In the latest of our Northern Roots series, where we speak to people originally from Northern Ireland but currently living elsewhere, our interviewee is Joanne O’Neill. You can follow Joanne on Twitter @JoanneONeill_.


1. Tell us about yourself. When did you leave Northern Ireland, and where did you go? What do you do now?

I was born and raised in Co. Tyrone. My home is in Brackaville, I went to primary school in Primate Dixon Primary School and then onto Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon. Having had a passion for Business Studies at school, I studied Business Management at Queen’s University Belfast. A year after graduating I moved to London to pursue a place on the Teach First Leadership Development Programme. This programme meant that I was placed in an inner city school in London were I taught for three years.

During the first year on the programme I obtained a PGCE in Business Education from UCL and continued to teach for the next two years at Westminster Academy. The academy is situated in one of the most deprived boroughs in London were many of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds and trying personal circumstances. Supporting them both academically and pastorally was hugely rewarding and I learned a lot from the staff and students throughout the three years. At the end of July this year, I left Westminster Academy – with great experience and memories and moved to Dubai to teach Business and Economics at Dubai English Speaking College.


2. What do you think when you see the Northern Ireland of today, in the news and on social media?

I occasionally watch BBC Northern Ireland and listen to Radio Ulster in order to ease that little itch of homesickness that often comes and goes. It’s great to see and hear how Northern Ireland is progressing in terms of culture, arts and leisure. It is with pride that I watch many local sporting hero’s represent Northern Ireland across the globe.

As much as possible, when teaching both Business and Economics I try to use examples and stories from Northern Ireland. However, with more than half a year without a functioning government it’s hard to speak positively about the political state of the country without feeling embarrassed and frustrated about the current situation.


3. Are you hopeful for Northern Ireland’s future? Will Brexit make a difference?

Northern Ireland has a lot to be proud of. The recent inclusion of Belfast and the Causeway Coast as the Number One Region in the world in ‘Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2018’ is very impressive and will surely help to further increase tourism within the country. In addition to this, Game of Thrones has put Northern Ireland firmly on the map.

It is encouraging to see continuing signs of improvement in economic conditions in Northern Ireland which has been particularly evident in the labour market. It’s extremely positive to see an increase in employment, especially as this increase has been driven by growth of the private sector – particularly within the services, manufacturing and construction industries.

With regards to Brexit, I often get asked this question from my students and each time my answer if different. It’s mind-blowing that the place set to be most affected by Brexit has no voice in the negotiations. It appears that Theresa May’s hard Brexit policies might create serious difficulties for Northern Ireland, sabotaging the Good Friday Agreement, putting jobs at risk by restricting cross-border trade and complicating the rights of those from the North who travel to the Republic for work, sport or to visit family and friends.

My mother, sister and I at the famous Burj Al Arab in Dubai. My mother was able to visit in September as she is now enjoying her well deserved retirement after teaching Business for 37 years at Lismore Comprehensive School, Craigavon.


4. Do you think you will return to Northern Ireland? What could convince you to come back?

Absolutely, and I can’t image that it will take much convincing. My family and most of my friends have remained in Northern Ireland and quite frankly I don’t think I’ll ever be able to call anywhere else in the world ‘home’.


5. What can Northern Ireland learn from the place you live now?

Dubai is a place where east meets west. Residents here represent over 180 different nationalities across the world. Of all the nationalities in Dubai, I am a huge fan of the men and women from the Philippines. With their commitment to family, religion and a warm and welcoming nature, the Filipino culture shares many traits with that of the Irish. Irish expats and Filipinos find common ground in their general sense of happiness, but perhaps what we could all learn from them is to be happy with less. Since arriving in Dubai I have admired their unwavering optimism, sense of humour, industriousness and their grace under pressure.


6. If Northern Ireland had a president with sweeping powers, and it was you, what would you do?

I would work to improve the issue of teacher unemployment – for too long, government cuts to schools are forcing many qualified talented teachers, like myself, into emigration.

I would ensure that Entrepreneurship was implemented within the school curriculum. It’s no secret that entrepreneurs are pivotal to creating wealth and driving economic growth, innovation and employment. Teaching children the skills to start, manage and operate their own businesses would be the first step in creating a more independent and driven generation of youth in Northern Ireland.

I have joined a GAA club – Dubai Celts, were over 60 Irish girls are training every week. Most of who are teachers who have emigrated due to lack of jobs at home.


7. What would you like to see more of on Northern Slant?

Reviews of all the new local hot spots; restaurants, bars and leisure facilities – that way I’ll know exactly where to visit when I return during the holidays!


8. If you could ask Northern Ireland politicians (past or present) to dinner, who would they be? And why?

John Hume – I would discuss his time as a teacher and how he used his position within education to help narrow the economic and social divisions of the country. I am also interested in his involvement in the Credit Union movement.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir – Máirtín did a fantastic job as Mayor of Belfast and I think I could learn a lot from his positivity and energy that he brought to the role.

Local woman Michelle O’Neill – I’m sure we’d chat about all that is great about Coalisland!


Myself and my cousin Ronan graduating from University College London – after both of us completed the Teach First Leadership Development Programme. Ronan too is a teacher who has emigrated due to lack of permanent jobs in Northern Ireland. 


9. Do you have a favourite quote, or mantra?

A very wise woman – my grandmother, once told me ‘what’s for you won’t go by you’ and to this day it has always been a mantra that I live my life by.


10. What’s your message for people back home?

If you ever find yourself in the UAE – my door is always open!

Graduation at UCL.

Also published on Medium.