By NI blog team

16 June 2021 - 08:31

Matthew (right) with fellow Future Leaders Connect delegates 

Matt O’Neill, who is currently studying for a PhD in Politics at the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, took part in our Future Leaders Connect programme in 2019 – Here he explains how he benefitted from the programme...

Tell us about yourself, when did you apply to the programme, what attracted you to applying?

I come from Ballymoney and was the first in my family to get a degree. I care very much about our society. I enjoy working on local issues and I am currently the outgoing curator of Belfast Global Shapers and Secretary of Integrated AlumNI. 

A major reason I applied for the programme was its focus on policy and how to use policy as a catalyst for change. I also wanted to learn from other regions and countries, and understand how I could integrate their approaches into my own work. 

My policy vision considered how Northern Ireland could develop a regional cyber security policy to protect our public and private infrastructure and engage with the rest of the UK and Ireland. We are known for cyber security excellence, but there is a need for Government to catch up with the private sector. 

I initially applied in 2018 but did not get through – but the feedback given to me post-interview was incredibly helpful for the second time around – and I would encourage anyone who applied before to try again.

Tell us about the programme – the format, location, make-up of participants.

For our cohort, the programme was two weeks long – with the first week spent at the Møller Institute at Cambridge and the second, in London engaging with policy officials from the Foreign Office and Westminster.

Getting to go to London was a highlight and I learned a lot from different figures we interacted with - including Lord McFall (now the Speaker of the House of Lords) - who I chatted to about educational justice for working class students in Northern Ireland. 

However, one of the best parts of the programme was the work we put in at the Møller Institute. There, we had a week free from distraction to engage with other people from the UK, USA, Canada, Mexico, Poland, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and Nigeria.   

We were taught about the power of emotive storytelling – and its importance when speaking to policymakers about our work. We also looked at how we structure our policy and communicate with experts and non-experts. 

It is during this time that you get to learn about your peers, their story and background. With the rise of technology, we don’t always take the time to understand what motivates someone and the programme gives you the space to do that.  

Tell us what you learned on the programme. What was your highlight(s)?

It is wonderful that you get access to important people - however, the people that have had a lasting impact on me are the other Future Leaders Connect members. 

Within society we are placing more emphasises around leadership and what this means. We often look to people who are in powerful positions and think we need to be in their position to seek change. What I learned is that you need to look to the people next to you and ask how we all can take a step forward together. 

The three most important lessons I now constantly try to implement are: 

1.The importance of active listening. 

2.The significance and value of consensus building. 


Without a doubt, you are gifted a community as part of Future Leaders Connect, who challenge your core beliefs and world outlook. This can be a reaffirming experience and change you radically. 

What have you been up to since completing the programme? 

I’ve made a start on visiting my Future Leaders Connect Family. I took a trip to Egypt and was able to catch up with the team there. They were very kind in taking me around and offering me cultural insights - and post-pandemic, I hope they can visit Northern Ireland too.

My policy direction has shifted into the area of peace and tech and I have published several articles on the topic of cyber peacekeeping. I am not where I want to be yet in terms of my policy vision, but I am still working away at this to make change. 

What advice would you give to anyone from Northern Ireland considering applying to this year’s programme?

I would start with asking yourself what change you would like to make within society. 

I am a big fan of design thinking – so once you have this, put all your ideas out there and from that, write a short synopsis for the application. Your policy vision should be from your own perspective and explain how you would engage society as this is what you will bring to the programme and where you will be tested.

I think we also need to hear from voices that are underrepresented within Northern Ireland, so I would encourage those who are, to apply. If you think Future Leaders Connect is not for you or out of your reach, don’t let that stop you from applying. Know you are enough, and you have a voice which is valued and should be shared. 

Finally, don’t let this year’s programme being online put you off, I would do it all over again even if it was - the value is in the people you meet and the global long-term network you join.

For 2021, our Future Leaders Connect programme is looking for 10 exceptional individuals from Northern Ireland to take part in a 6-week online policy and leadership programme. The deadline to apply is Monday, 5 July 2021. Find out more.

Matthew (right), pictured with fellow Northern Ireland delegate Kain Craigs and Baron Alderdice (Centre).