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Politician Tina McKenzie and soldier Colum McGeown not trapped by their past

Colum McGeown, a soldier who lost both legs in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan, and Tina McKenzie, a high-powered businesswoman who is chair of Northern Ireland's newest pro-union party, would seem to have little in common.

Yet both have made a remarkable odyssey from their childhood days growing up in west Belfast, eventually defying the natural order of things in that part of the city.

For Colum, joining the British Army was not a great patriotic statement, but rather a way of escaping a life of grinding poverty and a dysfunctional home life.

But although he grew up in Andersonstown, where there would have been strong anti-army feelings, he never regretted his decision to join up, even if it resulted in horrendous injuries. Tina's journey, surprisingly, is even more remarkable.

The daughter of a former IRA terrorist who is now held in Italy accused of money laundering for the Mafia, she left Northern Ireland after she was turned down for a job because she failed the security checks.

In spite of her staunch republican background she now chairs NI21, a pro-union party set up by two disenchanted former Ulster Unionist MLAs.

Their stories are remarkable because Colum and Tina have defied – but not denied – their upbringing.

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Unlike so many people here they chose career paths which they felt offered them the best advantages in life and they refused to be stereotyped by family ties or where they lived.

Their stories do not fit in to the normal narrative of life here, but surely that is a good thing in a province where tribal instincts are so deeply ingrained. Everyone should read their stories in this paper today. They are inspiring and an indication of how the province could throw off the shackles of the past.

By speaking honestly and openly about their decisions, they challenge the too often closed thinking that pervades society here. We should not be trapped by our past – as individuals or as a society. If we can accept that then we could truly see a new Northern Ireland.

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