Big, committed hearts
It was a great week for Belfast, capped by the presentation of the Person of the Year accolade to the Knox family at the Aisling Awards in the Europa Hotel on Thursday night.
Wee Oscar — their impish, inspirational, irrepressible son — united Belfast like no-one else during his short life and his death from cancer this May broke countless hearts.
For the gift of Fearless Oscar Knock and to acknowledge their loss but also the generosity of his parents, the Aisling Person of the Year statuette — the highest honour Belfast can bestow — went this year to Belfast’s First Family: Leona, Stephen and little Izzie Knox (pictured, right).
Addressing the sold-out Aisling gathering, our special guest New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli — returned to office in November with over two million votes (more even than Governor Cuomo) — pledged to continue his efforts to build the peace with job-spinning investments. During an intense four-day schedule, he met community leaders in the Skainos Centre in East Belfast, joined community leaders in St Mary’s University College in west Belfast, heard the stories of families bereaved in the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971, was briefed on the growth plans of start-ups funded by his recent $15m investment, and walked the burgeoning Titanic Quarter. In his speech, the Comptroller said those he saw across the city shared an ambition to resolve issues of the past so that they could move forward together.
There were many magical moments at Aisling — not least the presentation of the Arts Award to the barnstorming Belfast Community Gospel Choir — but my highlight was comments in English and Irish by the former unionist Lord Mayor and former UUP MLA Ian Adamson who had some healing words for our Irish speaking community. “Ulster Gaelic is our finest inheritance and our greatest joy,” he said. Those sentiments were repeated the following morning when Ian and his colleagues in the Ullans Academy launched their plans to mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of Bangor’s Saint Columbanus in 2015. Columbanus’ convoluted path from Bangor to Bobbio — where he died sipping wine from his own vineyard — is our very own Camino and will stir hearts and attract tourists in the time ahead.
Finally, I took on the voluntary post of Digital Champion for South Belfast this week, meaning I will work with the South Belfast Partnership to ensure our young people have the skills to seize the opportunities of the 21st century and that our many new tech businesses — and Invest NI has made 64 new job announcements since May — have the talent on hand to ensure Belfast maintains its title as the fastest-growing knowledge economy in Europe.