In the latest of our Northern Roots series, where we speak to people originally from Northern Ireland but currently living elsewhere, our interviewee is Joel Cassells. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelCassells.


1. Tell us about yourself. When did you leave Northern Ireland, and where did you go? What do you do now?

I’m a 23 year-old senior athlete in the Great Britain (and Northern Ireland) rowing team. Born and bred in Coleraine, I left NI in 2012 after the London Olympics to follow my dream to be selected and compete at a future games. I moved to Oxford to study and get into the GB team. I’ve won a few European and World Championship titles along the way, but I’m still training daily towards achieving selection for Tokyo 2020.


2. What do you think when you see the Northern Ireland of today, in the news and on social media?

The Northern Ireland I see today is a beautiful place that I’d recommend to anyone to go and experience. The beaches, the walks, the people, all top class. However, from news and social media NI has been undermined with a bad perception from our views on certain issues, especially since May’s Westminster election.

I’ve been asked by many friends in England about NI’s current stance on issues such as equal marriage and abortion law; they’ve been visibly horrified when I’ve had to confirm many of them. The mainland media have made a great effort to paint us as a nation of misogynist dinosaur homophobes which I know for a fact is largely untrue, especially among my generation. As a province we must come together and prove we’re above all of that.


3. Are you hopeful for Northern Ireland’s future? Will Brexit make a difference?

We’ve come so far since 2007 with the restoration of the institutions at Stormont; St Andrews was perhaps our finest achievement over the last ten years. Yet now it’s collapsed, and we’re back to entrenched positions splitting the country in two. NI is blessed with politicians from all sides who are unwilling to compromise in fear of their electorate punishing them for ‘giving in to them’uns’.

We need to be working together as a collective to make the best situation as we leave the EU, reworking our relationship with Europe to benefit NI.

If we’re seen on the world stage as petulant hateful people who can’t agree basic framework for government, attacking each other’s culture because it somehow protects their own, then no modern international corporation will want their offices built here. Our survival as a country depends on maturing as a province; I can’t see our model of subsidised living from Westminster to the tune of about £7billion per year going on forever.


4. Do you think you will return to Northern Ireland? What could convince you to come back?

I love being Northern Irish, I love where I’m from and always can’t wait to get back when I have time off from rowing. So I’d always consider moving back, but what I’d love to see is NI getting its social and cultural affairs in order; starting to celebrate and embrace differences, not using them as political pawns to gain at someone else’s expense. I believe passionately in the Union, and I want to help show the benefits of staying as part of the UK all of the people of NI.


5. What can Northern Ireland learn from the place you live now?

I currently live in Reading and it’s my example of how Northern Ireland should be modelling itself in 2017: a leading multicultural city with a huge tech hub outside of London. This is where a future post-Brexit NI could thrive: a business-facing province, attracting new companies into the country using huge economic incentives, lobbying, trade conferences, whatever it takes to get companies here.

We can do this easily when our priorities are aligned and the will is there. It’s either that or use our shale gas reserves and destroy Fermanagh; I know which I’d rather choose.


6. If Northern Ireland had a president with sweeping powers, and it was you, what would you do?

We’re gonna build a wall, and Ireland’s gonna pay for it! No, with my powers I’d start trying to get us up to speed. Same sex marriage, abortion reform and a culture act come first.

Now everyone is more or less equal and happy, I would then abolish the current education system as it stands. The sector would be rebuilt from the ground up using the world’s finest education specialists, solely run by the state with curriculum set under the Culture Act. Grammar, Catholic and Irish maintained schools would be allowed to remain independently for parental choice but will have no government funding in order to make state school the most obvious choice.

I’d make sport a huge part of NI, encouraging participation in all sports across the province. Last year’s European football championships showed us just how unifying sport can be.

With a chunk of our new £1.5bn from Westminster, I’d build a brand new international airport for NI, because our current 2 are not fit for purpose beside Dublin’s huge airport.

Then, as all unlimited presidents become corrupt eventually, a huge palatial home to live in luxury until I’m eventually overthrown by a coup d’etat.


7. What would you like to see more of on Northern Slant?

I love a good mix of all things in current affairs; books, films, TV show reviews both old and new would all be good. I like reading and listening to good debates on various topics both political and philosophical, listening to or even taking part in. Audio books could also be a good way of getting the Northern Slant.

I also think some coverage of political events and information of other elections across the globe (Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, etc.) would give some wider understanding of how politics operates outside of the UK/RoI.


8. If you could ask three Northern Ireland politicians (past or present) to dinner, who would they be? And why?

Former Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill would be first. I’d love to listen to why he did what he did to try and build peace, even though it didn’t end well.

Former DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley because love him or hate him he was a fascinating man, and to hear his stories from the past I’m sure would be interesting.

Former UUP and independent unionist MLA, David McClarty. A Coleraine man, he was a unionist with great integrity and who genuinely reached across to all sides of the community in the town. He is greatly missed, but his legacy is the excellent Claire Sugden.

Joel Cassells during The FISA World Rowing Cup II at Lake Malta in Poznan, Poland on 15th June 2017.

9. Do you have a favourite quote, or mantra?

“What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose.” From Andre Agassi, former Tennis number one. I think it fits perfectly into sport and life.


10. What’s your message for people back home?

Keep the faith. We have nothing to fear from understanding and reaching across to one another. Life is short, spending any time resenting or fighting each other is time wasted.

Also published on Medium.

  • stephen smyth

    must say I agree with Joel’s priorities, specially tackling the divisive, 2 tier, educational system which we are currently “double” funding, we are almost investing in educating children to maintain our perceived differences and values. I also think it is very sensible to join with England, Scotland and Wales in allowing people to be treated equally in all aspects of life. This progressive upbeat message and vision from a young Unionist is very encouraging. Sport for all is an excellent choice also.