Belfast Telegraph

'I hope the genie is out the bottle now for Northern Ireland businesses speaking up to make this a better place'

The Big Interview: Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly has found himself in the spotlight in recent times as he articulates the position of businesses in the Brexit discussions
Aodhan Connolly has found himself in the spotlight in recent times as he articulates the position of businesses in the Brexit discussions
Aodhan Connolly on the View From Stormont TV programme
Aodhan Connolly outside Primark
Aodhan Connolly at Stormont last month with Stephen Kelly Manufacturing NI; Angela MaGowan, CBI NI; Glyn Roberts, Retail NI, and Colin Neill, Hospitality NI
Ryan McAleer

By Ryan McAleer

Christmas is traditionally a busy time of year for supermarkets. But for Aodhan Connolly, whose job it is to speak on their behalf, busy doesn't quite cut it for the political and economic whirlwind of the past few months.

Like many other business leaders, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has been cast into the Brexit spotlight to speak for fears and frustrations of employers.

Throw in the Primark fire and the most challenging weeks for Belfast city centre since the Troubles, and it's been an interesting time.

"Being in the spotlight has its own challenges, and you have to be very careful what you say. But it has its own rewards. I was at the Def Leppard concert and I had five or six people come up and say: 'You're the man who keeps talking about Brexit, keep it up'," he explains.

"I do get some pretty nasty trolls on Twitter, but I do give them the due reverence they deserve.

"The joke that keeps floating around is that I'm not actually fat - it's a thick skin from working in politics!"

Being so busy means the 42-year-old Armagh native finds less time to engage in his artistic and cultural side.

An Irish speaking multi-instrumentalist, Aodhan is also an award-winning stage actor who has appeared on TV, including comedy Give My Head Peace. He also does regular voiceover work for cartoons broadcast on Irish language station TG4.

Growing up in Annakera, just outside Portadown, an interest in the arts and culture was instilled in Aodhan and his younger brother Peadar Og, mainly from his mother Kathleen (nee Marley) and father Peadar.

"We grew up in a bilingual household. My dad would speak Irish and my mum would speak English," he says.

"My father just had a real interest in the language. I think he got it from his mother. He started going to the classes in the 1970s and decided that we would learn Irish.

"He was very keen that we saw it as a normal language and not a novelty."

Although there were no Irish-medium schools in Portadown at that time, the family attended Irish language Mass and stayed in the Gaeltacht in Donegal up to seven times a year. "Our household was never political and I suppose that's one of the reasons why I have always been interested in the process of politics." he adds.

"My father and my mother were very strong into culture, they always made sure we had drama, music, language and the stories, but in terms of politics, my parents had their own politics and they gave us the space to made our own mind up."

First attending St John the Baptist Primary School, Aodhan went on to St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh, where he enjoyed academia and the arts in equal measure.

"My father was like a taxi driver. I was debating, I played tuba in the orchestra, playing Irish traditional music, playing a bit of football. We were out of the house five or six nights a week," he explains.

While he no longer plays the tuba, he still joins in on traditional sessions and plays at family occasions.

"I'm the annoying fella at the house party who picks up the guitar," he adds.

"I take notions on things. My missus says I just wake up one day and decide I'm going to do something and go and do it.

"I'm jack of all trades. Between the music, the languages and the cooking, I just like to have a lot of things on the go."

But his love of drama has stayed with him. And he says that his time on the stage was beyond measure in helping him prepare for the job he does today.

"I have always said that the reason I'm able to do my job now, should it be speaking to the Press, or give a lecture in front of 800 people, it's all from the lessons I learned while part of the Phoenix Players in Portadown, with Dennis and Angela McKeever.

"I'm always very grateful for what the McKeevers did. It gives you confidence and an ability to express yourself."

One of his proudest moments came when he was named best actor at the finals of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals for his portrayal of a British soldier in Brendan Behan's The Hostage.

"Some of the Brexiteers may think it's apt, but I also played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar," he jokes.

His acting CV also includes TV adverts and a few bit parts in the aforementioned Give My Head Peace.

"One of the regrets I have due to my work being so busy is that I don't get to do as much of the acting as I'd like," he reveals.

Most the drama in Aodhan's life these days comes through his work.

He recalled that he had seriously considered pursuing it after leaving St Patrick's, but instead he opted for law at Cambridge.

He spent two-and-a-half years at Girton College before homesickness brought him back to Northern Ireland, where he studied history at Queen's University.

A career spanning the world of culture, charity and consultancy followed. Aodhan became director of An Culturlann cultural centre in Belfast and Irish language station Radio Failte, before working for the Prince's Trust.

He returned to the world of politics full-time when he went to work for Chambre Public Affairs. Part of the role involved working closely with the British Retail Consortium, which made him an offer he couldn't refuse in 2012 to set up a local branch of the trade association.

Going from representing single clients to around 100 different businesses, each with their own nuances, came as something of a culture shock.

But his skills from the stage have kept him in good stead, particularly when cast into the media glare.

"It's about how you take messages and make them tangible to people. Those transferable skills don't change," he says.

"I've been doing this for six years, but the reason why I'm in the spotlight now is the political situation, because Brexit is going to make a huge difference to households and businesses here.

"But it's not just a case of us being wheeled out for a vox pop. Anything we say has a basis - it comes from the good work of our policy teams."

Outside his job and interests, much of Aodhan's life is dedicated to his 13-year-old son Thomas.

"I'm a very hands-on dad, the time I have with Thomas is very precious," he reveals.

"We do music, languages, we go running and a lot of cooking together.

"He was a wonderful child, but I'm hugely proud of the young man he is becoming."

Both Aodhan and his brother Peadar Og now live in Belfast: "We are exact opposites. He is skinny, blued-eyed and bald. You couldn't tell we were siblings until we open our mouths.

"My brother is one of life's good guys."

Living on the Malone Road, Aodhan admits he's still a country boy at heart, visiting his parents every week in Portadown.

"I'm very close to my parents. The older I get, the more I come to appreciate them," he says.

"I would like to move closer to home. But south Belfast is nice, everything is on your doorstep."

He also enjoys opening up his own home and cooking for friends and family.

"It's something I got from my mum. It's not just about the food, I enjoy the energy and the passion that goes into the food. But what I really enjoy is when I have my family and friends around me and having that time for each other."

Unusually for the world of political lobbying, the Brexit era has proved the catalyst for turning the sometimes competing sectors and industries in Northern Ireland into a united voice.

As representative for large supermarkets, fast food chains and other major retailers, Aodhan now finds himself singing from the same hymn sheet as farmers, food processors and other industries when it comes to the impact of Brexit.

"I think there's an understanding that we're all in this together. I think that there is a collegiate environment now that would never have happened before.

"I'm really pleased we've built those relationships. But as well as that, I've got some particularly good friends out of this.

"It's not often in your working career, that you get people from different industries mixing as well as this and it's to be cherished."

But will it last?

"I hope that the genie is out of the bottle," he says. "One of the reasons this has happened is because we don't have an Assembly, and other than (independent) Lady Hermon, the only voice at Westminster is the DUP.

"Civic society and business society previously put their heads above the parapet on other things, but quickly went back down again.

"I think and I hope this is a crossing-of-the-Rubicon moment for business, that we do make our concerns known, should it be for households, for jobs or for businesses,

"Because if we're thinking about economics and how to make Northern Ireland a better place to live, to work and to invest, then it does take it out of simple tribal politics."

Belfast Telegraph