The responsibility of leadership. Fellowship Graduation Speech by Dominic O’Reilly.

Centre for Democracy and Peace Building Executive Team, Fellowship Advisory Board, invited guests, and of course, fellow Fellows. 

In preparation for saying a few words tonight about the Fellowship Programme I decided to speak about the lived experience of this programme.

I have had to write this down because, to do justice to this programme and what it has delivered, I didn’t want it to be an off the cuff remark.

In this time of immediate answers, urgency, and confusion I believe it is ever more important to stop, think, and reflect on what one’s words will be.  Such is the power of words.

I could speak and write for hours about this experience, maybe I will.  It has been a journey like no other.  We have each engaged as much as possible in all of our time.  I have learned and unlearned a great deal.  There are two key experiences I’d like to mention.

On our first day at the symposium I found myself seated alongside John Healy and chatting about the programme. I don’t know why, if it was nerves or what but I recall asking him, “So how long has this programme been going?” to which John responded, “Well this is the first time…” “Really?” “Yes!  So you best make it a good one!”

Over time, I have genuinely gained an appreciation of the importance and power of John’s words that day.  The responsibility of leadership.

The second was as the Fellowship was coming to an end I found myself having a conversation with another Fellow about a fairly contentious matter: women’s reproductive rights.

For the first time ever, ever, I became aware that we were having a discussion and not a debate.  It wasn’t about one being right and one being wrong.  It wasn’t about winning or losing.  It wasn’t about changing their mind or them changing mine.

It was about learning about where they were coming from, understanding, and growing.  It required deep listening and a willingness to not have to be right, but just to engage with them.  Ultimately it was about empathy, and shared empathy at that.  I cannot describe what a rewarding conversation it was, when I consider we both hold such strongly held views on the matter.

I honestly do not believe I could have had such a conversation before this programme.

When thinking about tonight I did wonder, how are we graduating when there has been no final exam?  However, as Karise has said so beautifully: leadership is a muscle.  The test for us will be in exercising that muscle as we leave here, in how each of us lead in politics, business and civic society in the next decade and beyond.  That there are some Fellows here who will stand in the Assembly election next year is such a beautiful thing.

Whether we are in politics, business or civic society we need to work together, to be nourished by each other, to challenge each other and to make sure we are not repeating the mistakes of the past but building up the community of this place we call home.

For me personally, I’m continuing on my journey with a new perspective and appreciation for politics.  I entered this programme with a grounding in nonviolence.  The Fellowship has only deepened those roots and made me want to share it with others, to ennoble and empower and to challenge others and myself.  Be warned.

More importantly though, I have gained branches of Fellow leaders, that I can lean on, that I can encourage and that I can work with and who I cannot wait to work with.  The challenge is on us now to take the major investment which so many have placed in us and to transform our shared home into a place of understanding, empathy and genuine inclusion and equality.

Thank you to Eva and everyone who invested, prepared and delivered this programme.

Now, in conclusion last week Eva very kindly referred to me as the Poet, and that just warms my soul.  In the Spirit of Possibility I’d like to end with these words for everyone here tonight, committed to building a more democratic, and peaceful home for us all.  We are the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building.



I sat one day in Belfast town,

An old man stopped, May I sit down?

Please feel free, come take a seat,

Rest your heart and rest your feet.


The old man sat, sir you are too kind,

But do you mind if I ask, just what’s on your mind?

You look deep in thought, your face it is stern,

What weighs on your soul? Please help me to learn.


The cause of my worry, is hard to make clear,

I feel lost in the present, where the past has appeared.

I cannot make sense of the anger and fear,

I cannot make sense of the voices I hear.


The voices you speak of, what do they say?

Do they console, or condemn, or perhaps do they pray?

No, the voices are angry, they shout and they grow,

They say who to blame, and call out the foe.


Though I know in my heart there is more to their call,

There must be a reason for their frustration and gall,

Yet still in my heart, I feel a fear rise like a flame,

It’s the path leading on from anger and blame.


We know where it leads, that pathway I fear,

We saw it before, for too many years,

The worst of it is, the ones on this track

Have lived through it already, so why drag us back?


I watch the events now unfolding at ease,

And see foolish leaders, who can’t see wood for the trees,

Just what will it take for their anger to quell?

Why can’t they just listen, and let their hearts swell?


I guess I’m just worried, at decisions we take,

Always remaking the exact same mistakes.

I just want to look forward with faith and not rage,

Know our future is free and not locked in a cage.


My soliloquy now finished, the old man leaned in near,

Your truth you have spoken, it was a privilege to hear,

I know you are worried, and I know you are scared,

But just hear me out, and we’ll take it from there.


The world only moves forward, it can never reverse,

Regardless of those who shout, scream or curse,

They are the ones resisting the tide,

But it’s just their own fears, and their own foolish pride.


Remember there is only so much you can do,

You can’t fix it all, but you can start anew,

So now every day when you rise from your bed,

Give thanks for each one, your foe and your friend.


Embrace all your fear and your worries and doubt,

And don’t be afraid to cry, wail or shout.

You are only human, and so let it be heard,

Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the world.


The old man he stood and then shook my hand,

Don’t worry my friend and don’t fear for your land.

For the Spirit of Possibility, is alive in your heart,

So now go move forward and now make a start.


Tell your truth in all those places you’ll go,

Bring love to the fearful and the ones filled with woe.

Let your own heart-truth be your battle cry,

Let it reach to all corners and soar up to the sky.


Seek out the ones who will not agree,

Don’t let them slink off and don’t let them flee,

Make sure that they listen and make sure they know,

If they can’t work together, then they’ll just have to go.


Help others to see past their ego and rage,

Collective future assured, like birds out of a cage,

Build up the home where violence will cease,

Build it up a home of democracy and peace.


So keep your heart gentle and keep your heart kind,

And always remember, look after your mind.