In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Quintin Oliver, who’s an activist, a campaigner, a lobbyist, and a public policy specialist.


I was brought up in east Belfast in what was termed a Protestant house in a Protestant area. And I went to a Protestant school and my father, apparently, had a Protestant job in the civil service. I never knowingly met a Catholic until I was 18, and I escaped from Northern Ireland as soon as I could, on a boat the afternoon that I finished my last exam at school.

I escaped all the way to Scotland, where I went to university. I was very happy in Scotland. I was living in Glasgow. I was working on poverty projects across the west of Scotland. It was the time of Glasgow’s renaissance as the City of Culture and I could have stayed. But I suppose a form of Protestant guilt took me home when my partner actually spotted a great job in the voluntary sector. I thought I could contribute something as someone who had nonsectarianism in their blood and who wanted to contribute to peace building at that awful time of our conflict.

My family came to Northern Ireland as Planters four centuries ago, in the 1600s. And my grandfather was the first who came off the farm in Magilligan, down to Belfast. So, to me, it’s my birthplace. It’s important to me because of that blood relationship. However, other places are also important to me, and I don’t necessarily believe you should always return to the place you came from.

A lot of it is about familiarity. I’m familiar with Scotland because I studied there, I lived there, and I go there often. My partner’s from Scotland. So, does she have to go home to her roots? Our children are Northern Irish, Scottish, Irish, British. Must they come home like salmon to the river that’s spawned them? Probably not.

Of course, you take your Northern Ireland background with you as you go round the world, not to be particularly proud of, but to explain what’s happened to our little place, to explain the conflict. And obviously there’s a more immediate understanding in other fragile political environments.

Change is a fantastic dynamic in which we’re all involved. We can make change, we can contribute to change. I hope that Northern Ireland will be settled. I hope that it will not deepen the conflict as others that I’ve had the privilege of observing around the world, like Sudan and South Sudan. Rather more like the absorption of east Germany into Germany with all its difficulties; that might be a possibility in terms of the unity of the island. Or there are other possibilities in terms of different models of governance.

Globalisation should make us think about whether the nation state has had its time and how we could organise ourselves in different ways.

What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.

If you would like to suggest someone for a future episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, please email us at editor@sharedfuture.news

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Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

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