Brunell’s hard hitting talk on the lack of women in science was highly thought-provoking and made me think of my own Mother-in-Law who regularly laments missing out on the opportunity to study science in post-primary. If her family had reacted in the same way as Dame Jocelyn Bell Brunell’s who knows what path her life might have taken? But it was the reference, twice, by Dame Jocelyn to failing her Entrance / Selection / 11+ test at eleven that really stood out for me. Getting the chance to question her on this issue, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of detail in her thoughts on the current system and felt that it stood in stark contrast to the intensity with which she spoke about the lack of opportunities for women. Surely there had to be something to be said for those children who had never recovered from the ‘failure’ of the tests in the way that she had. However, this is not to take away from the intensity of her talk and the resonance that rang out from her words.
John D’Arcy showed us the great work that the Open University is doing but really came to life when speaking about ‘Oh Yeah Music Centre’ and the forthcoming film ‘Good Vibrations.’ What a joy to have the strains of Teenage Kicks ringing out through Stormont as the trailer for the film was played for us! And, in an unusual turn of events, in conversation with his wife a little later, her pride in what John was involved in and his motivation really shone through. This chance meeting was a small highlight for me.
And facing our past, accepting our present and changing our future was put into sharp focus for the hall as Kate Carroll spoke so openly and emotionally about the legacy that she is trying to establish in the name of her husband Constable Steve Carroll who was killed by the Continuity IRA in 2009.
The musical contributions really shone through and each session ended spectacularly with contributions from Gráinne Holland, Belfast Community Gospel Choir and Gary Lightbody & The Assembly. Each, in their own way, showcasing the standard of creative arts that Northern Ireland contributes to the world stage. Of course, for many (myself included) the opportunity to hear Gary Lightbody speak and perform was what hooked us in but in no way should this take away from the contribution that the young talent that he surrounded himself with gave to the performance. His enthusiasm for the TED concept was evident and admitting that he often sat late a night looking for inspiration from the talks meant that I didn’t feel so strange or nerdy for my own fascination with and enthusiasm for them! But it was also fascinating to watch someone who has performed in front of millions of people look so nervous as he spoke to us about his passion for the local music scene. He neglected the TED Spot and paced up and down along the stage waiting to get to the point where he could let his music do the talking for him.
Many of the speakers that came from outside Northern Ireland challenged us to imagine how we could change Northern Ireland and, in doing so, the world. Time and time again: Innovation; Imagination; Creativity; Challenge; Education were cited as the pathways for the future of a prosperous and forward-thinking Northern Ireland. These are themes that I agree with as well as my favourite one – Think Differently. If we don’t change our mindse
t and look for solutions to problems instead of just giving up at the slightest or greatest obstacle then the future for Northern Ireland is being cheated. The courage to Think Differently was cited as being the way to change the future and, as Gregg Fraley eloquently put it, we mustn’t think that imagination is easy, because it isn’t!
Donna Hick’s contribution on Dignity and how it is as important in the healing process as any physical wound left us in now doubt that we have to respect the dignity of others before any progress can be made. Leaders need to be willing to recognise this and be brutally brave to take the first step in the healing process – something that is so, so difficult. Anyone experiencing grief at the hands of others would testify to this.
I say ‘brutally brave’ because in Northern Ireland we are such a small community that our political leaders can change so easily based on the reactionary ground swell of supporters. Today, we look at our political leaders with a different eye and expectation. I just hope that their vision of a vibrant, healthy, innovative and forward-thinking Northern Ireland is given time and patience to come to fruition – not be derailed by the reactionary nature that has dominated our local political scene.
There are, of course, many other speakers that I haven’t mentioned here. That is not to take away from their contribution in any way. I highlighted the people above at the current time. I will come back to some of the recurrent themes of the other speakers at a future date – especially Tim McGarry and his rally cry for Integrated Education (so much so, that I just wanted to rush the stage and hug him – but he’s too tall! I did get a chance to shake his hand and thank him, though).
But one thing that shone through was that there is a positive vibe coming out off and going into Northern Ireland. If we can reinforce the message of the importance of Education – in its many facets – in developing the future then we can look forward with optimism. Maybe it was the chance to be in the actual hall during the day or the discovery of the mini Bush in the Goody Bag but I left with a new sense of purpose, drive and determination to ‘do my bit’ and if that was the idea that was worth spreading then, referring to my previous post, I’m happy to be a TED virus!