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A child’s eye attends to reality in a distinctive way. My memories of growing up in North Belfast in the 1960s still resonate magically. On a bright day, I could look south from the top of the braes near home over the docklands where the Titanic was built, all set to the background of the towering Mourne Mountains. Going north led to the dramatic Antrim coast and the mystical hexagons at the Giant’s Causeway. Northern Ireland was the perfect adventure playground for any youngster.
And yet, in this attraction park lay hidden a titanic compass pointing to a sinister iceberg. In 1968, Northern Ireland had the lowest crime statistics in the UK. By the summer of 1969, the streets of Belfast looked worse than the blitz of the Second World War, to use the image of the local police chief at the time. It all happened in a matter of a few days. So many subsequently left those smouldering avenues to live elsewhere, small suitcases in hand, significant family ties and friendships left behind. Kenneth Branagh’s recent movie Belfast brings it out so clearly, and painfully.
My early experience of a ‘tipping point’ has taught me that the real uncertainties often do not lie in a statistical analysis of risk. Instead, they accumulate almost invisibly, with faint smoke signals apparent only to those searching carefully.
This lesson still influences my views on investment. It is one of the reasons I support a ‘sustainability’ approach to research, as I believe it is better calibrated than traditional methods to detect non-linear risks. It is also why I think analysis should always be the servant of synthesis. The former without the latter is deceptive. Insight comes from bringing disparate perspectives together before any judgement, rather than accepting a narrow focus that may be no more than confirmation bias.
Moreover, at least sometimes, the secret to investment lies in being open to intuitions about what our data sets or minds may be misrepresenting, or worse, simply missing, every bit as much as what they are apparently suggesting.
More broadly, a further lesson that I believe is implicit in the Troubles is to understand the importance of a diverse and integrated educational system, both as a buttress to unforeseen societal shocks if they happen, and as a catalyst to progress in preventing them in the first place.
Alas, the 1960s in Northern Ireland represent a good example of what can go wrong when this is not appreciated. Protestant and Catholic kids played happily together in my own street in North Belfast that lay close to where Belfast is filmed. However, we went to separate schools, where two very different colours of history were painted, each with its alleged claim on truth. An education system that ought to have propelled progress was regrettably hijacked by the past. The powder kegs of trouble were filled for future explosion.
Today’s ‘fake news’ is equally as dangerous as the ‘fake history’ of those days. It tries to pour cold water on that flickering light of knowledge we pass from generation to generation. Instead, it builds up stores of future trouble in critical areas including the environment, technology, health, politics, and our common humanity – all of which define the political contours that are relevant to the young of today.
The Cambridge historian, Professor David Runciman, has argued that children over the age of six (yes six not sixteen) should be given the vote. Well, this may seem a stretch, but he is certainly making a profound point. We do a disservice to our children when we fail to ensure they can grow up happily in an adventure playground, obtain a secure education, and grasp an early stake in a future they will one day inherit.
All of this brings me back to Kenneth Branagh’s magnificent film. There are so many tiny details that he has captured brilliantly in his memoir that show the piercing insight of a child’s eye. For me, there is one that resonates above all others – the tremendous local communities that existed in Belfast prior to the dark days, symbolised in the street gatherings around the local newsagent. Restoring that sense of human togetherness is the single biggest challenge, not just for Belfast but for our children and grandchildren across the globe. That is the core of real sustainability.