CATCH YOURSELF ON: KEEPING UP WITH NI FROM ABROAD

We figure this election is gonna be grim, that not much will have changed since the last one held only nine months ago. So instead of waiting for the gatekeepers of the Northern Irish news cycle to tell us how to think and how to vote, we’ve reached out to you.

Starting today, we’re going to have people from all over Northern Ireland contributing personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

Whether you were born in Northern Ireland or live in Northern Ireland, whether you lived in Northern Ireland or just happen to care about the people that live there, we want to hear from you. 

We particularly encourage submissions from groups that are normally underrepresented in the media. We’ll give you a soapbox for your own mad views, and it might even be fun. Who are you? What’s your story? What way do you want to see Northern Ireland going in the future?

There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch! In fact, just get in touch anyway. And register to vote.


Nathan Stewart

I haven’t lived in Northern Ireland since 2008. I moved to Glasgow after school and now I live in Paris. Like much of the modern world, the internet is my main connection to home. The internet is all of my friends and family all at once. I stay up late with them until I finally close my laptop, moving from the big internet to the soft glow of the small internet that rests in my drool all night.

Except that the internet suddenly feels bad. The bad parts have leaked into the good parts. Bad news is interspersed between every animal GIF and it’s starting to feel like the internet is not my friend any more.

It’s not just that we’ve been hit with another election. Or that Brexit is really happening. Or even that Trump doing exactly as he said he would is somehow still a surprise. It’s the sheer volume of shit that spews out of our screens these days. Alternative facts about wood pellet boilers and local misogyny appropriating foreign civil rights slogans. The news feels like a water balloon attached to a garden tap, in danger of filling up too fast and splashing all over your trousers. Sad!

I work in environmental communication so having to deal with the existential terror of climate change day in day out makes it all seem even worse. There’s a weird tension between trying get your head around these cataclysmic global concerns and somehow still caring about what goes on at home.

I guess I could have just given up on Northern Ireland by now. It would be pretty easy to unfollow all the local Facebook pages, stop looking at #AE17 on Twitter and lose contact with my friends who live in Belfast (sorry Peter).

But this is unthinkable. It’s not as easy as just switching off.

I don’t feel I know enough to get involved in France, and am too far removed from NI to feel in any way useful back there.

It’s infuriating actually, being away but still feeling implicated in what’s happening. Trying to find your own voice in any debate when you’re made to feel you surrendered all legitimacy the day you demoted Queens to your insurance choice on UCAS. I have very little real understanding of politics here due to a total disinterest in local TV and an almost Trumpian attention span when it comes to the written word in French. So what has ended up happening is that I don’t feel I know enough to get involved in France, and am too far removed from NI to feel in any way useful back there.

In the meantime, Paris is fun. Audrey Hepburn may not actually have said that “Paris is always a good idea” but it was still a pretty good idea. You’re free to indulge in all manner of ungodly activities here. There’s always someone weird to meet at the next bar. It always seems like you’re in the middle of history being made.

It’s easy to feel lost in it all, though. On bad days, I long for the number 18 bus into town. To just go and sit at City Hall with some goths and pretend I’m fourteen again. When it gets too much, I always focus on how I’ll move back home ‘eventually.’ Even if every subsequent Big Life Choice I make kicks this further and further away from reality.

Surely moving away can only give you a more open mind a new perspective on things. But Northern Ireland remains peculiar, not necessarily in the negative sense but in the way that it stands apart. The way your new mates just don’t get it and your wicked cool experiences of far off lands and slimy parties mean nothing back home.

It’s the big boy example of trying to explain your summer holidays to your school friends. They either don’t understand or they don’t care. (And they certainly don’t believe that your new girlfriend who lives in England actually exists even though she writes you letters and fills up the inbox of your Nokia 3310 every evening.)

Joyce wrote of nationality, language and religion holding us back, but I’ve found that I’ve largely flown these nets. Instead it’s that crippling self-doubt and unwillingness to put myself out there that stops me.

Despite this whole mismatch, I somehow still feel like I have something to contribute. I know I manage to keep up to date rather well for an “expat” abroad. I know I can hold my own in a Twitter row about Belfast bike lanes or a sexist Newsletter column. It may have been hard keeping up with the RHI scandal, but I could still give you a soundbite about how it’s a shame that the momentum for a much-needed breakthrough in renewables has been lost due to ministerial incompetence.

But what use can this be from over here? There’s that very Northern Irish mentality of catch yourself on that seeps into every ambition and drains it of potential. Surely it’s a bit condescending to even suggest that I might have a worthwhile opinion on anything back home. Joyce wrote of nationality, language and religion holding us back, but I’ve found that I’ve largely flown these nets. Instead it’s that crippling self-doubt and unwillingness to put myself out there that stops me.

But what if, despite this negativity, you still feel connected to home and want to do something. You watch from afar as the government collapses and you imagine your family left dealing with the daily bigotry and ignorance you sought to fly from. You know it’s not really as bad as all that, not any more, but then you see another Petition of Concern single out your mates for special treatment, or you see a particularly vile Facebook status grossly misunderstand what religious compassion is supposed to look like.

Well what can we do?

We can organise. We can fundraise for the organisations we support. We can join in.

But we can also write. We can write what we think and tell people. I don’t even mean longform thinkpieces. I mean write in the way that we write every day in 2017. Type. Text. Argue on Facebook. Joke. Show solidarity with your pals at home and abroad. Reconnect, inspire, comfort, cajole, educate. Ask. Ask them how things are going. Ask if they need any help. When you’re homesick, write home. When you’re alienated, engage. Text that friend. They’ll appreciate it.

Don’t let the bastards bring you down. Register to vote. Then vote. Write to the people you care about. Show them you care.



Nathan Stewart
is from Belfast and is currently based in Paris.
Follow him on Twitter.

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Photo credit: Nathan Stewart

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