Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!

 Matt Gillespie

I feel it every time, the pull, when the hard left turn at Bangor announces it’s time to gaze out the window. It doesn’t matter which side, and on the gloomiest day it doesn’t disappoint. The Knocka keeping watch, Craigantlet rolling down to the shoreline mansions of Cultra, the Stena Line powering along the lough; even the plumes from Killroot manage to look inviting in the right light, coming into land at Belfast City Airport.

My entire family live in and around the city, and I’ve done the M2 pilgrimage to Glengormley to see my grandparents so often I barely have to think about the route. Belfast is where I grew up, went to university, met my wife, where my best friends live; still I live in a tension of deep attachment and detachment that vacillates wildly when I return and when I leave.

Living outside the province for almost a decade, and working in national UK and international jobs, I’ve often found myself lured into the trap of both being fiercely proud and witheringly belittling of Northern Ireland in the same breath. The early twenties mindset of escape mixed with a healthy, or unhealthy, dose of our signature desire to not get attitudes above your station has coloured many of my reflections and feelings on being from, and caring about, Northern Ireland. I forget, almost immediately upon boarding the plane to London, how stunning the drive to Downpatrick from Castlereagh is on a cold and bright winter day, or the brilliant and unprovoked conversations with strangers while crammed into the Duke of York; my mind fills with reasons why I’m right not to live in Belfast anymore, regardless of my love, and pushes everything else out.  The next day, I’ll go down to Philomena’s in Covent Garden and scream GAWA until my voice is hoarse and Guinness is flying through the air. No contradictions here, lads.

Tensions rear again when I consider the political realities, or what I perceive them to be, in Northern Ireland. How often I pontificate that we really should be voting solely on policy positions, and that identity politics is irrationality dressed in sash and tweed. When I get to three pints, there’s an excellent diatribe on offer on the plight of being a centre-leftie but not supporting the SDLP due to their united Ireland stance. I might be right, sometimes, but more often I feel a fraud: why should anyone care who I’d vote for when I haven’t voted in Northern Ireland since 2007?

When the RHI scandal broke, I couldn’t quite believe the levels of nuance and nausea it contained. It has everything a nerdy political observer could want. Arlene’s on fire, Bell praying on camera, empty sheds burning through wood pellets to the sound of striking lucky on the machines at Barry’s. Even having worked with political advisers for years and, the horror, been one myself, I couldn’t help but gawk at the brazen misdirection and potential conflicts of interest the DUP displayed. Northern Ireland had made it into the big leagues: a public policy screw-up so massive that no one could accurately explain what the hell had gone wrong, let alone navigate a coherent way through it. But on the bright side, we were given the big BBC News homepage ‘breaking news’ treatment when the Executive collapsed and there wasn’t a bomb or bullet in sight. Progress!

The light entertainment usually gives way to introspection. If I am so appalled with the current situation but my response is to chuckle with a shake of the head, isn’t that letting me off easily? It’s a simple task to have drive-by viewpoints and know you don’t have to back them up with action. Yes, I care about the impact of the Executive collapsing on the economy and my family, but it isn’t enough to draw me back to get stuck in, is it? And so down the rabbit hole I go, questioning the whats and whys of my Northern Irish identity; I’d wager it’s not uncommon.

But still, I know if I was home this month I’d be walking up to Horatio Todd’s in Ballyhackamore with my dad, looking round at the place I grew up. How it has changed, how it has remained, how it has responded to social and political winds. The new cafes, the wine bars, the gesticulated discussions and the hold-lightly attitude. The faceless men with greying moustaches and, maybe, some newcomers glaring down from posters on lamp posts. A mate running for his fourth stint in office, fighting for the people around him. C.S Lewis Square and the Aslan statue and the Comber Greenway and the shore of Strangford seen from my brother’s house and the joy of meeting an old friend on Ann Street and oh…I’m in love again.

I feel it every time.

Matt Gillespie is a director at Teach for All, having worked in politics and education for the last ten years. He’s aware he’s a big sop.
Follow him on Twitter.

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Photo Credit: Brendan Harkin