Home of Hope. Marking 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

This week in Belfast, over 200 international delegates from around the globe will come to Belfast for ‘Peace and Beyond’. This is an international conference focused on peace-building to mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreement led by the British Council in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast & Ulster University in association with CDPB. This international focus reflects the ripple of the Agreement and encourages us to realise that we can be global leaders in how to build the bridge between peace and reconciliation.

It will also be the week in which the world will reflect on the leaders whose vision and courage brought about the Agreement. My alma mater will host President Clinton, Senator George Mitchell, Jonathan Powell, Bertie Ahern, Lord Trimble, Monica McWilliams, Gerry Adams, Lord Alderdice, Seamus Mallon and many others. This generation understood the importance of compromise and the courage required in relationship building.

Our great hope must be that our current generation of politicians can summon the same vison and courage.

For me, this week will also be about our unsung heroes: the every-day peace builders.

There are many within our society who have been building bridges for their entire lives: often at great cost to themselves and their families.

I think of the extraordinary role of religious minsters; our journalists; our business people; our educators; our trade unionists; our community workers; our student movement; our women’s organisations; our youth organisations; our LGBTQ+ organisations; our ethnic minority organisations; campaigners for those with disabilities; our musicians, artists & entertainers; our community & voluntary sector; our entrepreneurs; our police service & emergency service providers; our healthcare professionals; our public servants, our politicians, our civic leaders and all those who have lived out the values of the Agreement.

I think of our victims – that we will find a way to bind up the wounds of the nation to build a peaceful future as a legacy to all who died.

I think of the incredible generation growing up in our home: the social entrepreneurs, young professionals, digital experts and ambitious business people. They are building our prosperity process – they understand their responsibility to give opportunity to all.

I think of our selfless philanthropists who have dedicated their passion, energy, time and money to build peace. I’m fortunate to be involved with The Ireland Funds who epitomise this dedication. 40 years: 3000 organisations committed to peace, reconciliation, sports, the arts and education supported by this innovative and dynamic organisation. Understanding that philanthropy equals progress.

It’s why this Thursday, as part of ‘Peace and Beyond’, every day peace builders will be celebrated across 7 venues with 30 organisations and 60 speakers . We will showcase just a snapshot of the thousands of inspiring, innovative and incredible people and organisations who day-in-day-out dedicate themselves to building peace and finding solutions to the complex issues we face.

These people and the thousands like them, represent my great hope for the place I am proud to call home. They represent the vision, courage, resilience and leadership that will continue our journey towards reconciliation.

In 2021, just 3 years from now, this island will begin a ‘second century’. For the Republic of Ireland: it will mark the second century of independence. For Northern Ireland: it will mark the second century of partition / the creation of the state of Northern Ireland.

I ask this question: by the end of the second century, what will we have achieved?

For me, the answer lies in the Agreement. New beginning; Fresh Start; Tolerance; Mutual Trust; Human Rights for All; Partnership; Equality; Mutual Respect; Exclusively Democratic & Peaceful Means; Good Faith; Reconciliation.

Let us take these ideals and realise them in a meaningful and inclusive way.

I believe the best way to answer this question is to ask the next generation. My two-year-old nephew Ollie will probably live to see the 22nd Century.

Therefore, we must have the courage, not to be bound by our own fixation of what the future might be. Rather to dare to ask: what kind of society do we want for our children.

We as a people have a unique opportunity in human history: to build upon our hard-earned peace, to reconcile and to re-imagine the potential of our relationships to build a home of hope.


Conor Houston to address the One Young World in Bogota

Conor Houston, Consultant with the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building will address the One Young World global youth summit taking place from 3 to 7 October in Bogota, Colombia.

The One Young World 2017 will bring together over 2000 young leaders from 190 countries around the world as well as international figures including Kofi Annan, Sir Bob Geldof and President Santos of Colombia.

Conor will speak as part of the ‘Peace & Reconciliation’ session and also deliver a workshop with Belfast entrepreneur Peter Edgar on ‘How to drive change: a lesson from Northern Ireland’.

The two young leaders will be appointed ‘One Young World Ambassadors’ at the event and are being supported by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building and the British Council.

Peter Edgar said: “We are excited about the opportunity to tell the story of growing up in post-conflict Northern Ireland and will explore our work in setting up the Young Influencer network and other groups in connecting young people who are committed to Northern Ireland realising its potential through social and economic innovation.”

Conor will also launch his ‘Connected Citizens’ initiative at One Young World which seeks to connect world’s most passionate, dynamic and innovative citizens to inspire them to build a more peaceful, compassionate and resilient world.

Speaking ahead of the summit Conor said “our message is one of hope – to share the experience of Northern Ireland which is emerging from conflict towards peace. The challenge now is to ensure that everyone has the ability to benefit from the opportunities of peace.” He continued: “my generation has the responsibility to be the bridge-builders between peace and prosperity. I am proud to represent Northern Ireland on the global stage, proving we are able to lead and inspire the world.”


Opinion: A ‘Brexit Convention’ for Northern Ireland

We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.”
Preamble to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement 1998

There is one certainty that is clear in the opening weeks of 2017: we are in uncertain times. Much of the current commentary and discourse is about the RHI scandal, who was responsible, who was to blame. There are serious issues and questions unresolved and in whatever talks process that will emerge, a lot of focus will be on getting answers.

Politicians are elected to represent their community and fulfil their electoral mandate. This must be respected and it will be for the politicians to negotiate and decide how best to create the next talks process.

As Einstein observed “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results”. Therefore, a central focus of these talks must include relationship building. This requires providing space to politicians and support to find new ways of communicating and relating to each other. Without this, the Assembly and Executive will fail to function and lack of trust will make negotiations and delivering for citizens practically impossible.

It is also a time for our society, and each of us individually, not to react but to proactively think about how we all work together to solve the challenges that affect us all.

In a matter of weeks, the UK Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the Brexit negotiations will begin. The timetable of an NI Assembly election/ talks process will have no bearing on this.

A serious problem arises: Northern Ireland has no Brexit plan. Not only do we not have a plan, it is likely that we may not have a government to advocate on our behalf. The political talks between the NI parties will be about saving the institutions, not about how to establish the best outcome for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. The implications of Brexit are some of the most important policy and constitutional issues Northern Ireland has to face.

We need a space for informed thinking, debate and solutions to ensure the best outcome for all the people of Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

So what can be practically done against the backdrop of the current political crisis?

I propose that a “Brexit Convention” is immediately established. This Convention would be a ‘collective’ of key influencers from across business, civic, community, voluntary, trade union, student, agriculture, media and many others. This group should be as widely representative of society in NI as possible and include new voices, emerging leaders and the most marginalised in our community.

The Convention would represent a genuine collaborative relationship between the public, private and community sectors and provide expertise and assistance during this time of crisis.

It would be tasked to “establish recommendations to achieve the best outcome for NI in the upcoming Brexit negotiations”. It could have support of British & Irish Governments and report to the NI political parties.

Part of this process could involve hosting “Town Hall” style meetings which allow the public to engage with ideas and be part of the process. This will lead to creative thinking, innovative perspectives, expertise, transparency and accountability.

image1 (2)This format could provide a model that might be used to assist with the political negotiations and to examine other issues in the future, for example around mental health or an ambitious economic plan, etc.

In the longer term, consideration should be given to establishing a think tank with local, national and international expertise to develop innovative policy and strategic thinking. Northern Ireland needs to connect to a much bigger global reality.

It is a time for us to collectively step up to the challenges we face. This proposal won’t resolve everything, but if we utilise the best of our abilities, our creative spirit, call upon our resilience and summon our courage, we can start to find solutions in a meaningful way. This will inspire us to continue on our journey to grow a united community and build a prosperous, peaceful future for all.”

Conor Houston, Programme Director, CDPB


My name is Luca; My religion is compassion

In a week that has seen the massacre in Orlando and the brutal murder of a Member of Parliament in the UK, it demonstrates the capacity for hate that exists within human beings.

There have been vigils, rallies and public demonstrations of solidarity across political, cultural and national divides which prove the power of human spirit to unite and triumph in the face of adversity.

We do not know the exact circumstances and the complex chain of events which lead two disturbed individuals to inflict such horror. Many theories and propositions are put forward to try and explain such barbaric acts.

What we can say is that deep-seeded hatred was involved – hatred for what someone is or what they stand for and represent.

Our society has encouraged a toxic and damaging discourse. On any event or issue we seem determined to have ‘them’ versus the ‘other’ in an intractable and seemingly unresolvable dispute.

We individually can accept that life is complex and yet our society continues to function on the basis that there are only two sides to every argument.

And whilst it makes good TV, good debate, surely we are now at a point in our human evolution to accept that there are a multitude of opinions, views and perspectives on issues.

We need greater perspective. In biology the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) is the most recent organism from which all organisms now living on earth have a common descent – in other words all life on earth shares biochemistry.

LUCA creates a perspective with which to consider our common humanity and our inextricable link with one another and our world.

It also demonstrates the diversity and complexity that makes life so challengingly beautiful.

I propose that we need to do two things. Firstly, there is a time to be still. To say nothing. To quietly reflect. To stand in solidarity. This creates the space for perspective.

We also need to underpin our entire discourse, our interaction with each other with compassion.

Compassion is about a concern for others, an understanding, a kindness, a tolerance – a warm-heartedness.

I watched the outpouring of solidarity and grief around both of these tragic events. Human solidarity. But I have also watched many react with anger and hatred. A need to target and blame someone.

Last year I wrote a blog entitled “Defending Equality; Promoting Compassion” in which I talked about growing up as gay man in Northern Ireland. I urged all sides in the debate around civil marriage equality to underpin all their arguments and their beliefs with compassion. (At

This week, I witnessed a lack of compassion by some who appeared unwilling or unable to accept that the Orlando massacre was an attack on the LGBT community.

Sadly I also saw a lack of compassion from some within the LGBT community. I fully understand and respect the anger of many within the LGBT community as to how they have been historically treated and the struggle which continues around realising equality.

But I am quite certain that anger, vitriolic language and hatred will not result in a society underpinned by equality, respect and love.

Whether it’s marriage equality, gun control, immigration, abortion or austerity – we must ensure that we conduct our discourse, debates and discussions grounded in compassion.

This begins with each of us taking responsibility in our conversation, our interactions with each other and our social media use. If we underpin our opinions with compassion, it will lead to a more tolerant, kind society.

We are human and therefore anger, hatred are natural responses, especially when we see ignorance or are met with intolerance and hatred.

But hatred does not counteract hatred. Compassion allows us to move the narrative to one of respect and understanding towards love.

We must be compassionate with ourselves before we can be compassionate towards others – let us be gentle on ourselves and accept our frailty as human beings.

We must then be gentle towards others, even those who hold diametrically opposed views to us. We have to accept that this is a natural consequence of the complexity of our human race! If we accept this premise, then each of us can begin to challenge ourselves – how can I be more compassionate in what I say and how I relate to others?

I believe in the power of the human spirit and that our common humanity is greater than anything which can divide us.

Astronaut Tim Peake said yesterday as his space capsule landed safely in Kazakhstan “it’s good to be back on earth”. In the infinite universe it remains our only home.

Let us begin an age of compassion.

Compassion is the key to unlocking the power of love which is the greatest gift each of us can give as a human being.


photo (6)

Speech at Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 20th Anniversary of the visit of President Bill Clinton to Belfast

Speech at Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 20th Anniversary of the visit of President Bill Clinton to Belfast


Great Hall, QUB

President Clinton is someone who continues to greatly inspire me  – from his Presidency through to his work at the Clinton Foundation.

Like myself, he was a recovering lawyer and then dedicated himself to inspiring change around the world.  He embodies any definition of leadership and service to humanity.  He took up the President John F Kennedy mantra of asking us all to do what we can for the betterment of our world. 

I continue to work on realising my potential and purpose through my work as a peace builder at the Centre for Democracy & Peace Building and in my social entrepreneurial work with Young Influencers.

Young Influencers created a vision 2030 – “that by 2030 NI will be one of the greatest places in the world to live, work, create and visit.”

20 years from now will be 2035.  I will be almost the age that President Clinton was when he first came to Northern Ireland. 

So tonight, I thought it would be more appropriate to consider what someone who is 20 might say of the Northern Ireland we have created by then.

Well as chance would have it, I do know someone who will be 20 in 2035, my 3-month-old nephew Ollie.

I imagined the letter that Ollie might write to President Clinton on the cusp of his 90th birthday to thank him for the 2035 Northern Ireland in which he now lives.

So here it is, Ollie’s letter to President Clinton dated 30th November 2035:

“Dear President Clinton

I hope this letter finds you and Mrs President Clinton well.

It is hard to believe that 40 years have passed since your historic first visit to Northern Ireland – the first of any U.S. President to my home.

My great-grandfather Bernard, who I am told was a proud Derry man, used to say: “20 years is a long time looking forward, but nothing looking back.”  Being 20 I know what he means! And I’m sure Mr President you truly understand it!

I wasn’t born the first time you came to Belfast in November 1995 to light the Christmas tree for peace.  My uncle Conor has told me that he remembers that night vividly.  At that time he was growing up in Surrey, England.  And that it was that very night as they watched images from Belfast on TV that my granny & grandad told him, my uncle Stephen and my mum that they were moving back home to live in Northern Ireland.

They came home to a place where “peace came dropping slow”.  But it is a place they love and the place they still call home. 

Belfast today in 2035 is an incredible place.

The old ways of ‘labelling’ and seeing difference as a threat are definitely a relic of the past.  We proudly celebrate the British, Irish and Northern Irish of our entwined identities and the many other cultures and identities that make up our 2035 Northern Ireland.

This pride means Northern Ireland is now a driving force on these islands.  Our politicians, business and civic leaders set the agenda on both the UK and Irish stage.  The Prime Minister of the UK is of course a proud Derry man and the new Taoiseach is from just outside Ballymena.  We understand our role as global citizens.

Stormont re-opened as the ‘Rory McIlroy Golf Club’ and our politicians now sit in the stunning ‘People’s Assembly’ designed by young designers from across Northern Ireland in the dynamic Titanic Quarter.

As you know, all our political parties came together during the ‘decade of centenaries’ to create a ‘Vision 2030’ to build a legacy rooted firmly in our young people and the future.  And working together they have achieved that vision.

At the heart of the Vision 2030 were the 3 C’s: compassion, co-operation and collaboration. 

The principle of compassion ensures that we are compassionate in our approach to each other and we used it to reframe all our conversation, discourse and debate.  We are now a citizen lead society and this has assisted in making us one of the ‘equality centres of excellence’ in the world.

It has made us a people at peace with ourselves.  We have learned to be a lot more gentle on ourselves and each other. 

The principle of collaboration resulted in our reputation amongst economists as the ‘Hong Kong of Europe’ for our ability to act as a hub for international inward investment into the UK, ROI and European markets.  We are also the launch pad for start-ups, innovators, entrepreneurs and creators. 

Our schools, colleges and universities work in tandem with business, commerce and emerging technologies to ensure we maintain the most highly skilled, educated and knowledge based work force in Europe. This of course is lead by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University – leading the world in research, innovation and ideas. 

I have benefited from a world class education – which focused on developing the potential of each child and their creative,technological, artistic, innovative and intellectual abilities.  As a result I have secured an apprenticeship with Elon Musk’s SpaceX project which is opening its ‘Mars Coordination Centre’  in Northern Ireland next year, to manage the one million people who are now living there, as he promised back in 2015.

We’ve utilised our proud NI diaspora around the world who are our brilliant  Ambassadors in every continent on earth. 

And that’s where the third principle of co-operation has really come to help. We have used our economic prosperity to develop world-class infrastructure.  Apparently it used to take two and half hours to travel from Belfast to Dublin, now it takes an hour.  It’s also hard to believe that just 20 years ago the motorway from Belfast to Letterkenny via Derry didn’t exist!

As you know, the island of Ireland now generates all of its electricity through renewable energy harnessing the wind and tide from the Atlantic. 

Our relationship with the U.S. is one of the great examples of co-operation – economically, socially and culturally.  We also had a great Fourth of July Party this year to celebrate 240 years of the U.S. Consulate in Belfast.  My uncle Conor assures me that the parties there were always legendary and that the Consul-General’s for Northern Ireland were always the elite of the U.S. State Department!

Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention our continued sporting prowess – Ireland winning the 2023 Rugby World Cup on home soil was one of the best days of my childhood, The U.S. haven’t won the Ryder Cup in my lifetime mostly thanks to Rory and the entire ‘Team Europe’ who come from NI!  And is there a boxer in the world rankings who isn’t from here?!  They epitomise how we proudly punch above our weight.

So our Vision 2030, our principles of compassion, collaboration and co-operation make this a great, welcoming place to live, work, create & visit and one of the most dynamic and innovative countries in our 21st Century world.

On that cold night in Belfast 40 years ago you helped our people believe in themselves. Believe that they had a better future.  Thank you for giving us the gift of hope.  Our home is your home.  Thank you  for all you have done for us, Mr President, and for helping to make the place I call home, well, home.

Yours truly


Ps – good luck to Chelsea in the 2036 Presidential election!