At Ulster University, it is graduation time. On the steps which lead up to the main entrance of the university's Coleraine campus, new graduates pose for photographs in their robes.
Earlier, they received their degree certificates from the university's chancellor, the actor James Nesbitt. He has spent the day celebrating their achievements and talking to others who are hoping to follow in their footsteps. A group of 16- and 17-year-olds in foster care are visiting; each of them could be the first person in their families to go to university.
“There is something very different about the generation we have now,” says Nesbitt. “When I was talking to their group leaders, they were saying it never comes up in conversation – the Protestant/Catholic thing. I think we really are at an important moment where we can actually begin to escape all that.”
Nesbitt meets The Irish Times in an office deep in the 1960s block that is the campus’s main building. It is a small space, almost too small for the extent of the ambition that clearly animates him. Nesbitt is hopeful; he has plans for the future. The word “potential” is repeated.
He leans forward across the table. "I think we're standing at a profound moment here in the history of the islands," he says. "2021 will see the second century of the state of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland mark the centenary of independence.
“Twenty-one is in itself an important number, because we’re in the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, and those graduates that were leaving today, they’re all about 21, and they’re the very first generation who have the potential that no other generation has here, and that is to know peace.
“I think there’s a real appetite here now to ensure that that peace transitions into an economic and cultural and social prosperity. What is stopping that? Politicians. What’s stopping that is unquestionably the governing structures; there is still a sectarian divide, there is still division here, and that division is reflected in the nature of our sectarian politics.”
In the summer, that divide is evident on Northern Ireland's streets. Sunshine and summer holidays mean the marching season. In Coleraine, as in other towns, the flags have appeared. An orange flag bearing the initials 'U.V.F' hangs on a lamppost beside Dunnes Stores, in the town centre; a banner reading "Coleraine supports Soldier F" – a reference to the former member of the British parachute regiment facing charges of murder and attempted murder in connection with Bloody Sunday – is strung across the main road beside the railway station.
Yet, this year there are other banners, welcoming the British Open golf championship, which will take place in nearby Portrush later this month.
“It’s incredible the Open’s about to come here,” says Nesbitt. “Pictures of this place will be beamed around the world, and that will encourage people to come to a place where, when I was growing up, people were encouraged not to come to, and to go away from.
“That made a lot of us angry and, actually, it was one thing I never understood – why, when it was such an incredible place with such wonderful people, would you not want to come here?
Growing up with The Troubles
Coleraine is Nesbitt's territory; where he grew up, where family still lives, and where he spends part of his time. Born in Broughshane, near Ballymena, Co Antrim, where his father was a rural headmaster of a Protestant school, he emphasises that "it was very easy to grow up with the Troubles just up the road and feel distanced from it".
Broughshane is a world away from Belfast, or Derry. It is a village that, these days, is noted for its success in tidy town competitions and "Britain in Bloom" awards. Last year, it was named as UK Village of the Year.
“It was a very Protestant area, and unionist certainly,” explains Nesbitt, “and my father sent my three sisters and I to the convent to learn piano. I think my father was a bit of a torchbearer, without realising it, and I think it was also about sending a message that there could be integration.”
He has a clear memory of his “first bomb”.
“My father had gone to Ballymena to pay the tax, and we’d been to my grandmother’s house to pick up a dozen eggs and then we went to the county hall and my sister and I stayed in the car. We fell asleep, and we were woken by an old warden saying, ‘get out of the car, get out of the car, there’s a bomb’.
“We got out of the car and we were running up the hill and I saw my father running down the other side, and then there was this ‘boom’.
“That was probably the first notion I had of it, as a seven- or eight-year-old. It was so unknown to me that I think [I felt] almost excitement.”
I think for a lot of Protestants, when they go away it's quite a shock that they are regarded as Irish
The family moved to the university town of Coleraine when Nesbitt was 11. Much like Northern Ireland itself, here his past is displayed on its walls – in Nesbitt's case, a huge photograph of him dressed as the Artful Dodger which hangs outside the Riverside Theatre, on the Ulster University campus.
His performance, in the 1978 Christmas production of Oliver, was Nesbitt’s first taste of success on the stage; he left Northern Ireland at 19 to study acting in London.
“I went as what I would consider a Protestant, and the first day I went to drama school there was an automatic assumption that I was very pro-republicanism. I was being considered Irish for the first time, in a sense and that maybe made me begin to consider myself as Irish. I think for a lot of Protestants, when they go away it’s quite a shock that they are regarded as Irish.”
‘An Irishman, from the north of Ireland’
Today, he holds both passports. “I would describe myself as an Irishman, from the north of Ireland, who in no way refutes nor shies away from my Protestant culture."
Nesbitt's role as Adam in the British comedy drama Cold Feet – which debuted in 1997 – made him a household name; in 2002, he played the role of civil rights leader Ivan Cooper in the film Bloody Sunday.
“Bloody Sunday was maybe the first time that I examined the power of my job and I examined the place I came from, its complex history and the relationship between these islands,” says Nesbitt.
The truth about Bloody Sunday, he admits, was not something he had been aware of: “I think to a certain degree Protestants were taught history with a British perspective, and Catholics were taught with an Irish perspective – which of course in many ways is probably why we’re still here where we are now.”
For Nesbitt, it was a turning point. “I was one of those actors who almost learned about Northern Ireland through my work in Northern Ireland.”
He quotes the director of Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass. "He always used to say that for any Irish actor, from the North particularly, the Troubles is kind of like their Lear, it's their responsibility."
Through the film, Nesbitt says, “I began to realise what the power of my job could do, but also in a way why I love where I come from.”
Nesbitt’s motivation is a dual one. “It’s love and responsibility. One of the best love affairs I’ve had in my life has been with home,” he says. “It’s incredible in a place where there remains such division that actually people here are incredibly united about loving where they come from. If we could just get hold of that.”
Ambition for change
Harnessing this love of home is a key part of Nesbitt’s ambition for change. He has been working on an initiative, Connected Citizens, which aims to start a fully inclusive, non-sectarian conversation about the kind of society Northern Ireland wants to be – regardless of its constitutional status.
Though it is not an Ulster University project, those involved include Prof Jim Dornan, and Eamon Mullan, the university secretary. Nesbitt stresses that while the current focus is on simply starting the discussion, he envisages that research will begin soon, with the aim of launching a report later in the year.
“We want an inclusive and informed discussion about the future of the North/Northern Ireland,” the Connected Citizens mission statement reads, “one free from political bias and designed to be inclusive and ambitious in its vision for the future.”
"It's easy for me to say this," acknowledges Nesbitt. "I'm someone who lives in England a lot of the time, I have a degree of success and wealth, and all of that. I'm well outside it, but we go back to the fact that there is a five-year-old from Broughshane in here who actually wants to come back home and would love the notion of somehow being a very small pebble in the wall that actually begins to change who is allowed to be involved in terms of deciding the future of the relations between these islands."
The continued lack of a devolved government in Northern Ireland – absent for 2½ years and counting – may well have created apathy, he admits. “I think we’re scunnered, to tell you the truth.” But it is precisely this, he argues, that has created a moment of opportunity for Northern Ireland.
“I think it’s that people do care, but they don’t care about that, and I think that’s what will begin to flip people. It’s as if the politics has almost been taken out of Northern Ireland a wee bit. Now it’s coming back of course, as we approach the flags and all that, but I think people are much more in a place now where they are united by their despair at the fact that the government’s sat empty for 2½ years.”
That common disappointment, he believes, “will override a lot of their traditionally held, separate identities.”
For Nesbitt, the conversation needs to change. “I think these governance structures are not working, so it’s not a question of how do we get them back sitting again.
Instead, he wants to place the North’s future direction in the hands of its people, not the politicians. Leaders of civic society, the health, education and arts sectors, industry, business and sport need to step up and become more involved in public life, to take responsibility for change rather than simply bemoaning the status quo or blaming others for the lack of progress. He has been in contact with potential donors, and with the US consulate, who he says are “interested” in the idea.
In part, Nesbitt says, it is about perspective. His experiences, not least in the diverse world of the arts, have led him to see Northern Ireland “as somewhere that was a progressive society rather than a divided one.”
As the only part of the two islands where abortion remains illegal and there is no provision for same-sex marriage, it is rare that Northern Ireland is described as progressive: “I think there’s the potential for it,” counters Nesbitt.
But in order to do so, much must change. “The Good Friday agreement promised that there was going to be a new future for the islands, that there were going to be new relationships built, new institutions. That doesn’t seem to have happened, frankly.
"Cleary there are people on all sides who have found the dormancy of Stormont just so unbearable, unpalatable, almost embarrassing, frankly, and terrible to renege so heavily on what these people voted for 21 years ago. Now is the time to have that discussion. How do you do that? I think you start having facts."
First on the agenda for Nesbitt is the need to commission research from independent experts so that people can be informed as to what any constitutional changes to Northern Ireland might mean in practice.
A Border poll “is going to happen at some point”.
One of the great challenges and actually one of the great opportunities is to start getting away from language that is incendiary
“I think we have to accept that this is where Northern Ireland is and people need to be informed, rather than just having two sides saying it’s this or it’s that. People need fact-based evidence to look at.”
In this new context, argues Nesbitt, new language is needed. “A united Ireland? Even those words, ‘united Ireland’, have to be changed, because those two words put together carry such a political connotation, and a connotation which is really about division and about sectarianism.
“I think one of the great challenges and actually one of the great opportunities is to start getting away from language that is incendiary.”
Instead, his preference is for “a new union of Ireland.”
Within this, “people from the North, of my tradition, would feel that they have their identity, that it is in no way threatened, that they have an equal voice, that they are part of a society that is progressive, inclusive, diverse. That they have prosperity, that they’re not marginalised, and that they can be proud to be from the north of Ireland in a new union of Ireland.”
He believes Northern Protestants are open to this. “Among my friends, who are all boys who are Protestants – well, men, we’re all 54 – they would really consider now what the notion of a new union of Ireland might look like, and I think there’s a lot of people that think that.”
Is there a place for Nesbitt in this “new union of Ireland”?
“I suppose I’m still not entirely sure because we haven’t been given the facts about what these new structures would look like. I’m certainly very keen on embracing anything in which the relationship between the people in the North is improved, and between North and South and between the two islands, and it strikes me that I think a lot more people are coming round to the idea of just even considering themselves Irish.”
Within this context sits what Nesbitt describes as “a great shame, the disaster of Brexit, in my opinion. At least there was a unification there because we were all part of a different [European] family.”
Anthems and sensitivities
Last year Coleraine FC – of which Nesbitt is a sponsor – played Cliftonville, from nationalist North Belfast, in Northern Ireland's cup final. According to tradition, the national anthem is played before kick-off on cup final day. Given the sensitivities around anthems in the North, Nesbitt and Coleraine attempted – unsuccessfully – to prevent God Save the Queen being played at the match.
“It was nothing to do with football, it was incredibly incendiary, it was a day of celebration and actually there was no real need for it. It was a little thing, but I felt it really put back where we’re trying to go because it gave a voice to a small minority rather than giving the voice to the majority.
“This was on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and I suppose it made me think that this is unending. I thought about what has been achieved, and that’s when I began to think, something has to change.”
Nesbitt is in no doubt: “the politics here are sectarian. Is Northern Ireland a sectarian place, I don’t know, but is the sectarianism reflected in its politics, I would say yes.
“I think that’s what most people are now beginning to challenge and I think that is the key. I think it’s moved on hugely from being a sectarian place, but I don’t think the politics has moved on from being sectarian.”
Yet the North’s two largest parties are distinctly orange and green. “Well I think we stop giving them that choice.”
Nesbitt accepts that his vision is ambitious, perhaps idealistic, but he emphasises that nothing of this scope or scale has been attempted outside of the political arena.
“This isn’t born out of politics, or indeed politicians. It’s stepping outside of politics, and maybe because some of us have a profile it can carry a bit more weight, I don’t know. I do think there is an appetite for people to actually celebrate the many different identities that there are here. It doesn’t matter – you can call yourself Irish, or British, or both.
“It just feels that there’s been a silent majority here for far too long that actually needs a voice.”