Thumbs up for St. Columb’s

Lembit Opik with St Columb's students Sean McKinney and Eamon Logue during his visit to St Columb's College this week.  (0203JB08)
Lembit Opik with St Columb's students Sean McKinney and Eamon Logue during his visit to St Columb's College this week. (0203JB08)

The lecture theatre in St. Columb’s College is full and silent.

On a large white projector screen at the front of the theatre is a picture of inside the Houses of Parliament.

A man paces back and forth in front of the screen; he’s talking to a couple of hundred College boys about the importance of politics in modern society; all of a sudden, he finishes.

“I’m Lembit Opik and you’ve been a great audience.”

All of the students show their approval with a loud applause and some even run the risk of missing their bus home just so that they get the former Liberal Democrat MP’s autograph.

Lembit is also well known for his relationship with Gabriela Irimia (one of the Cheeky Girls), ITV weather presenter Sian Lloyd and his appearance on reality television show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’.

Lembit’s public profile aside, he served as an MP for Montgomeryshire for 13 years and was the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for over ten years; he lost his Westminster seat in 2010.

The reason Lembit visited St. Columb’s College is simple; he was asked to by teacher Mrs. Jacqueline Smyth.

“It’s thanks to a debating competition that took place recently and Mrs. Smyth’s persuasive powers that I find myself here. I enjoyed talking to the boys about politics - it was a great experience.”

In 2011, St. Columb’s College pupils, Christopher Dillon and Patrick Mulholland won a debating competition organised by CIPFA. Lembit was the chairperson of the judging committee that day and after chatting with teacher Mrs. Smyth he agreed to come to the school to talk to students about the importance of politics and to encourage participation in debating.

“I’ve been to Derry loads of times. I used to be the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I spent a lot of time here during the peace talks and negotiations.

“I’d come here at the drop of a hat. If anyone would like to invite me to do something in Derry, no reasonable offer will be refused. I really love coming here, I really do.

“I’ve been back to Derry since then, mostly to do with work. In my previous visits I never got the chance to visit St. Columb’s College but I am glad that I’ve been able to come here this time,” said Lembit.

Lembit claims to have developed an affinity with Derry and the North of Ireland during his time as Shadow Secretary of State. He said that the Derry he saw this week is worlds apart from the one he knew almost 15 years ago.

“I always like coming to Derry. Through my various visits to the city I have noticed an economic improvement. The city has received an amazing peace dividend and you can see how the place has changed over the last 15 years. Derry was always a confident city but I think that it has found its equilibrium through the peace process and it’s just a pleasure to come here.

“The atmosphere has completely changed. It’s gone from one of tension to one of community. Derry is so much more welcoming to people who have never been here before and when I go home I am always telling friends and colleagues about the amazing places I’ve been to and Derry is one of them.”

St. Columb’s College’s Alma Mater is well known throughout the world. The school has produced famous politicians, authors and athletes. Lembit, a keen Leicester City supporter, revealed who his favourite past pupil is.

“In terms of St. Columb’s, it’s hard not to be impressed. Obviously the school has produced the famous politician John Hume and the gifted poet Seamus Heaney but if you were to ask me who my favourite former pupil is it would have to be Martin O’Neill.

“I am a Leicester City fan and Martin O’Neill was the man who led us into the Premiership. He’s an amazing manager and it showed, because as soon as he left Leicester City started going backwards again. I went to Inst. (Royal Belfast Academical Institution) and they never produced a Leicester City manager.”

The son of Estonian parents who moved to the UK before World War II, Lembit was born and reared in Bangor, Co. Down. Lembit left the North of Ireland to study philosophy at the University of Bristol when he was 18. He first became an MP in 1997.

“Politics is the operating system for the human race. Some people say that they find politics dull but it’s all to do with the way in which it’s presented. If I had any advice to give it would be this - watch the world quietly to see what people do well and what people do badly. Secondly, only attempt to make a difference when you understand the facts because there are too many people in the political world who talk before they think.”

Lembit’s defeat at the last general election came as a great surprise to many Liberal Democrats. Asked if he had any plans to return to politics he said that he had a few things he wanted to experience first.

“I’d like to stand in a general election again but there’s a list of things that I put off to become an M.P. so I want to give them a go first.

“I want to develop my training and development work. I also want to manage a few pop bands and want to get them on to the international scene.

“One of the groups is called the Electric Flowers - they are an electro 80s style pop group from in and around London. I’ve another band called The Pros - they are a ska band. The third group I am involved with are called the Dee Byrne Quartet - they are a jazz band.

“Working with bands is something I have dabbled in for many years but it’s something that I am taking very seriously now.

“The Electric Flowers are set to launch their first single and we are shooting a few videos in a few weeks time. If anyone would be interested in getting in contact with the band they should just email them.

“The Electric Flowers will be going on a UK tour soon and hopefully, if everything goes according to plan they’ll play a concert in Belfast and one in Derry.

“I want to do all of what I have mentioned. I want to live a little because I’ve spent a lot of time serving. I can always come back to a parliamentary career later. There are so many wonderful things to do in life and I want to do them.”

Fourteen year-old St. Columb’s College student Gary Mallett described Lembit’s talk as interesting and said he was surprised at just how wide-ranging a life in politics could be.

“I think that through today’s event I learnt that politics has more influence on what happens in the world than I originally thought.

Year 13 pupil, Patrick Mulholland, described the event as excellent and praised the school for giving students the chance to “make a connection” with the outside world.

“Today’s event was excellent because I think that Lembit really stressed the importance of government and the role it plays in our lives.

“I think that it’s through such projects that the importance of voting can be highlighted to young people. Just because you don’t take politics seriously doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t take you seriously.

“It’s great that Mrs. Smyth and the school organised this event today because it creates a connection with the outside world, it’s something that you don’t get within the four walls of a classroom. Education permeates more barriers than just books and exams,” he said.

For further information on Lembit’s band, The Electric Flowers, email the band at info@theelectricflowers.com