Leaving behind his flak jacket

No, he is not a war veteran but Tony Reilly has worked in many trouble spots of the world, including Iraq where he served as British Council Head just before coming to Sri Lanka. Here he speaks to Smriti Daniel on his vision for the BC among other things. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

August 19, 2009, Baghdad: When the bomb explodes, it lifts his car up and flings it forward. The four vehicle convoy grinds to a halt, surrounded by debris, smoke and gunfire. Tony Reilly, clothed in his flak jacket and helmet, is safe inside, but just behind him, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the scene of carnage – nearly 60 people are killed outright. Another bomb planted at the Ministry of Finance combined with mortar shell attacks on the Green Zone and more bombs in distant parts of the city bring the final death toll to a hundred people, with over five times that number counted among the injured. Over a year later, Black Wednesday’s destruction will have been partly repaired and the Foreign Ministry rebuilt. However, Tony, counting himself fortunate indeed to have survived unscathed, would have been reassigned. After two years as the Country Head of the British Council in Iraq, his next assignment is Sri Lanka.

There’s a conversation that he remembers having had just before the bomb went off. He was speaking with the Education Minister about programmes in Iraqi schools when the latter declared that education was ‘a valve for peace and prosperity.’ It’s a sentiment that Tony couldn’t agree with more – “Education is so crucial, it paves the way for a whole new set of values among children,” he says, adding, “it has a great role to play, particularly in imparting values of tolerance.” When we meet him, he’s still settling into his new office at the British Council. Having been in the country for just two weeks, his life is still a round of meetings – throughout which he intends to be firmly in “listening” mode. Tony wants to know what the British Council can do to support the country in Sri Lanka’s time of transition.

Tony Reilly

He comes to his new undertaking with an interesting perspective. His previous postings have to varying degrees placed him in a similar position. Serving in countries recovering from intense internal tumult and conflict, Tony has worked in post-apartheid South Africa, seen the ‘peace walls’ that separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland and witnessed firsthand the sectarian divisions that sprouted in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq. A career spanning over 20 years has taken him to other countries like Turkey as well, but I have the feeling that Tony’s last two postings have done much to shape his belief that the British Council is as much about creating a space for discussion as it as is about the U.K exams. “One of the things the British Council does through its network of offices is to create a forum where people can exchange ideas, can exchange knowledge in a very open ended and non-predetermined way,” he explains.

A strong desire to recruit the arts to his cause lies at the heart of his approach. He also seems to take the most pride in programmes that in Sri Lanka aren’t heavily publicised aspects of the Council’s work. Connecting Classrooms and Global Changemakers (that supports young activists) have been focus points in Tony’s previous postings. During his time in Iraq, the British Council supported the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq – dreamed up by then 17-year-old pianist and Global Changemaker Zuhal Sultan. Struggling with the constraints imposed by the tumult in the capital, the project had children auditioned via youtube and tutored over skype. Two summer school sessions with European musicians and conductors brought down by the Council were followed by two concerts that were hailed as entirely successful.

In Ireland, Tony whose father’s family is Irish, discovered that over 800 years of less than ideal relations between Ireland and Britain were beginning to show signs of improvement. He responded by developing a body of essays that discussed “the changing nature of the relationship and the complexity of the relationship.” Titled ‘Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined,’ it was followed by another collection, ‘Through Irish Eyes.’ ‘Connecting Classrooms’ linked schools in Iraq and Ireland – Tony played host to Iraqi ministers who toured the region.

Later, his decision to bring down The Tricycle Theatre’s verbatim play ‘Bloody Sunday’ for the Dublin Theatre Festival had him fielding calls from concerned MPs. The play drew from the controversial four-year-long Saville inquiry into the events of January 30,1972 when British soldiers opened fire on a group of civil rights marchers, killing 13. The report, only published this year, found that the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable." Tony’s decision to convene a panel discussion after the play that included victims and relatives of those killed raised concerns. “That was quite risky,” he says, looking back. However, his belief that the “arts are supposed to provoke discussion,” helped him make the decision to go ahead. He is clear though about where the British Council draws its line – “we don’t determine what people gain from our programmes, discussions and debates. It’s open ended. It’s about exchange.”

Now in Sri Lanka, he hopes to do the same. “We want to try and ensure that our programme of cultural relations is responding to the context, to the place the country finds itself in. Obviously, we do so only at the invitation of our host government and our partners.” His short time in Sri Lanka, and his experience in similar contexts has led him to believe that as the country opens up to the world, its people will be eager to embrace the host of opportunities available.”People want to look outwards, to engage with the outside world,” says Tony.

He hopes to see some of this first hand when he goes down to Jaffna for the beginning of the European Film Festival. The British Council intends to expand the range of their programmes and services to include Jaffna. Aside from the arts, the Peer Mediation programme and Connecting Classrooms (that will link Sri Lankan classrooms with those in Ireland, among others), they are also focusing on teaching the security forces Tamil under a Military Communication Skills project. Sharing his pleasure over the work of forum theatre troupe ‘Shakti’, Tony articulates his hope that all these small gains will “stack up” and ultimately make a big difference. “I think we need to make a meaningful and welcome contribution to this country. What that is, what is meaningful and what we should or should not do I’ll learn by listening to the government, our partners and our staff.”

Sri Lanka will probably be home till 2014, and Tony expects that much of his learning will happen now on the job. Having begun his career as an English language teacher with the British Council in 1987, he describes himself as “specialist generalist.” Now 51, he says he still misses the buzz of classrooms. With 2,500 people walking into the British Council every day, though, he expects there will be plenty to keep him occupied. He says he will be “flying solo” for the foreseeable future as his wife and children will continue to be based in Dublin. However, he has already begun to make himself at home. Having paid a visit to the local markets, he’s rediscovering the joys of fresh seafood and travelling without a flak jacket. It might be in part due to such small luxuries that he is already enjoying his posting in Sri Lanka: “some people call it a reward, which it is,” he says.

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