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From Queen’s to global peacemaker

Conor Houston, Queen’s Law graduate is Director of Houston Solutions Limited, and Chairman of several organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland, One Young World 2023 Belfast, and of Fleming Fulton School. He is also the Governor and Trustee of the Irish Times Media Group.

Conor Houston

What does Queen’s mean to you?

 I’m often reminded of Seamus Heaney, his famous line when he talked about the original centre. I think, as I reflected, I’m making this video today, Queen’s University very much is for me, my original centre. It’s where I formed my passion for Law, which was the career I practised in for most 10 years. But it also gave me a number of skills, perspectives and opportunities that continue to this day, and I’m very proud that I have for almost 20 years, I’ve had an association with Queen’s University. 

What was your Queen’s experience like?

I graduated in 2004, with my Law degree. I had a fantastic three years at Queen’s, made a lot of friends who are still very much friends today, and I suppose it ignited my passion and interest in in law and the rule of law. I was very fortunate through my times at Queen’s to be involved in a number of summits and conferences, but also to go and study at the European Public Law Group Academy in Greece, in 2004, which was a really fantastic opportunity. It was my first time, I suppose, with young people from right across Europe studying together, all the different languages, cultures coming together and united by European Union law. 

That was a very formative and special time. And in fact, a number of the things that I’m continued to be involved in, tend to have that international perspective and lens. After I had completed my Law degree, I went on to study for my Master’s in Human Rights law, and was very fortunate that there was an opportunity to do a cross border element. So I did the first half of my Master’s in Queens, and the second half of my masters at the National University of Ireland in Galway. And again, that was a very special time and experience and a number of the friendships and relationships I enjoy to this day were because of that cross-border experience. 

What was your first graduate role?

I graduated from Queen’s with my Master’s and I then went back to Queen’s to study at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, where I was finally admitted as a solicitor in 2008. I was lucky that I had a firm that I did my apprenticeship with John J. Rice and Company in Belfast, which was a criminal and human rights firm.I worked there for almost 10 years and was fortunate to be involved in many of the pioneering human rights cases of that time. I was dual qualified in that I was qualified both in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland. So I practised a lot in Belfast and Dublin. And during my time in practice, I was very involved in the profession. Firstly, through the Young Lawyers Association, the Northern Ireland Young Solicitors Association, which I ended up becoming Chair of, and we had some fantastic conferences and events and a lot of fun with that group. I was then the first lawyer for Northern Ireland to be appointed to the board of the European Young Bar Association, which our relationship continues to this day. And 2010, we actually brought the European Young Bar Association conference to Belfast, so it was fantastic to bring all these international lawyers to our city. 

What has been a career highlight?

I suppose a combination of all those roles, as well as being so very fortunate to be representing some leading human rights cases represent journalists, politicians, and many others. I suppose I became very interested in how law can affect change, I was very passionate about making a difference. And that’s what attracted me into law, the power of law to create change in a society. 

I was very fortunate that the cases I got to work on, were very much about driving that change. But I suppose I became interested in how could I do even more so in 2014, I was awarded a scholarship by the United States State Department. And I spent a few months, I took a sabbatical and took a few months out to Boston College and then into Washington, and on their rule of law programme, which really started to develop my thinking more around the skills and experiences and perspective I had, and what I could do. 

Whilst my mission was very much about helping people and making a difference, trying to refine what I could do with that, I became very interested then around maybe getting involved around politics and trying to create change to help complete our peace process, and to, I suppose, realise the enormous ambition and potential of Northern Ireland. 

What are some of your favourite work-related projects? 

I was very honoured to be appointed as the programme director at the Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding. And I worked there for a number of years and worked on some fantastic projects around working with, for example, community organisations, youth groups, loyalists bands. And it was a great privilege to be involved in their work in trying to help to complete the peace process and build capacity within both civic and political society. 

One of the amazing projects I got to work on with them was the EU debate programme, which was set up about nine months before the EU referendum. And the idea was to create a space for informed thinking and debate in Northern Ireland, on the issues that the Brexit referendum would have, particularly as it pertains to Northern Ireland. 

I was involved with the board in rolling out a very ambitious programme where we engaged with community groups, youth organisations, religious organisations, every political party in Northern Ireland. And we really began a conversation, we weren’t trying to determine the outcome of the debate, we were trying to make sure that there was a debate. So we were neutral in that we weren’t trying to tell people to leave or remain, we were just trying to present all of the arguments and create that space. And that was a very humbling experience. 

Queen’s University Belfast were very involved in supporting that project. In fact, we launched a new debate in the Great Hall in Queen’s and academics from the School of Politics, including Professor David Phinnemore were involved in writing a briefing paper for us. So it was very important to us that it would be underpinned by that credible academic expertise, but also the have that support of the reputation of Queen’s.

Why did you set up your own business? 

I decided to set up my own consultancy, and I suppose what brings together a number of the clients and projects that I work on, is that one thing to realise the ambition of Northern Ireland. So I work with a number of leaders, all of whom may be coming from very different backgrounds and sectors, but all of whom are very passionate about realising the enormous potential of Northern Ireland, and trying to drive change here. 

I suppose that’s what unites the number of projects that I’m privileged to work on now. And as I mentioned, I’m government trustee of the Irish Times Media Group. So the Irish Times is owned by a trust, and there are eight of us appointed to effectively act as the shareholders of the group. So we’re there to sort of look at the long term vision and that’s been particularly interesting, interesting in an age of post truth and thinking about the lines around freedom of speech, etc. So, and a lot of that, of course, goes back to the learnings that I had when I studied both my Law and Master’s degree around the issue of proportionality and competing rights. 

What is One Young World? 

I’ve been involved in leading a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023. So in 2017, I was asked to address the one Young World Youth summit in Bogota, Colombia. One Young World is the world’s largest youth summit. It brings over 3000 young people from every country in the world, to a city each year. And it’s one of the only organisations aside from the Olympics that actually gets every country in the world involved. 

And this is about identifying the future leaders, both within business but also within NGO sector, just young people that are passionately driving change right across the world. So I was very fortunate to be invited to address this summit in Bogota, Colombia in 2017, and was introduced on stage by the then president of Colombia, President Santos and the late Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. Both of those men spoke about the impact that Northern Ireland had on their journeys to peace, and this was a very humbling moment for me. 

When I addressed the summit, I realised the power of our generation and the generation watching this video, to effect real change, not just within the place we will call home, but also in terms of making an impact in the world. So I then began the process of building a team to put together a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023, and we were successful in that. 

How has your degree from Queen’s helped you?

Queen’s is that passport, not just for your career, but to accessing opportunities, and a fantastic network right around the world. So, you know, I’m extremely proud of the many hats and roles and things I’ve been involved in being a graduate of Queen’s University is really up there, and I look forward to continuing that role with Queen’s. 

What challenges have you faced?

When I was a lawyer, and some of the projects I work on, particularly some of the Civic roles that I have, I think one of the challenges your generation is going to face is how we engage with the people we disagree with. So one of the challenges is always when you have very passionate about change, or seeing something happen, and you encountered the resistance to that.

I think that one of the big challenges that I challenge myself every day, I think that we have to all turn on is what can we do to engage with the people that we disagree with, how we, I’ve often said we don’t have to agree but being disagreeable is a choice. So we need to find more places and spaces in which we can find that ability to respectfully engage with each other and actually see that compromise is an art, it’s not a sellout.

I think this is something that I encourage your generation to really challenge I think that the future will belong to those who can build relationships that can be constructive that can respectfully disagree with each other, but can see the common good can work together for the common good, can see the bigger picture that is the challenge of your generation. 

What gets your out of bed in the morning?

I don’t feel that there’s an average week. For me, I think that’s probably what I love most about my, my work. In fact, I don’t even feel like I have a job because I’m very fortunate that everything I do, whether it be in my business life or my civic life, they are projects and issues that I’m very passionate about. So I jump out of bed in the morning, passionate about making the change in the area that day, whether it be through being on the border shadows and LGBT youth organisation, whether that be in promoting the role of small businesses through the five and a half 1000 members, and I have the privilege of being Chair of the FSB, and speaking up on their behalf, whatever I can do to to advocate change, to advance those who are trying to make a real impact. 

That’s what sparks me on in the morning. 

What advice do you have for graduates?

I think that’s one of the most exciting things about this generation, the graduates of today is that you really do have a blank canvas to create the kind of life and career that you want for yourself. And Queen’s University, as I say, is the ideal place to give you that toolkit for you to be able to do that. 

It’s for me, it’s that life journey, it’s not just about getting that degree wasn’t really that important that you do, and it’s about the relationships that you build, the skills that you have, and they will sustain you for the not just years but decades ahead. And you know, as I said, it’s 20 years this September since I started Queen’s, and I’m reminded of something my late grandfather said to me, he said 20 years is a long time looking forward, but nothing looking back. 

And for the first time, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like two decades ago I entered Queen’s University, but those two decades, I’ve had that original centre of Queens, which has, as I say, been a constant thread throughout my career both here in Northern Ireland and through the international experiences and opportunities I’ve had. 

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Five Tips for Building a Career Around Your Passion

Natasha Sayee, Head of External Communications at SONI Ltd,  the electricity system operator for Northern Ireland on how she harnessed her passion to drive her career.

Natasha Sayee, Queen’s Law graduate and Communications lead at SONI LTd.
  1. Don’t rule anything out

When I was at Queen’s, if you told me I’d end up as a senior manager at a utility company, I really don’t think I would have believed you. I have a love of geography and environment and of nature. And I was a young Greenpeace activist. But I also had a love of debating, of the stage and of public speaking and was involved in local radio from I was about 16. . I wanted to be on TV. And I wanted to move in to reporting using my investigative nature, my passion for public speaking and my love of current affairs to become a reporter. And that’s what I did. I completed a Law degree. Then I moved to England where I did a post grad in Broadcast Journalism, worked my way through the BBC, until I was the most senior general reporter in the Belfast newsroom, and acting Ireland correspondent. And I worked on every story imaginable from the MTV Europe awards coming to Belfast to the unfortunate economic downturn and from elections to crime. I was at the top of my game, but it wasn’t exciting anymore. It wasn’t a challenge. And so I stepped into business, I haven’t looked back, I lead a team of amazing PR, Media Communications and engagement specialists doing the most challenging work I’ve ever done. What’s amazing about this role is that it’s a complete blend of everything I’m good at and interested in, so people, current affairs, and with that focus that we have on climate change. Well, I just come full circle in terms of my love for the environment and sustainability, which I really care about. 

2. Challenge yourself

I am really passionate about what I do. And if it’s challenging, then I bring my best every day. If ever it forces me to drive hard, then it is something I will stick with. And if you’re like me with a fire in you, with that drive, harness that passion, hook it into your career, and keep moving until it feels right and you will succeed. A Law degree from Queens has provided me with a really solid platform to allow me to make all of these jumps and leaps. It says to an employer that you’re informed, you’re considerate, you’re investigative, you’re confident and analytical. You could be a judge, it could be a barrister or a solicitor, an in-house solicitor, or you could become a reporter, or you can become a business leader… with a Law degree from Queen’s, really the world is at your feet.

3. Don’t be blinded by passion

I think at times my passion has blinded me, particularly perhaps when I was at the BBC, where I would have gone through walls to succeed without perhaps taking on board others or their feelings or collateral damage, really. And you can really only get so far on the steam of your own passion. To be truly successful, you need to take that passion, use it to motivate others, collaborate with them, understand what makes them tick. And then think about how you can combine all that fire together to achieve. All that’s possible. Passion is a great thing to have. It’s a warrior’s traits, but create your battalion. Don’t do it on your own, network and make those friends for life. I mean, my best friends are my family. I met them at Law school at Queen’s, they’re my units; they’re my power source. I just couldn’t imagine life without them.

4. Be a team player

You know, people with passion are warriors, we’re fierce, we’re strong. But I’ve learned that that can be intimidating. And that can lead to isolation. So don’t do a solo run, find your squad, find your network, your Battalion, you’ll achieve so much more together. And it will be a much better experience for you. You need to be empathetic as well. What issues are your colleagues dealing with at home? How can you support them? You know, really, relationships are the absolute cornerstone of good business, taking time to get to know those you’re working with. If someone doesn’t sound right in the phone, you’ll know that they there’s something wrong or if someone is on a video call, but maybe isn’t making as much of a contribution as they would normally. Well what’s going on, you know, you need to find that out and try to help that’s really important.

5. Give your passion context in an interview

If you’re interviewing for a role, display your passion proudly, and it will shine through, but make sure you back it up. And that means giving examples of how you’ve put your passion into play, to go the extra mile, whether that’s being top of your class in your subject, whether that’s volunteering, coaching others or taking on extra training. And try to keep a lid on your passion during an interview. What I find throughout my whole career, and it continues to this day, is that nerves and passion can be a really dangerous combination. So it can go one of two ways. You can appear arrogant and overconfident, , or you can get jittery, and you can end up waffling. So breathe, prepare, prepare again. And when you get into that room, whether you’re presenting or you’re sat in front of an interview panel, plant yourself, like a big oak tree, you know, really sink your feet into the floor, like you’re growing roots, and take some time to blossom. Channel that passion that you have to keep focused on what’s important and look after yourself and others. Passion is an exceptional standout quality. But it is like magic. And you have to challenge it and control it and make it work for you. 

You can stream Natasha’s recent talk on the Gradfest2-21 site here:

https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/graduate-support/UpcomingLiveStreams/