Discovering Northern Ireland - A Personal PerspectiveApr 07, 2023
It’s been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It’s been nearly 5 years since I first spent time in Northern Ireland.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to deliver some Brand Storytelling Workshop for tourism clusters around Northern Ireland (a big thanks to Kate Taylor and Tourism Northern Ireland for that!). Having never spent any time there, I now had 4 days in a row, moving from one place to the next.
I took the work on, thinking it was just another workshop gig. It was only when I was packing my bag to head off that I felt some trepidation. I realised that I was entering new territory and that I had no idea what to expect. I knew I would need Sterling and that the roadsigns would be in miles rather than kilometres, but that was about it!
4 days that changed my perspective
It was 4 days that radically changed my perspective on Northern Ireland, on this island and on my own sense of identity as an Irish person. I hadn’t expected that.
I was surprised by things that really shouldn’t have surprised me. I was surprised by how beautiful Northern Ireland was, just like the rest of the island. I was surprised by how welcoming the people were – I must have had an unconscious thought that they wouldn’t be? The softness of the accents surprised me – I had really only ever heard angry, harsh ones on television in the 80s and early 90s.
The emerging ambition for tourism inspired me – it was clear to me that the places I was visiting were feeling their way in tourism, still tentatively wondering if Northern Ireland really could raise its head above the parapet and invite the world to visit. Would the world really respond, some wondered? The tourism experience in the room was 20 years old at the most – many had started their tourism journey in much more recent years. "We're so far behind you in the South", several people remarked.
During that trip, I felt deep shame that I had never been to Northern Ireland before. I felt ashamed that I didn’t recognise place names or have an understanding of what county I was in as I drove from one place to the next. I realised that we hadn’t been taught that geography in school and I wondered if children in Northern Ireland had been taught about our counties, rivers and mountains. In some ways, it felt as foreign as any place I would have flown to and yet at the same time it felt and looked the same as my own home down the road.
For me, at that time, a metaphor kept coming into my head – that we had been going around without one leg but unaware that one leg was missing. I don’t know who exactly ‘we’ was in that thought and there is nothing political in the statement – just a moment of seeing myself and my country in a new way, a personal realisation of being an islander on an island that was not whole.
Discovering Northern Ireland
Our next family holiday in 2019 was in Northern Ireland as was our following one and I’ve been many times since. I know many, many people from the South who discovered Northern Ireland for the first time as a result of Covid, when driving to the North was more appealing or more viable than flying internationally.
Through work and travel, I have made many friends in Northern Ireland since that first visit in 2018. In an indirect way and by osmosis, I’ve grown to understand more of the journey, how the Troubles were experienced on the ground, how the peace continues to evolve and be experienced.
Tourism Ireland, the body responsible for marketing the island of Ireland, was established as one of the “six areas of co-operation” under the framework of the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998.
I was at World Travel Market in 2019 when Northern Ireland’s Embrace a Giant Spirit national tourism brand was launched. It was a celebratory event. It was emotional to observe and it was emotional for those who were participating.
I recall one lady remarking to me as we clinked a glass of champagne: ‘See that fella over there, a few years ago we couldn’t have even spoken to each other and we wouldn’t have wanted to. Now look at us, here in London, on the same stage promoting Northern Ireland together!”
I’ve understood that Tourism has mattered in this peace. It has played a people-centred and place-centred role that has brought communities within Northern Ireland together, it has brought government bodies North and South together and it has facilitated a greater flow of visitors between the two parts of the island of Ireland. It has grown personal relationships and created a space for new memories.
It has helped people like me to change the lens and see the world through new eyes.
Image of a 2023 Sustainable Tourism Learning Journey from Northern Ireland to Co. Clare in the Republic of Ireland facilitated by Tourism Northern Ireland and curated and hosted by The Tourism Space.
Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach with particular interest in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, tourism networks and collaborations. Tina advises on and delivers talks on regenerative approaches to tourism. Watch her TEDx Talk here.
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