Monday 21 August 2017

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon: One Young World's dramatic curtain-raiser

Donal Lynch

There was just the faintest rustle of taffeta across the stage at the Conference Centre in Dublin as the doll-like figure of Yeonmi Park made her way toward the microphone.

Her speech would end with the entire audience on their feet, many of them moved to tears by her story of escaping the abject gloom of North Korea, facing down soldier rapists on the way, seeing family friends murdered, burying her beloved father and living every day in fear that the regime's secret police will hunt her down and "make it look like a suicide".

It began, however, with an exclamation that reminded us that this newly-minted human-rights figurehead is also just an ordinary young person, someone who learned her English from watching Friends and whose very girlishness seems accentuated by the fact that her own girlhood was so brutally stolen. "North Korea is a terrible place," she told us, still wide-eyed with fear. "There is only one television channel!"

The Irish young people in the audience exchanged knowing glances. Amid all the earnestness about war, conflict and human rights here, at last, was a horror we could relate to. For a generation weaned on a continuous diet of smartphones, tablets and cable television - many of the young people at the conference had multiple devices on the go at once - enforced media deprivation might be the thin end of the oppression wedge.

In fact, the link between our Irish experience and the problems in the wider world was a guiding thread that ran through the week-long conference. Earlier in the day Dr Martin McAleese, husband of our former president, spoke on the conference's theme of peace and reconciliation, saying the quantum step to find the courage to be generous would be key for the leaders of tomorrow.

"You may also say that it is naive or idealistic," he told the young delegates. "But it is not, because we did it in Northern Ireland. The conflict there was vicious, violent, dehumanising. Unimaginable atrocities were committed. There was a real sense of hopelessness and despair. There was too much grief, too many tears. And, despite all of this, we found a way to do things differently. We found an alternative to the old way of meeting violence with violence, hatred with hatred, contempt with contempt, atrocity with atrocity, and we found peace."

If the North was one Irish success story that stood out at the conference then One Young World itself was surely another. Organisers David Jones and Kate Robertson hailed the Dublin event, of which Independent News and Media (INM) is a media partner, as the most successful in its five-year history.

"Whether it was from the North or whether it's from the great recession, (Ireland's) story is one of a triumph, it's one of society, it's one of communal values, it's one of people... pulling through," Mr Robertson said. "Of course, it helped that we had by far the strongest bid - driven by Bob Coggin, CEO of campus.ie and former president of the Student's Union in DIT and Clara Kelleher, a senior account manager at digital advertising firm Eightytwenty. And one of the other deciding factors in the decision to hold the conference here was that Dublin has become, what Robertson called "the capital of new technology for the whole of Europe".

The success of One Young World might lie in its telegenic marrying of heavyweight names from the worlds of politics, sports and business with the presumed leaders of tomorrow. It has some of the populist elements of reality television - ever more heart-rending back stories from the contenders, celebrity mentors, beautiful people - but the topics of discussion and the insights of the contributors give it the intellectual heft of an academic conference. From racism to climate change to human rights, every debate threw up new narratives. During the plenary sessions, the stage was full of famous faces, including former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, ex-Arsenal player Sol Campbell and 'Suits' actress Meghan Markle. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales arrived on the final day. Politicians such as former Irish president and current UN Special Envoy for Climate Change Mary Robinson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan delivered rousing addresses.

But it was the young delegates, some of them speaking in halting English, who really caught the imagination of the packed hall. The organisers saved the best for last, and so did Yeonmi Park. As she left the stage on the final day she threw open her arms like Eva Peron, and crouched, dipping her head to kiss the ground of the first European country she had ever seen. After all the harrowing imagery from her speech it was a perfectly judged moment of theatre. A star was born.

Sunday Independent

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