Coasting All the Way to TEDxStormont

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(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)

The world famous TEDx Talk movement is coming to Northern Ireland. This is a massive deal. The TED movement represents the edge of the envelope: a forum that discusses the most innovative and exciting ideas in existence. Something you’d associate with Silicon Valley or the liberal east coast of America. Not with Northern Ireland.

So for TEDx to be coming to Stormont on March 28th 2013 is a wondrous development. It should be celebrated and rightly regarded as a landmark moment in our journey towards a higher order of things.



But hold on: isn’t Northern Ireland about to slip into a new age of violence?

And this is my concern: in Northern Ireland we currently have two real and powerful tensions. On one side we have a section of society, both catholic and protestant who’re committed to reinstating the old order and the old world of violence.

While on the other side of society we have a demographic which wants to drag Northern Ireland into the future and into the new world of the digital, networked and thoroughly global economy.

This second class is Northern Ireland’s moneyed, cappuccino drinking people. They have privilege on their side. They are also a people who are ambitious, committed to self-improvement and who have largely elevated themselves above the mindlessly partisan politics.

However it would be wrong to say that this jet setting, cappuccino drinking cadre in Northern Ireland is an entirely new phenomenon. It’s not. John Hewitt spoke and lamented upon the well to do class in his famous poem written in 1969, ‘The Coasters’.

“You coasted along

to larger houses, gadgets, more machines

to golf and weekend bungalows,

caravans when the children were small,

the mediteranean, later, with the wife”

So whilst Northern Ireland was always divided between the rich and not so rich, I feel it right to say that Northern Ireland, like much of the world, now seems more divided socially than ever.

Knowing this, there’s something not just right about the TED development. The coming of TEDx to Stormont, whilst tensions simmer on the streets and in reactionary enclaves, demands a serious critique.



It’s worthy to again return to the work of John Hewitt and to his poem, ‘The Coasters.’ In this piece not only did John Hewitt manage to capture in verse the lifestyle of the moderate, middle class types but he also managed to catch their character and constitution.

That these people were in the main part, self-interesting and preoccupied with their own wants and needs. Certainly they were not interested in the doings of those whom they saw as the lowly herd.

These words, though written decades ago have a lasting legacy and a resonance with the reality of today.

The final paragraph from ‘The Coasters’ also speaks viscerally to us today:

“The cloud of infection hangs over the city,

a quick change of wind and it

might spill over the leafy suburbs.

You coasted too long.”

The reality of today is that middle class unionism and nationalism has coasted for too long. The fact that TEDxStormont is coming while loyalists turn in on themselves and dissidents plot to blow up key locations is a testament to this.

More worryingly still: the infection of which John Hewitt spoke has already spilt over the leafy suburbs of today. Look at the cost to local businesses of the recent union flag unrest. The on-going disturbances and threat of violence has pushed business out of Northern Ireland and scared away foreign direct investment.

Creed-crazed zealots and the ignorant crowd have again made Northern Ireland a byword for hate and violence.

But their violence is not the heritage of the moneyed, middle classes.

So as John Hewitt rightly asked in, ‘An Ulsterman’: “shall I not remonstrate?”

And that’s the problem. Northern Ireland’s moderates, like their peers in government are largely content with disassociating themselves with the working classes.  They’re happy to coast. They’re happy to let their religious peers who share the same constitutional aspiration to fester in poverty and sink estates.



That is why I see the coming as TED to Northern Ireland so questionable. The flags raised the issue of reintegrating the working classes into the political process and mainstream society. However are we now simply reverting to the old order?

The funny thing is that moderates want to move Northern Ireland into the new global economy; however their predisposition towards ‘coasting’ and disassociation from the radicals is in fact precluding them from doing so.

So instead of holding a self-gratifying east coast America-style event in Stormont that merely reinforces the social division, shouldn’t Northern Ireland’s moderates be positively remonstrating?

Should they not go out and actively mix with their lower brethren to say that their violence is not their legacy or their tradition?

(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)

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About Author

Brian is a blogger, political cartoonist and digital media strategist commenting on politics, the economy and developments that affect the legal profession. Brian also has a passion for youth unemployment and regularly provides career guidance and writes on the deficiencies of second and third level education. Brian writes for the Huffington Post (, has his own blog ( and blogs for the Guardian (


  1. It’s incorrect to say that TEDx “is coming to Northern Ireland”. The fact is that TEDx Belfast has run very successfully on 2 occasions over the past two years in two locations in Belfast and drew speakers and attendees from a wide variety of backgrounds. They were wonderful, eclectic events celebrating simply “ideas worth sharing”. The TEDx Stormont to which you refer is an entirely separate event organized by a group in some way associated with the Assembly, as I understand it.
    Anyone who heard Colin Williams of Sixteen South speak at the last TEDx Belfast event on the subject of “Fear” and talking about growing up in north Belfast during the Troubles wouldn’t, I think, accuse TEDx Belfast of being “coasters”. But I can make no comment on TEDx Stormont. The next scheduled TEDx event will be in early October. Keep an eye on for details.

  2. Hey Gary, for economy of words I didn’t want to go into detail about past TEDx events but I was fully aware of them. I used the phrase “coming to Northern Ireland” because of the extent of the fanfare and aplomb that has accompanied the coming event. The other TEDx events came and went without a huge degree of fuss whereas the March 28 talk – headed by Gary Lightbody – has come with a huge PR bandwagon – its own website etc. And falling against the current backdrop is a little unsettling. I meant the analysis as more of a compare and contrast with particular emphasis on the current context of union flag unrest and diss republican activity.

  3. Afterthought: TEDx is symptomatic of how far we’ve come and how ambitious and outward looking our people are. While the riots etc are symptomatic of how far we’ve yet to go. Yet so long as these two spheres are binary and disassociated, the gap will only grow.

  4. Brian, I found this a fair and thoughtful analysis on the
    gulf in consciousness between working and middle class unionists today. As you
    note, TEDx does represent a renewed ambition and openness to new ideas,
    something everyone welcomes. While I don’t share your unease with Belfast
    hosting TEDx at this time – are we to exclude all such events until our house
    is in order? – it did spark a few thoughts. How about some TEDx at the local
    level? Perhaps some new thinking and, most importantly, new listening.

    Disagree with their approach or question some of the basic
    assumptions about losing British identity, few can disagree working class
    loyalism feels left out in the cold today. John Howcroft details this political
    vacuum in a piece
    on this very site. Like working class nationalist areas, many, I suspect, also still
    suffer from undiagnosed and untreated trauma as a result of the Troubles. (One
    cause, in my opinion, for the high rate of alcohol and drug abuse and suicide
    that plagues many working class areas.) As
    Brian Rowan quoted John Alderdice in an interview: “Victims tend not to
    get the attention that they deserve. Not enough money is given for their

    Why not a non-partisan forum, to allow these folks a chance
    to talk and express their ideas? A few years ago, a friend began a “Who we are”
    feature every month in his paper, a large Midwestern daily. It gave all
    sections of his city a chance to just talk and explain what matted most to them
    and was a revelation for many. No analysis, just good in-depth reporting allowing
    sections of the community a chance to talk about their sense of identity and
    aspirations. Perhaps the media in NI could do the same. William Crawley’s “Northern
    Ireland: Who are we now?” is one example of this. A similar type of program
    on a micro level – “Who are we: East Belfast, Who are we: North Belfast” –
    could potentially go a long way to allowing those who feel politically abandoned
    a chance to speak and perhaps be understood, the first step in any meaningful
    dialogue. It could also be a small step to a reconciliation process, a topic
    covered in a recent piece by Brian Rowan, “Truth
    and Apology – Two different things not to be confused.”

    Isolation, with views shared with those of a similar mindset
    in a bar or at a protest, festers only more distrust. If only I had a sixpence for
    every time I’ve read “no one represents us” in the last few months. Ask someone
    to articulate their anger and almost invariably they calm down. Given some
    time, the anger subsides and a moderate view surfaces. In that atmosphere, rapprochement
    is possible. Sitting across the table with others is possible.

    In defense of the “coasters” they are acting like human beings, in
    their own self-interest. While the best among us serve a greater good, the fact
    is most societies are made up of coasters or wanna-be coasters. I suspect folks
    on the Newtownards Road want something better for their children, as we all do.
    Any society that does not serve the self-interest of the majority of its citizens
    is dysfunctional and ripe for collapse. The trick is to make most people feel
    like they belong, that they have a vested interest in their society. This is
    not happening right now.

    Belfast is a long way from 1971 but a return to an “acceptable level of
    violence” is possible unless some ugly, underlying issues are addressed. Step
    one, in my opinion, is listening to and understanding your neighbor’s point of
    view and their hurt. An independent forum, free of any political underpinnings,
    with a chairperson who is not of these islands, might be a start.

  5. I’ll agree with Gary here. There was a very successful, very enjoyable TED event on in December in the Skainos building – TEDxBelfastWomen (

    I also have a bit of a problem with lumping together everyone who wants to “drag Northern Ireland into the future” into one homogenous middle class group. There are a lot of activists out there (myself included) who do not belong to this “moneyed, cappuccino drinking” group. It’s great that those of the middle class are trying to move forward in NI, but lets not forget the wide variety of people who are involved in this kind of work in NI. Perhaps I am sensitive to any continued attempt to divide NI as a them vs. us community – even if it is on class rather than sectarian lines – but I think this is a point worth highlighting.

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