Imagine … TEDx talks by Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and others … under the gaze of Lord Craigavon

The Great Hall (the entrance hall) of Parliament Buildings up on the hill is a commanding setting for today’s TEDxStormont event. Seventeen speakers, three musical artists, the statue of Lord Craigavon basking in orange red light, and the portrait of Lord Bannside looking down on the couple of hundred delegates sitting below (with a small bottle of the devil’s buttermilk in their goody bags).

TEDxStormont before it starts

The First Minster and deputy First Minister were the first two speakers this morning, fitting in their ten minute speeches (with no notes) before heading across the estate to the Executive meeting in Stormont Castle.

Peter Robinson imagined how long it would take for “Ulster’s dead” to walk across the Great Hall. Ten hours if they took 10 seconds each. And if the injured joined them, perhaps four days. He wished that he could bring them back to life.

He moved onto the need “to end educational apartheid in Northern Ireland”. Sending children to different schools at a formative age means they learn that they are “different” from each other. He mentioned working groups, Executive policies that were promoting increased integration, including shared campuses.

Peter Robinson said it needed “to be a structural change in society”. It was a “massive opportunity” for this generation in Northern Ireland. He said “a few years ago we started to imagine what could be done” and ended with a line that could have been lift from an Alliance manifesto:

Imagine if we could learn together, earn together, live together, play together.

A theme of fishing ran through Martin McGuinness’s talk. He started with a joke about being given a book FFish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life by Jeremy Paxman, but he was afraid to read it in case it posed more questions than answers.

Fishing was important in peace processes around the world. He talked about South Africa and also the way that fishing had opened up conversations between Sinn Fein and DUP at a time when communication was not common. As a young fisherman he was told that you had to expect to catch something – imagination – and on his first attempt he landed an eight pound salmon.

Martin McGuinness went on to talk about his respect for those with a British allegiance and his expectation that others would respect his own “allegiance to Ireland and to the peaceful and democratic reunification of this country”.

We have to tackle the next big problem that we face. And the next big problem is the whole issue of identity. I know a young man in Derry city, he’s a friend of my wife. He lives in the Creggan estate. He’s a Rangers supporter. He goes to the local pub when the matches are on and he sits among the Celtic fans with his Rangers jersey on and no one blinks an eyelid. That’s where we need to get to in regard of all of our identities.

He finished:

I am an optimist. I am involved in this peace process because I believe change can happen. We have transformed the political situation here in the north and indeed that has affected the for the better the whole of this island. We need to continue with that work. But most important of all we need to do what I told those school children who gave me the book, we absolutely need to believe in ourselves.

Simon Hamilton – soon to take over from Sammy Wilson as Finance Minister despite being named Slugger’s Up and Coming Politician in 2010! – started with the love story about London Underground’s restoration of Oswald Laurence’s Mind the Gap announcements at Embankment station after his wife missed them. His talk was about “gaps and how we can bridge them”.

He explained the “expectations gap” between public desire and government capacity to delivery, and the way this can lead to public dissatisfaction with the political establishment, often seen in voter apathy.

Simon Hamilton pointed towards the need for innovation. He reckoned that Northern Ireland is best placed to become the most innovative public sector in the world, benefitting the local population (as well as spreading best practice world).

The size of our public sector – often seen as a burden – could become an asset. He cited the example of the Connected Health telepresence robot at Daisy Hill, Newry. Alongside Canada he reckoned Northern Ireland had the best government shared services in the world, embracing advances in IT within the Department of Finance and Personnel.

He jumped across the Atlantic to highlight examples of innovation in governments with the Speed Bumps and Connected Citizen apps in Boston City and Louisville Metro’s Code for America developments, pointing to potential for these kind of services in Northern Ireland. He also highlighted the need for Open Data.

By making it even easier for citizens to engage with their government, by using platforms like apps that people are increasing familiar with and fond of using, and by recognising that just as information technology advances increases expectations so too can its embracing by government bridge that gap. And maybe then we can start to break down some of the barriers – actual and perceived – that are out there, that government is distant and remote and unresponsive … We can use procurement to produce new ideas, we can focus much more on prevention. We can devise and develop different models of service delivery. We can work much more with the private and the third sectors. We can encourage collaboration right across government. And we can use technology to make the engagement even easier. But if we aspire in Northern Ireland to become the most innovative public sector in the world then we can imagine a future where instead of minding gaps we’re bridging them.

Dolores Kelly talked not about opposition but about the more important issue of child poverty around the world as well as in Northern Ireland.

Jo-Anne Dobson spoke about organ donation.

Brian Cathcart from the Hacked Off campaign spoke- though disappointingly concentrated on the Leveson process rather than the mechanics of how to build a powerful campaign.

A past pupil of Lurgan College, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a world-renowned astrophysicist who discovered pulsars (though her thesis supervisor won the Nobel prize). She delivered a powerful talk about the state of diversity in science. Well worth a listen.

No mention yet of Gerry Adams’ TEDdy bear! Not even in Tim McGarry’s talk routine which got applause for the line:

teaching tolerance in a segregated school is as much use as teaching chastity in a brothel

The full set of videos of the talks should go up online tomorrow, and the event is being streamed live.

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