Andrew Cowan, CEO of diaspora network Northern Irish Connections (NIC), poses an interesting question and not one that many of us could answer in a hurry: Is there such a thing as being Northern Irish alone? Can you be Irish and Northern Irish or even British and Northern Irish?
“It’s about provoking some thoughts. I think we should be upfront and open about things, do you think there’s a difference?” he asks.
The international perception of Northern Ireland is confused in places, a point of controversy in others. It’s one that has perhaps been brushed to the side throughout the stabilization of the nation’s politics and the progress towards permanent peace.
“I’ve had some interesting meetings here [in New York],” says Andrew, “where people still think it’s all donkeys and carts and I suppose, for years, people have talked in that kind of respect and people want to feel like they’re giving back.
“There’s been a lot of change, especially in NI, and some phenomenal stuff happening, but you just have to dig under the epidermis. It’s bubbling away. People are just getting on with things, just doing it. It’s energizing to see that happen.”
This more progressive perception of NI is something that Northern Ireland Connections (NIC) strives for, offering friends of NI across the globe the opportunity to connect and collaborate for their and NI’s benefit.
The concept behind The Gathering in Ireland in 2013 (with which Andrew was heavily involved) was to bring as many as possible of the 70 million people worldwide identified as being part of the Irish diaspora into Ireland during the year.
How many of this 70 million, however, were in fact linked to Northern Ireland? Thanks to Andrew’s own research and the work of Dr. Johanne Devlin Trew, author of “The Lost Generation,” he has identified a worldwide first-generation NI diaspora of 10.5 million. This leaps to 20 million among the second-generation diaspora.
NIC is not a year of tourism akin to The Gathering, although it does also invite all people who have any kind of affinity with the country. Instead of the more short-term, year-long influx of visitors, NIC aims to connect the NI community in the long-term and, by 2020, aims to be the established diaspora network for 10% of this global community.
NIC wishes to offer these 150,000 friends of NI "the opportunity to connect with each other, exchange advice, pursue new opportunities and thrive."
“You don’t have to have a NI accent to take part. You might just love Rory [McIlroy]. It’s open to anybody with an affinity to NI through birth, education, business or just being connected in some way through sport or culture.”
The Northern Irish identity is a difficult concept and one that would appear to be individual to every single person, much in the same way that many citizens in the Republic identify with their nationality in different ways.
“It’s sort of like a lost tribe,” Andrew says, “a lot of people don’t know are you this side or are you that side and then, no matter who you are, when you leave, you don’t care. You’ll find everybody in an Irish bar, everybody at a rugby match, everybody at any type of sport.”
“Do we go to the British embassy here [in New York] and promote something,” he wonders, “or do we go to the Irish embassy?”
“It’s quite fraught with challenges in some aspects of it but that’s politics and I’m trying not to get into that. If I remain true to those with an affinity to NI, I’m pretty happy with that.”
Looking through some of the videos from the organization, it’s clear that this is a very people-centered project.
“The biggest asset to Ireland and to NI is the people,” Andrew states, “but they’re different in some of the things they do and how they are. They’re still equally as good but just in different ways.”
The importance of such a diaspora movement for NI and the importance of redefining the perception of the country is evident from Andrew’s anecdotes of success.
Did you know, for example, that a man in Belfast has invented a lightbulb that lasts forever? Another has developed a microbial liquid that is poured on oil slicks and organically cleans up the mess.
“We’ve never stopped inventing,” he enthuses, “and that’s happening all under the radar.”
In just one of the many success stories for NIC so far, Andrew introduced Mark Goldstone of Digital Life Science company to the Northern Ireland Science Park (of whom he was unaware) and Goldstone is now mentoring 10 start-ups there in his own time.
“There is a real appetite for this,” Andrew continues. “People aren’t saying they’re British or Irish they’re saying they’re Northern Irish. They’re just saying we’d like to do something of our own but they've never had a vehicle before.”
“Forget the flags and the logos, nobody has ever had any complaints about this,” he says, pointing to the intertwined image adorning NIC material. “It’s the shamrock and the flax flower, it’s brilliant.”
Adding to the list of success stories, we see NI’s only professional snooker players, Mark Allen and Joe Swail, wearing NIC’s logo in international competitions and using pool to teach colors and numeracy; Tom Kline, Director of Western International School Shanghai, placing a Mandarin teacher in NI and beginning an annual donation to Queen’s University, Belfast; former professional squash player, Angela Smith, establishing boot camps to find NI’s newest young soccer talent and establish greater connections between youth soccer there and the English leagues; and collaboration with world-award-winning cookery writer and TV presenter, James McIntosh, to bring the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards to Taste of Belfast in 2017.
Kingsley Aiken, former CEO and President of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, currently ranks NIC 50th out of all the diaspora initiatives that happen around the world.
“Basically, because we’re quite broad, he says it’s quite interesting the way you’re tackling this,” Andrew says. “It’s quite different to every other initiative. I’ve been operating this a bit like a concierge model so, because it is so broad, people go “what’s your ask” and I don’t actually have an ask.”
“Tell me your story, where are you from … it’s not like I’m going to ram my hand in your wallet and take your money. This is a proper, genuine two-way street.”
When Andrew came into this role 11 months ago NIC had 2,000 members. It is now up to 8,000 – a 300% growth.
“There’s a real appetite for it,” he believes, “and it’s not that people are saying, ‘oh we’re not Irish,’ it’s going ‘we’re actually proud of home,’ which is an island except it’s just a little bit different.
“When people [in Dublin] go ‘you’re from Newry, what’s it like up there?’ – it’s an hour’s drive up the road. You’d think you were talking about Timbuktu,” he continues.
“It’s to show people at home that it’s actually about real human people, real human beings that are scattered around the world.”
If you wish to learn more about Northern Irish Connections and connect with the diaspora network, you can visit their website here.
Do you have links to Northern Ireland? How would you define you own nationality and your own cultural identity? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.