Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Jimmy Hawthorne, Douglas Carson, and taking a risk

Back in October 2004 when I was invited to be the new Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency I sought advice from various work colleagues. I knew that, if I accepted it, it was going have a significant impact upon my life. At that time I was Managing Director of GCAS Design, and just a year before had completed the project to create and implement a new corporate identity for the Northern Ireland Executive and its then eleven departments. So people at Stormont knew me. Our sister company, GCAS Public Relations, had a number of external consultants including senior former BBC Northern Ireland people James Hawthorne and Robin Walsh. Via a colleague in GCAS PR, Jimmy Hawthorne's advice to me was "don't touch it with a barge pole".

I weighed that up for a while, but eventually disregarded it. I accepted the invitation and attempted that role for a full four year term from June 2005 – June 2009. It was unpaid*, and meant to be just three days a week. But it took over almost all of my non-GCAS life, and not always positively.

I think it was in Wendy Austin's landmark 1996 BBC Radio Ulster series 'Pioneers and Presidents' that another BBC giant, Douglas Carson, pictured above from this Irish Times obituary, poured scorn on the idea of being proud of ancestry. Perhaps it was the common upbringing that Carson and I had in the 'Brethren' Gospel Halls that caused his remarks to resonate so strongly with me.

He was right. You can only be proud of achievements, things you have done, not of what you accidentally are – and even at that, pride is of course the very first original sin. I remember being queezy when I was asked to say something on a TV script about being proud of heritage. The vocabulary that we use shapes our world. Be precise with words. 

* the fee for board members was from memory about £600 per month, but it was all paid to my employers, for them to release me for those three days per month.