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Words of wisdom with...Stephen Burnside

28 May, 2021
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Our ‘words of wisdom’ interview celebrates our older people and the contribution they make. It gets their take on life, lessons learned and advice they would give to their younger self and younger people today. This month we speak to Stephen Burnside, a 60 year old retired barrister who has lots of advice and wisdom to share....

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

I spent the early part of life in Holywood, my mum was a nurse and an educator and my dad was a radio engineer for REME. I have one brother. I was fortunate to have a happy childhood and good family, mostly sheltered from the Troubles. I went to school at Holywood Primary and then Sullivan Upper.  I enjoyed school and was the first in my extended family to go to university. I studied law at Queen’s. 

I was a keen footballer and sailor, and played cricket at YMCA and then Cooke Collegians, finally retiring only a few years ago. I also enjoy quizzes, both attending and setting! I enjoy watching sports on TV and going to football, rugby, cricket and American football matches. I also throughout life enjoyed computer gaming and learning about IT and the internet, I did an additional degree with the Open University in Computer Programming. 

I moved to east Belfast when I got married to my wife Lesley – we were married for 22 years, sadly I’ve been widowed for 11 years.  I’ve lived in east Belfast ever since. 

What did/do you work at? 

After Queens I became a barrister and practised mainly in Criminal Defence law, before getting a job with the Public Prosecution Service and spending 25 years as a prosecutor. I was Senior Assistant Director there, taking early retirement about 5 years ago. 

Since retirement I have worked as a Consultant in Criminal Law, mainly for NI Co-operation Overseas. This involves travelling abroad and sharing knowledge with Judges, police, prosecutors and social workers aiming to improve justice systems there. I worked in the Balkans in the Middle East, mainly in the fields of Witness protection and child protection and child law. This was not full time work but kept me busy and interested in the field of criminal law. 

What has it been like living during the current pandemic? 

The Corona virus travel ban brought my work to an immediate stop, which was disappointing as we had a number of exciting projects on the go. I hope some at least will resume in the autumn of 2021. But I have been, like a lot of people, confined to home over the past year. 

I was lucky to be in the process of downsizing and I sold my house before I had decided where I wanted to buy – I rented a couple of houses before settling in to my new house last year. Packing, unpacking and organising gave me something to focus upon – especially making decisions about what had to go to charity shops, or the dump so I could fit in my new house. That gave me something to focus on during lockdown, but I am immensely glad that things are opening up again, I have badly missed going to restaurants and pubs! 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

To not be so afraid of making a mistake or messing it up. Be bolder in your decisions. 

What advice would you give to younger people today? 

The modern world is a tough place in many ways – it is faster and bigger than when I was young – but I would encourage younger people to take time out, despite the fast pace of life and the immediate communication of today; to escape every so often from phones and TV and use your imagination, think to yourself and not feel the need to put everything on social media! 

Remember everyone is different – it is not offensive for someone to like pineapple on their pizza, or to have a different opinion – read about why people have different views and think about what you believe. Don’t just parrot what someone says online – though people of all ages tend to do that not just the young! 

What age has been the best age of your life?  Why? 

I am lucky to have enjoyed the vast majority of my life; I have always said if I am unhappy I can either change the situation or accept it – it is my choice, I can’t blame anyone else. I am also optimistic and tend to focus on the good times. 

If I had to pick an age it would be around 45, when I felt I could understand my work, I enjoyed home, friends and socialising and I could still actually play sport! 

What in your opinion was the best decade? Why? 

People of my age have seen so many amazing things, been able to do so many things that our parents couldn’t see or do. I really can’t pick a particular decade above others as all have been good in their individual ways. 

Proudest achievement? 

I was proud to be able to go to university when people from my social background generally didn’t, I’m thankful for grants and the opening up of universities! But I’m proud of my wife and my home too. I’m pleased to have led an interesting and busy life and achieved a lot – perhaps my proudest achievement is ahead of me!

Would you like to take part in our words of wisdom interview?  Or do you know an inspirational older person who is young at heart and defies the stereotype of an older person?  Does your Granny love to surf? Or maybe you have a Grandad mad for skydiving?  Perhaps your older parents are still working or are selfless volunteers continuing to make a difference to their community.  If you know someone who fits the bill and who would be happy to be interviewed, we’d love to hear from you. 

Get in touch by emailing communications@copni.org