Barry Phillips Meets... The Lord-lieutenant Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle MBE CBE

Posted in : Podcasts on 30 September 2019 Issues covered:

The Lord Lieutenant Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle CBE headshotThe Lord-lieutenant Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle MBE CBE was born and brought up in Derry/Londonderry in the 60s and 70s. Destined for a career as an opera singer in the conservatoire, her career aspirations were cut short by a debilitating illness.

Active for a while in student politics at Queen’s University, what followed was a hugely successful career in Public and Government Affairs, setting up her own consultancy firm and heading up major initiatives including “Taste of Ulster”– the award-winning worldwide campaign to promote food and hospitality from Northern Ireland.

In 1996 she founded the Belfast Buildings Trust, helping to save and restore some key historic building in Belfast.

In 2000 she was awarded an MBE and a CBE in 2008. In 2014 she was appointed Lord-lieutenantrepresenting Her Majesty the Queen in the County of Belfast following on from Dame Mary Peters.

In this wide-ranging interview Fionnuala talks about the futility of one-sidedness and questions whether there is such a thing as certainty.

Time flies when you’re with this lady. Her warmth, her genuine interest in people and her search for understanding key issues in life make her compelling company.


Barry: Hello and welcome to "Barry Phillips Meets". My name is Barry Phillips. And my guest today is the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast, Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, MBE CBE. She was born in Derry/Londonderry in 1960, and educated at Thornhill College before reading political science and history at Queen's University, Belfast.

During her time at university, she was active in the student politics and was elected to serve as vice president of Queen's Students Union and the regional convener of both the Union of Students in Ireland and the National Union of Students in the UK.

Alongside her academic studies, Fionnuala studied voice and opera with leading teachers in Belfast, Dublin, and London, but was robbed of a promising career at the Conservatoire by an illness. However, she maintains her passionate interest in opera and the arts, and currently serves as vice chair of Northern Ireland Opera with specific responsibility for young and emerging artists.

Since 1990, she has enjoyed a highly successful career in public and government affairs. She founded Northern Ireland's first independent public affairs consultancy working in the parliaments at Westminster, Dublin, Brussels, and the USA. She's headed up major initiatives for the UK and Northern Ireland governments, including Taste of Ulster, the award-winning worldwide campaign to promote food and hospitality from Northern Ireland.

In 1996, she founded the Belfast Buildings Trust, a registered cross-community charity that rescues and regenerates historic buildings for community benefit. Her work brought her to the attention of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and she has since served as a royal trustee of several of his charities and a senior advisor to his household.

She was awarded an MBE in 2000 and a CBE in 2008. She was appointed Lord Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast in 2014, following in the footsteps of Dame Mary Peters.

When researching for this interview, I spoke to a senior member of the Ulster Orchestra who had heard Fionnuala speak at one of their engagements. He said, and I quote, "She was one of the most engaging, motivating speakers I have ever heard".

Fionnuala: Oh, my word.

Barry: Lord-lieutenant, welcome to the podcast.

Fionnuala: Barry, it's a delight to be with you. Absolutely lovely to be here.

Barry: Thank you. Fionnuala . . . can I call you Fionnuala?

Fionnuala: Please do.

Barry: Thank you. Growing up in Derry/Londonderry in the '60s and '70s, that was a very interesting time in both the city's history and for Northern Ireland. And I just wonder what stands out most for you in your mind regarding your childhood and your childhood in that area of Northern Ireland?

Fionnuala: My childhood was a very happy and secure childhood. Truth to tell, I grew up on actually both sides of the border. Because although I was born in Derry, my parents had a home in Donegal. So that was very much the other side of my childhood and my life.

Strangely enough, despite everything that happened in Derry, and those were, as you say, dark days, my father was active in nationalist politics with the old Nationalist Party. And some people may just remember Eddie McAteer. So the house was always a hub of conversation, and debate, and discussion, but we remained remarkably untouched and unscathed by the happenings of Derry really from '68 onwards.

That said, I think none of us remained untouched or unscathed after Bloody Sunday, because I think that impinged and imprinted itself indelibly on our psyches. And I think to this day, it is a scar, and is a difficult and traumatic issue for so many people.

But I think my first experience of the raw sectarianism that sadly has been Northern Ireland in the past didn't actually happen until I came to university in Belfast. So my memories of Derry are very happy, very secure, lots of musical and cultural things. They do say Derry is the city of song, and that undoubtedly was my experience.

Barry: Yes. And when you came here to Belfast, Fionnuala, you read political science and history at Queen's University. Were you picking up from your father and his interest in politics?

Fionnuala: I think so. I think we were always encouraged to be civic-minded rather than specifically politically-minded, so that the affairs of community, the affairs of the place of which you were a citizen, were to be of interest to you, whether that was the political debate and discussion of the day or whether it was things like what was happening to your community.

Because the '60s and '70s, you may just recall, were also the time that lots of communities were being destroyed. There was lots of redevelopment, allegedly regeneration, which resulted in many communities being torn apart.

So I think yes, indeed, the atmosphere in which I grew up was a very strong influence.

Barry: And was the intention to go into politics after reading politics at university?

Fionnuala: Absolutely not. Absolutely, categorically not. I think my arrival at Queen's was what might be described as an accident. I had absolutely decided, at that stage, that I would be the next Maria Callas. Sadly, that didn't work out.

Very wisely, Guildhall School of Music, where I was to go and study, had said "You are too young. Go off and take a first degree and come to us as a post-graduate student".

And fate is a curious thing and a curious mistress, because obviously I needed something to fall back on when I discovered that I was not going to be the next Maria Callas. And when I physically couldn't sing for three years, I had to think very seriously about what came next. Politics, I have to say, was never in the equation.

Barry: And you mentioned just at the beginning there that Derry is the city of song. I'm curious where your interest in music came from. Did you get it from the city or from your family? Were your parents musical?

Fionnuala: They were. They were both very musical. My late grandfather was also extremely musical and a shareholder, such as that was in the old days, in the first opera house, would you believe, in Northern Ireland. That was actually in Derry, not in Belfast. But we'll say that in a small, quiet voice.

Barry: Which building was that?

Fionnuala: It was in a building in Carlisle Road. Sadly, now long gone, but they had amazing concerts there. And my grandfather was very proud to bring Count John McCormack to sing in Derry. And I grew up listening to all of those records, and have vivid memories of hearing "The Marriage of Figaro", and John McCormack singing there on the record when I was about 4 years old.

Barry: That was sweet. And so, the goal was, even when you were going to university, to become an opera singer? That was your ambition in life?

Fionnuala: Absolutely. It was very definitely. It didn't mean that I wasn't going to fully participate in the university experience, and I did throw myself into Student Union affairs and Student Union politics. It was an interesting time. It was a very interesting time. The student body was very polarised, was very divided. We, of course, had the trauma of the hunger strikes and the outworkings of all of that. And I suppose it was actually at Queen's that I decided that the politics of my parents and my parents' generation didn't particularly work for me.

Barry: That's interesting.

Fionnuala: And in that respect, I will always be grateful to Queen's and grateful to Belfast because I learnt so much in those very formative years at Queen's.

Barry: And it's interesting, isn't it, how for some people that suddenly happens that your politics are pretty much those of your parents for a while. And then something happens and you perhaps just go down a different avenue. And for you, it was a university degree and studying politics.

Fionnuala: And I think it was also about people. It was about meeting people who had a different perspective, who had a different background to me, and realising the futility of one-sidedness, that there was never only one way of seeing anything.

And I think it's interesting of my generation at Queen's, the number of, shall we say in Northern Ireland parlance, mixed marriages that emerged from that generation. And I have to say that some of the friends that I made at Queen's are lifelong friends, remain some of my best friends today.

Barry: And you mentioned earlier, Fionnuala, that your career heading towards opera was thwarted by illness. Did you see that illness coming? Any sign that you would have to tackle that illness?

Fionnuala: I didn't. I contracted a very rare but serious form of glandular fever that left me completely incapacitated for almost three years, which was a difficult thing at the time. And I struggled, quite frankly, to come to terms with that.

But I think, out of that, I suppose there was a seed, there was a spark of resilience that said, "This can't beat you. This can't get you down". And I had seen sufficient, I'd heard sufficient, I'd experienced sufficient of what some of my Queen's contemporaries had had to cope with. And, you know, perhaps I got away lightly.

Barry: And do you say that from the point of view your colleagues [inaudible 00:11:22] the troubles?

Fionnuala: Some of them were. Some of them either lived in areas where trouble, and gunfights, and civil disorder were daily occurrences. I didn't have that experience nor had I experienced some of the naked sectarianism that some of my contemporaries had had to deal with. And I think you cannot, having heard that, take that on board and respond in some way.

Barry: Yeah. And that was . . . we're talking about the early '80s, so it's only . . . it's less than 40 years ago.

Fionnuala: It is.

Barry: But you still remember quite strongly, you know, very vivid, sectarian discrimination going on.

Fionnuala: I do. I do. I remember very heated and very bitter debates in Student Union politics. I remember the catcalling. I remember some of the issues when I was vice president with responsibility for clubs and societies. One of the things that I was charged with doing by the student body was bringing the first ever NUS gay conference to Northern Ireland.

Barry: Goodness me.

Fionnuala: And I remember some of the, shall we say, personal insults and abuse that were directed at me around all of that. But compared to some of those individuals who were coming as delegates to the conference, again, it was nothing.

Barry: Yeah. And I suppose when it comes at you and you feel it's misplaced, it's still difficult to deal with, but when other people can'tfeel it's misplaced and it's directed personally at them, that's when it really hurts.

Fionnuala: And I think that brings us back to the futility of one-sidedness. You know, certainty is a wonderful thing. I'm increasingly of the belief that there's no such thing as certainty. And I think if anything, it absolutely convinced me that my trajectory would be about working towards what I hope was cohesive and productive change.

Barry: And constructive dialogue.

Fionnuala: And constructive dialogue and engagement. Absolutely.

Barry: And, Fionnuala, just to stay with your interest in opera for a while, I know now that you're still very active but in a different way. You have a lot to do with Northern Ireland Opera. You're the vice president of the opera, Northern Ireland Opera. What is it that Northern Ireland Opera is out to achieve?

Fionnuala: I think, very particularly, it's about giving voice to so many talented individuals. You know, we've just had a production of "Die Fledermaus" on stage at the Opera House. And I think one of my greatest career moments is that out of eight principals, five of them were born and come from Northern Ireland.

And to me, opera is where the words are not enough. The music is not enough. So we need them together. We need the power of the art form. We need to give that voice.

And, you know, there is this preconception that opera is elite, that opera is grand. In a European context, no one thinks that. And I think it's about showing how opera really . . . the themes are eternal. They're about love, death, and loss, and humour. There's lots of humour in opera. We're very happy to watch soap opera, but all of a sudden, we get a little bit scared when someone suggests the opera.

Barry: Okay. So, Fionnuala, for anyone who's listening who has never had an experience of opera, but is thinking, "Maybe I'm missing something. I ought to give it a go", where should they start? Is there anything at all like a beginner's opera that they might start with? Just to help learn.

Fionnuala: I think any opera is a beginner's opera.

Barry: Do you?

Fionnuala: You know, I think you just have to be open. Opera is about life. As I've said, the themes are eternal. It's about love. It's about loss. Of course, there are the big opera tunes that we all know. We know the "Habanera" from Carmen. We know "Nessun Dorma" if you're a football fan. But I think just go. And again, we think nothing of watching soap opera. This is bigger scale soap opera on stage with a live orchestra. It doesn't get better than that.

Barry: Fionnuala, when it comes to opera, I have to throw my hands in here a little bit and confess I'm a little bit of a pleb. So can I ask you a very basic question?

Fionnuala: Please.

Barry: I'm almost going a little bit red in asking this, but I'm curious when is a singer singing operatic singing and when is it anything else, something else? Is it to do with octaves? Is it to do with how a singer treats the notes? Is it to do with what it is they're singing? What makes something opera?

Fionnuala: Well, I think opera or classically trained singers are . . . how shall I put it? They're for a marathon and not a sprint. So as an operatic singer, you will spend many years training, perfecting your technique, your breath control, your ability to project over an orchestra, which, in many respects, is very often what you're being asked to do. You will acquire a very, very extensive knowledge of many languages because opera is frequently sung not only in Italian, but in German, in Russian, in Czech.

And I think it's about also . . . the days of simply singing are gone, so it's also about honing your acting technique.

Now, I think, for all singers, whether it's pop, or grunge, or opera, looking after your voice is extremely important. In fact, I would say that for all of us who are involved in public life, in public presentation, looking after our voice is very important. Because when we get nervous, we sound breathy. We don't support our voices. So good vocal health is very important. But I suppose the opera singer is a long time in the crafting and in the making.

Barry: Yes. And as you talk to me, I can almost hear the opera in your voice. You talk about vocal health. Do you still actively look after your own vocal health?

Fionnuala: Yes, I do. I think it's . . .

Barry: And how do you that?

Fionnuala: Well, I'm very conscious of how I breathe. It's a tip that I will use if I'm working with young singers, or actually even with young people who are called upon to give a presentation. If we get nervous, we get breathy. So we need to be conscious of how we breathe.

We need to become conscious of whether or not we're holding things in our throat. Are we relaxed when we're speaking? Are we properly hydrated when we are presenting things?

So I think all of those things . . . there are lots of lessons from singing I think that you can apply to speaking, to presentation, and to everyday life. And yes, I do practise what I preach.

Barry: And that brings me nicely into the next area for questions, Fionnuala, which is your public speaking that you do. I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast the conversation I had with this gentleman from Ulster Orchestra. And he was so, so motivated when I mentioned your name. And he said, "She came to speak for us a while ago, and she was absolutely brilliant". And he's not a gentleman who's known for overstating things, so I really thought, "I need to remember this and to ask you about this".

So when you speak, and as Lord Lieutenant, and I want to ask you about that in a moment, but when you speak, and you must do it quite often, do you go up thinking, "Okay, I've got an objective here to . . . I'm here to achieve something at the podium"? And if so, what is that?

Fionnuala: I think the most important thing that I do before I speak is I allow myself time to think. And I think that the thinking time is very important. What is it that I'm there to do? What do I need to achieve? And how do I need to connect? Because if I come away and haven't made that connection, that silken thread that links me and the people who, bless them, have to listen to me, then I've failed. So I think thinking time is very important. Establishing that point of connection.

And I think if people cannot come up to me afterwards and say, "Something that you've said, or an idea that you have presented has resonated with me", then I've failed. And it's not so much about delivering a message, but it is about connecting with people.

Barry: Sure. And how much of your opera training informs what you just told me there and this helps you?

Fionnuala: It's the same point of connection. It's the ability to reach out and touch people, and motivate people, and hopefully allow people some thinking time as well.

Barry: And, Fionnuala, I want to ask you now about another of your passions, and that's buildings, historic buildings. We're sitting, doing this interview, in a beautiful building, which you've played a fundamental part in rescuing. I'll perhaps ask you about that in a moment. But in 1996, you set up the Belfast Buildings Trust, which since then has rescued and restored a number of historic buildings.

I'm curious how confident are you in Belfast that we can hold on to our heritage through buildings? It seems to me that a number are beginning to look quite dilapidated and are on the way down. Are you confident that we can save a good number of these?

Fionnuala: I think, coming from where we started, back in the '90s, the awareness . . . these buildings, these historic buildings are . . . how should I describe them? These are landmarks not only of our physical landscape. These are landmarks of people's hearts.

And back in the '90s, there was a very little known statistic that we had lost as many buildings through dereliction and neglect as we had through our so-called troubles.

Now, I think there is greater public awareness. I think that there is a thought in Belfast that we have a very strong Belfast identity, that we do not want to be a [clown 00:23:37] town, that we do not want architectural infidelity or, perish the thought, mediocrity. And we do have a lot of it.

So I think these buildings do resonate with people. And I am confident that when, shall we say, there is danger . . . you see the response from people now, and I think that's a growing sign of cultural maturity, that people are not afraid to say that they care about buildings, that they care about these indications of who they are and where they've come from.

I agree with you. We are back to the perennial issue of resource. But I think there is a genuine desire to keep Belfast Belfast. And that is so important.

Barry: And could you say just a little bit about the building that we're in? For people who know Belfast, we're in the Ormeau Road, and as you travel up Ormeau Road to the big roundabout, there's this building on the right-hand side that is now a beautiful sort of pink colour.

Fionnuala: It's delicious.

Barry: You may have wondered what that building is all about, so could you tell us?

Fionnuala: This building, built in the 1860s, was originally the gardener's house and the gate lodge to the former Good Shepherd Convent. You've seen the size of the building, and it might amaze you to know that actually within this building lived a family of 11 people, grandparents, parents, seven children, and I must not forget the two greyhounds who lived in the yard.

The building obviously functioned as a family home for the gardener and handyman to the convent, and came within literally weeks of demolition. I'm very pleased that the Belfast Buildings Trust was able to move very quickly to take the building, and not only to take the building, but to put the building to good use as its own office.

It's a "seeing is believing" statement. It sort of says, "This is who we are. This is what we do. Come and see how we can reuse . . . how a little building like this can productively contribute to the community". And, you know, people love it. There is seldom a day goes past that we don't have someone call and just say, "Can I come in and see?" And that's a very good thing.

Barry: Yes. And before we went to record, I think you said there was an open day and you were surprised at just how many people came all day.

Fionnuala: We had 600 people literally queued around the block to come and see this little building. Now, if that's not resonating with people, I don't know what is. And people are charmed.

Equally, on the other side of things, our current project within the Belfast Buildings Trust is the former Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church on Carlisle Circus, which is a huge building.

So we are ambitious in what we do, but we're hoping that we're going to have a very, very good outcome in the near future for Carlisle Memorial as well, bringing another landmark of Belfast back into use.

Barry: And, Fionnuala, in 2009 you were appointed Deputy Lieutenant and then full Lord Lieutenant in 2014. That's a title that some people will be familiar with, but perhaps they don't fully understand what is involved in that particular role. So could you just say a little bit about what that is?

Fionnuala: Of course. The Lord Lieutenant is the personal representative of the Queen, and accordingly her family, in my case, in the City and County Borough of Belfast. This is an entirely honorary position. It is in the personal gift of Her Majesty. There are eight Lord Lieutenants in Northern Ireland. I'm the Lord Lieutenant in Belfast. There is a Lord Lieutenant in the City of Derry/Londonderry, and then six County Lieutenants. This lieutenancy, it may not surprise you to know, is the busiest in Northern Ireland. As the regional capital, obviously, we have lots going on.

And essentially, the Queen and her government expect four things of their Lord Lieutenants. We're charged with upholding the dignity of the monarchy, and representing the Queen and her family, organising their visits, and accompanying them when they come here.

The second thing that we do is we liaise with a range of organisations, from the military through to fire, police, ambulance, all of the emergency services.

We are encouraged to be active in the life of our area, whether that's business, or voluntary, or social, or cultural.

And the final thing, the fourth thing, I'm involved in assessment of honours, and very particularly, the honours that are the British Empire Medal given for outstanding and distinguished local service, and the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, which is an amazing award given to volunteers. It's essentially the MBE, the organisational equivalent of an MBE for volunteering. And it's quite staggering what is going on there.

Barry: And is it your experience that, in terms of volunteers, Northern Ireland does very well? Do you think we are a nation of volunteers?

Fionnuala: We are. We undoubtedly are. And I think the award of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, the statistics prove that. Northern Ireland consistently is up there with the best performing regions.

And I think it's testament to the strength of our community. It's testament also to the strength of our voluntary and community sector. And we way out-perform, shall we say, our population base. This year, I'm giving 7 Queen's Awards in Belfast alone out of a high total in the 20s across Northern Ireland. So it's very encouraging. And the breadth of what volunteers do and are achieving is staggering.

Barry: And, Fionnuala, presumably since 2014, you've met the Queen on a number of occasions.

Fionnuala: I have.

Barry: How would you describe your relationship with Her Majesty?

Fionnuala: I am Her Majesty's servant, Barry.

Barry: Yes, I know.

Fionnuala: I am Her Majesty's servant.

Barry: I thought I'd try the question anyway, you know?

Fionnuala: I think what strikes me very much about Her Majesty is not only her great grace and dignity, but I think also she is a servant monarch. She very particularly believes in serving her nation and her people.

And I think it was her father . . . her father had a very powerful private secretary called Sir Alan Lascelles who said that the monarchy's greatest function was to contribute to the sum of human happiness. And I think that that is a maxim that both the queen and her family embrace entirely. And I think no better example of dedication of service do we have than the Queen's own very long life.

Barry: It's a wonderful mission statement, isn't it, for a monarchy?

Fionnuala: It is.

Barry: Brilliant.

Fionnuala: It really is. One of the questions that I'm frequently asked is, "What happens next for monarchy?" And I don't think it's any surprise to say that monarchy is changing. And in the future, we will see a much slimmer public royal family. I think we will see an emphasis on connectedness. And I think it is also no surprise that they will look to their Lord Lieutenants to assist them in some of the heavy lifting.

So the lieutenancyis changing. In Belfast, I have a team of 24 deputies, who are amazing people, all of whom have made a very singular contribution to Belfast in whichever field they come from. And they do pretty fantastic work also. So I think we are going to have some interesting times ahead.

Barry: We're back to volunteers. They're volunteers as well, aren't they?

Fionnuala: Of course they are. Yes, absolutely. And not only are they volunteers, they are my eyes and ears in the City and County Borough of Belfast. And we cover a lot of ground. We cover a lot of ground. This evening, for example, I have an engagement, but so do eight of my Deputy Lieutenants, which will give you an indication of just how busy the Belfast lieutenancy is.

Barry: Wow. And I know one of your duties that you have is to officiate at citizenship ceremonies.

Fionnuala: Yes.

Barry: So you officially welcome migrants into Northern Ireland. I'm curious, what's your message? What is it that you want to say to people who are coming into Northern Ireland for the first time?

Fionnuala: I want to say welcome. [audio cuts out 00:33:41] . . . about Belfast, so be proud, Belfast, whether that is of your cultural diversity, whether it is by the excellence of your business, whether it is simply about being a strong community that has an emotional resilience. I would say be proud, Belfast.

Barry: And finally, there are many pieces of business advice out there, sayings, etc., that are more clever than true. Have you got one that immediately springs to mind?

Fionnuala: I think probably "to thine own self be true". Because certainly, if I cannot come home and live with myself, if I cannot close the door and think that I have at least tried to do my best, whether that's as the Lord Lieutenant or simply as a citizen of Belfast, then I really haven't done very much at all. So I think "to thine own self be true" isn't a bad one.

Barry: That's a beautiful answer to a wonderful interview. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I know how busy you are. It's taken a long time to get this space to do this interview, so I'm very grateful to you for your time, Fionnuala. And I wish you all the very best.

Fionnuala: Thank you so much. It's been a complete pleasure.


This article is correct at 30/09/2019

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