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2022 Annual Human Rights Statement Launch: Keynote Speech by Gary Lightbody

13 Dec 2022

This is the keynote speech given by Gary Lightbody at the 2022 Annual Human Rights Statement launch, held on Monday 12 December 2022 at the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

  • You can access the Annual Statement here.
  • You can watch the recording of the live stream of the event here.
  • Read our press release here.


2022 Annual Human Rights Statement Launch: Keynote speech by Gary Lightbody

"Nice to see that they’re using Stormont for something again eh? Of course none of us can remember what it used to be used for. That seems now to be lost to the historical record. I have heard they’re gonna turn this room into an indoor five a side pitch/karate dojo though. So it’s not all bad news.

If you are thinking to yourselves what is the lanky fella from that band doing talking at a serious event like this, don’t worry, the lanky fella from that band is thinking exactly same thing.

But when you are invited to talk at an event hosted by an organisation called the northern ireland human rights commission and you say NO, do you automatically go to hell? I didn’t want to risk it.

So at an event full of experts, there’s also me.

I’m certainly not an expert in human rights. I’m barely an expert in being human. A fact most of the song lyrics I’ve written will quite categorically support. If something can indeed be ‘quite categorical’.

So I’m not an expert. In anything. Also I’m wrong about stuff a lot. Been wrong about stuff today, and I’ll be wrong about stuff tomorrow. I find that admitting that there is a possibility one might be wrong at any given moment is a good perspective to approach the world from. My approach to life is to try and learn something every day. And I already have today listening to the experts talk. Thank you for that.

My speech will not be full of data or graphs. In fact there are no graphs. To be honest it would have been handy and probably eaten up a few minutes here and there, and at the very least give you something to look at other than my ugly mug but there just ain’t no graphs. There’s just no other way to break it to you. Yous’ll get over it in time, I’m sure.

As Noel Gallagher wisely wrote and Liam Gallagher sublimely sang “don’t put your lives in the hands of a rock n roll band”. Truer words never spoken.

So there’s a lot of reason’s why you shouldn’t listen to me speak. Now sit there and listen to me speak for the next 30 minutes. Yup, these guys asked me to speak for THIRTY MINUTES. No one’s happy about it.

So again I ask on your behalf…. WHAT is the lanky fella from that band doing up there?

Well I’m here now so you’re too late. Security, seal the exits!

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I will concentrate for the most part on the few things I have at least some understanding and experience of. Aside from in my closing remarks, which we’ll get to in time. I’ve no direct experience of THAT subject but being born and bred in NI should be enough to at least have an opinion on it. As I say though, all in good time. Mental health in NI will be the crux of what I’m going to talk about. As I have actually had many mental health problems I feel like I can at the very least speak from experience on that subject. But first…

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Human rights, though it is two short words, is a sprawling concept. And often it is the RIGHTS part that we concentrate on. Justifiably so as they are imperative. However, especially in these severely divided times, it might behoove us to take a minute to reestablish the first part of that phrase. Before we even try to answer the question - what are rights? Maybe we should first think about the question - WHAT IS HUMAN? Put simply, WE IS HUMAN. All of us in this room. Everyone in this country. Everyone in (whisper it) Europe, everyone in every country and continent. Everyone on this planet. This planet we all share. The ONLY thing that unties us all is the fact that we are ALL human. So wherever you’re from and whatever you believe in, you are human first. So before we talk about what human rights we all should share and have access to, it’s important to remember our humanity, and therefore when it comes to RIGHTS no one should have MORE and no one should have LESS.

No religion unites the world. No race, no gender, no sexuality, no political ideology, nothing unites the world except one thing. And that one thing is our humanity. Our innate, elemental, indelible humanness is what all that we have in common. So any rights that you believe you are entitled to, logically extend to everyone else on the planet. So when we talk of human rights there is no ‘us verses them’, there is just… us.

Whoever you are, whatever your race, religion, background, however you identify, whoever you love, we all should feel save and included in this new Northern Ireland, one that shines outwards proudly into the world, rather than the remote place my generation and generations before grew up in. Us means EVERYONE. Everyone in NI deserves to be treated with respect, kindness and have access to the things that sustain us and strengthen not just our communities but create connecting fibres between communities previously distinct, or even at odds with one another.

Humanity is currently experiencing an atonal symphony of dovetailing catastrophes, so making sure people have access to basic human rights is more important than it has ever been.

As this is the NI human rights commission I will be concentrating on what is happening in NI more than what is happening in the wider world but it is so important to remember that we are part of a global community and we should feel connected to the world now. I grew up in an NI that didn’t feel connected to the world at all. We were isolated and insular. But through our art, culture, world champion athletes, many ex-pats making their lives in the us, Canada, Australia and all over the world we are now a big part of the world at large and we should celebrate that. And it should also make us cognisant of the fact that the citizens of the world we interact with, though they may be from different cultures and religions and backgrounds are our brothers, sisters and kin - fellow travellers on this timeline. We’re all on this rollercoaster together.

And while the deepest part of my soul goes to what is happening to the people of Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Myanmar, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, many many other places in the world, and of course the biggest, and least discussed, humanitarian crisis on the planet right now, in Yemen, where 75% of the people of Yemen are reliant on humanitarian aid.

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COST OF LIVING CRISIS….

Here at home I think the thing that is on most people’s mind’s right now is the cost of living crisis and more knowledgeable people on the subject than me have already spoken to that. I will though say this….

More, much more needs to be done to protect and secure the safety of vulnerable people in NI this winter. We have been through much and are a legendarily stoic people. But attrition always wins eventually. There is a finite amount of hardship and chaos that any society can handle, even one as resilient as ours. It is long past due to put the people of NI first and over and above any differences we may have in politics or religion. Heat, food and shelter are human rights. Pure and simple. Even to a place such as this, that seems to have woven understatement and forbearance into the fabric of daily life.

We are a place and people that likes to downplay. We tend to understate. We are after all the only people in the English speaking world to turn the word GRAND meaning elegant, majestic, regal. GRAND designs. The GRAND old duke of york, GRAND plans. We turned that word of magnificence into… ‘MEH’.

“How are you?”…. “ACK, I’m grand”

“Oh leave it like that, it’ll be grand”

That is not to say we turn magnificence into mediocrity. Far from it. We just don’t like to blow our own trumpet. BUT, paraphrasing the words of Edmund Blackadder “it’s also good to know that we HAVE a trumpet”.

NI punches above its weight on the world stage in sport, art, literature, music, and much more. We have been through a rolling conveyer belt of conflict, tragedies, heartbreaks and yet always seem to make it through to the other side.

I wrote a line for a new song that will be on the next SP record. It goes like this…

“And Belfast continues

I never doubted it wouldn’t

It’s climbed off the canvas more than any other city could’ve”

It was written to honour the incredible spirit of this place we inhabit, not just belfast, but NI at large, and the remarkable people of NI that constantly amaze me by their durability, resilience, heart and humour. But for god sake, to the politicians of this place, the people of NI need help NOW. Getting through this winter and and out the other side, and then not just enduring life but creating the environment for, yes a safer more secure life, but also a more ebullient and fulfilling life for everyone.

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I know a fair amount about mental health. Mostly from experience. For almost all of my life and at various, and sometimes overlapping, times I have been struck with long periods of self-loathing, anxiety, depression, an anger I stridently would not admit to and therefore could never solve, suicidal thoughts, and even on several occasions what came a hair’s breath away from suicidal actions.

Making music, listening to incredible music by countless artists, the love and support of my bandmates and brothers in SP, dear friends almost all connected through music, and the wider music community in NI, have saved my life, more than once. To all those people that have helped me and so many others through the power of their art, I give thanks. We must protect the makers of art in NI. They are the guardians of NI’s soul. A soul that lives and pulses in the music, the drama, the dance, the art, the written word of this wee place.

A single song can save you. I know this because songs have saved me many times. Most recently, this was about 5 years ago, in one of my darkest times, I played the song Pink and White by the truly incomparable Frank Ocean on repeat, maybe a 100 times, and it brought me back from the brink. Brought a sliver of light back into the world for me. Just enough light to keep me here on this plain of existence. Each time I played it I felt a little less like ending my life until that thudding thought in my head eventually started to evaporate, and then flip, and gradually I orientated away from ENDING and instead towards BEGINNING life again.

I say all this in no way to garner sympathy, nor to play the world’s smallest violin, just to say that I know THAT PLACE. I am so familiar with that place. I have fallen into that dark void, where there is no light, nor joy, and time just falls apart in your hands like wet paper. I say it because I know that so many people know THAT PLACE too, that dark impenetrable void. That place where we feel not good enough, or ashamed, or angry, or depressed, or where life itself just seems to evaporate.

But even though I know that place, I can’t know what anybody else is going through. Not entirely. Just like you can’t know what I’m going through. Other than right now I can’t seem to SHUT UP about it. As I’ve already said we are all human but the great paradox of the human experience is that YES we all share our humanity but we are all entirely separated from from one another by our PERCEPTION. I can’t see the world through anyone else’s eyes, just as no one can see the world through my or anyone else’s eyes. Our empathy can take us only so far, but it cannot take us into some else’s perception. And unless there is some ‘being John malcovich’ style machine I don’t know about, we will have to make do without knowing. That is why communicating with one another is the best defence against falling into that void. Telling each other our stories. It wasn’t until I finally started talking about what was going on in my head that things started to shift for me. I know though how hard it is to say the first word. To make the first step. But when we do things start to change.

I found a way out of my anger, my self-loathing and my shame with various things: acupuncture, therapy, mediation, qi going, sea swimming, yoga, playing football with people in their 20s and 30s and getting skinned every 30 seconds. Although, upon reflection, I’m not sure that last one is a net positive for my mental health. However, sport can be a wonderful way to release our anger and our demons healthily.

Some of the remedies I just listed cost money. And so many people haven’t got the money, or indeed barely the time to do ANY of those things. I understand. I am very aware how lucky I am. We have to, in NI make it a priority that therapy and counselling are free and available to all that need it. At the moment those free counselling phone lines and services are buckling under the weight of the demand. They need the money and resources to bolster and support their undeniably noble and vital services. And the people of NI need it now more than ever.

Trust me though even if you just did one thing, getting in the sea for ten mins, or a lake, or even a cold bath, I swear it works wonders, and it’s free.

As we become ever more ideologically siloed and the tectonic plates that divide us shift yet further apart with every new political earthquake, we must remember to, whenever possible, leave our judgements of others and their lives, different though they may be to ours, behind us. We cannot see the world through their eyes. Through their perception. We are no better or worse than the next person that we meet. We have within us all the ability to be good and bad, great and terrible, frail and majestic, cowardly and heroic…

We are not just one thing. We are not our just our depression. We are not just our anxiety. We are not just our anger. We are not just our frailty. We are not just one thing. We are made of myriad complexities and contradictions.

Anti-communist, Russian dissident and Nobel prize winning author Alexsandr solzhenitsyn once said “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties -- but right through every human heart”.

So in those moments when that ‘ONE THING’ is all we can see and it has taken a shape that looks very much like anger, or hate, or self loathing, or depression, or anxiety, or numbness, or just the rigid, deathlike, ossifying grip of world input overload, ALSO within us, even though it might seem unimaginable from that isolated singularity, is the nascent possibility of redemption, of joy, of love, of compassion for others and ourselves, of freedom from doubt, anxiety and depression. God I know it seems impossible when you’re down there though. And some people will say I am oversimplifying this and they might be right.

As I say I can’t see the world through anyone else’s eyes and can’t know what they are going through. My only hope for everyone that falls into that void, is that they find their way back to joy somehow. Perhaps one of the things I mentioned might help but I can only know what has helped me. I can’t know what will help you. I’m not an expert.

One of the few things I do know though is that there are extraordinary people that can help us find ourselves and our joy once again. And we need more of those extraordinary people, healers, therapists, counsellors in NI, available to all the people here.

The troubles, though they maybe over, still fester in our blood, our bones, our dna. There have been many studies done on the effects of long term war in countries and regions even after that war has come to an end. Years, decades, later not just the people that went through the conflict are effected by it but the even the children of those people. Trauma, it now seems to be confirmed, can be passed from generation to generation. Trauma of the nature that happened here can therefore be genetic. Until we interrupt it. Until we deal with it. Until we talk about it. Until we talk to each other. And as the still unfolding repercussions of brexit, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis continues to puncture and permeate the fabric of our lives we need those lifesaving services in NI more than ever.

The mental health statistics here that we all have seen at this point make for extremely upsetting reading.

There is though a ten year plan for mental health in NI devised by Professor Siobhan O'Neill and Professor Deirdre Heenan sitting on desks in this very building waiting on review by and hopefully the signatures of the executive. Our government in self-exile.

And that brings me to my closing remarks.

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I know there are some politicians in the room today. And some politicians that aren’t. I’m not picking on those in the room nor am I letting the ones that aren’t here off the hook. I’m not picking on any political parties or individuals. I am addressing ALL of the elected politicians of NI regardless of party, or allegiance.

I suppose that’s to give you some kind of warning of what’s about to happen. But as I said earlier, the doors are locked.

American author Don Delillo said “people in power make their arrangements in secret” and that has always been the case, and the people of any country in the world have had to endure that since the ancient greeks invented politics and democracy in the first place, but I think the people of NI have it twice as hard, because there is nothing more secretive than a government that doesn’t meet at all.

I realise when we talk about the government shut down people will say ‘but their side did this', and ‘their side did that’. And all those old arguments that still rage on seemingly eternally. And that there are also those that are now and have always been ready to come back into this building and get to work. But I’m not gonna single anyone out. Because that singling out is what has been happening in NI politics for decades. And it’s just untenable. It’s untenable not in the abstract but just a cursory glance at the empirical evidence of even just the last 5 years.

Any politician in this room (or not in this room) might be thinking “yes but”. As in, yes but THEIR side did this. Yes but THEIR side did that. Surely at this point anybody with any rationality must see that that attitude isn’t getting us anywhere. And the people of NI deserve better. Much much better. Either you care about democracy or you don’t. Either you care about your constituents and their human rights or you don’t. Either you care about making NI a better, safer, more inclusive, more robust place, or you don’t.

The word politician comes from the greek POLIS (unless your Glaswegian and then it means the police) but in the ancient greek it means city or state. So to be a politician means to be a custodian of that state and ALL the people in it. Not just the ones that agree with you, or indeed, just the ones that voted for you.

A lot of politicians in this country seem to be making decisions with a view only, or at least mainly, to cause the most harm to the other side. But it hurts everyone. Your ‘side’ included. Whatever ‘victory’ you think you’re having is a pyrrhic one. One in which everyone suffers. Your side or their side. If everybody loses it kinda makes the notion that there IS such a thing as ‘their side and your side’ a bit redundant. The fact is that everyone in NI is suffering. Whether it’s because of this current government shutdown, or the previous government shut down, whether it’s brexit and its fall out, the pandemic, the mental health epidemic, the underfunded hospitals, nurses and doctors (the people trying to keep us alive), the heating crisis, the food poverty crisis, or myriad other other crises. During all that mayhem is not the time to shutdown.

Some people will be looking for clues and trying no doubt to make out that I am coming down harder on one side than the other. But I’m not. Anyone that knows me knows I have no affiliation to any NI political party. And until we realise that we are ALL to blame for this situation then we’ll never fix this.

Everyone at some point in recent years has refused to work with the other side on something or other so no one is blameless in this.

I have an idea. It’s bold but hear me out.

What if the leaders and senior members of all parties sit in a room together. I have a feeling there’s an empty room around here somewhere. And in that room what if you’re not allowed to talk about politics for an hour. Instead what if you talk about your families, friends, books you like, movies you’ve seen, places you’ve gone or would like to go on yer holidays, music you like to listen to (after today I’m guessing not snow patrol). You’ll soon realise that it’s not the devil that sits across from you. You’ll realise that you are all human. That protestants and catholics are in fact humans first. And then you can get to work trying to make life better for the people of NI. I say these things not because I dislike any of yous but only because I care about the people of NI. And I know you do too. I think what gets lost sometimes is what should come FIRST in our priorities: Political party, or the people of NI? Religion, or the people of NI? Nationality, or the people of NI? The answer to all of those questions… is the people of NI.

I am not for a second saying you shouldn’t feel proud of your religion or whether you feel British or irish or northern irish like I do, or none of the above. If those things are a source of pride for you then how the hell could I argue with that and why would I want to? I am in fact delighted by anything anyone feels lifted or strengthened by. But don’t let whatever lies at the core of your beliefs be the thing that arrests your empathy for someone else. If you are proud of being irish and the person across from you is proud of being British you actually SHARE something. PRIDE in your nationality. So that’s something you have in common, not at odds.

People will accuse me of bothsidesism. And some hate that more than they hate the other side. At least you know where you stand with the other side. I can’t stand these fence sitters. You just can’t trust them.

The old joke goes.

Man meets other man in the street.

First man says: are you protestant or catholic

Second man says: I’m a buddhist

First man looks the second up and down suspiciously and says:

Aye but, are you a protestant buddhist or a catholic buddhist.

We will drill down into you until we figure out if you’re friend or foe.

Why? We live in a modern northern ireland where the general public are doing their best to foster peace, understanding, togetherness, trying to find some modicum of joy where possible and trying to live in the present day. I have been a member of the NI music scene nearly 30 years and in that time I have never been asked where I’m from and what religion I am. The people making music in NI today couldn’t care less where you’re from. They want to know what’s in your heart and soul. The majority of the people in NI want above all else peace and safety for their families and want to share northern ireland with everyone, from every walk of life. Why then is it still so hard to get our politicians even to share the same building.

I’m just a singer in a band. What the hell do I know? I certainly don’t know how to fix the problems in NI or indeed the world but I do know that without a modicum of kindness and compromise nothing ever changes.

John lennon once said ‘give peace a chance’ and we did. Miraculously, we did! As a kid growing up here I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. None of us did. We were in those early days of peace and reconciliation, not perfect for sure, but an example nonetheless to the rest of the world and especially those places were conflict had become indelibly inked onto the fabric of life. We were a wee beacon of hope that maybe, just maybe, whatever enduring conflict felt inexorable might one day come to an end.

Jeanette winterson in her extraordinary novel WEIGHT said “the hells we invent are the hells we have known”. And for thirty years or more we invented hell. Every day. We knew that hell and yet EVERY DAY we invented it again. Until one day we didn’t. Like some kind of magic trick I still don’t fully comprehend but I am so grateful for. And grateful too to all the men and women who figured out how not to invent hell. We didn’t invent heaven but we didn’t invent hell. And we simply cannot afford to invent it again. As Japanese Nobel prize winning author Haruki Murakami said “there is no war that will end all wars”, and there is nothing for us down that road. We cannot choose it and we cannot invent it again.

Yes it’s an oxymoron but we fought hard for peace. Most of us realise that we have to keep fighting hard for peace. Keep choosing peace every day. It’s something that we have to keep choosing, for the present day, and for the future.

American revolutionary Patrick Henry said in 1775 ‘give me liberty or give me death’. Can we just have half of that please? Can we just have liberty, can we just have peace, can we just have safety, integrity, security, health care, mental health care, education, electricity, heat. Things that surely can’t be argued are in-alien-able human rights. Can we just make sure we have those things first. Then maybe, in your spare time, after the doors of stormont close at the end of a long day of difficult but ultimately satisfying work making life better for the people of NI, you could all get together, after work, and argue.

Thank you."

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