I am delighted and honoured to say I have met His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet on a number of occasions both in Ireland and when I visited him in India. I have had the wonderful privilege of hosting His Holiness in Ireland quite a few times now. However, the first time I met His Holiness was in 2000 when I attended an event in my home town of Derry, Northern Ireland where he spoke to a group of people from across the political and religious divide who had been directly affected by the conflict here. Like many of those in the room that day I bore the physical scars of the so called "troubles", having lost my eyesight as a result of being shot by a British soldier when I was 10 years old in 1972 whilst on my way home from school. His message of compassion and forgiveness was very moving, extremely powerful and the impact on me of what he said that day was enormous.
His Holiness has an incredible ability to speak to everyone and manages to communicate some very profound messages in a very ordinary and sometimes humorous way. He helped me and I am sure many others not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the world to realise that forgiveness is a gift you can give to yourself. Forgiveness is not about the other person or in my case the British soldier who blinded me but is a way in which you can find peace and reconciliation within your own heart and mind. I realised after listening to His Holiness that my ability to accept blindness and my sense of contentment was because I didn't harbour any feelings of anger or hatred. In fact, I always wanted to meet the British Soldier who blinded me and in 2006, almost 34 years after the incident, Charles and I met for the first time and have remained good friends ever since. I was also delighted to receive an invitation from His Holiness to visit him and in May 2010 Charles and I travelled to his residence in Dharamsala for a special audience with His Holiness. It was during this trip that His Holiness agreed to become Patron of Children in Crossfire, which was a great honour for me personally and the entire organisation. Children in Crossfire is an international NGO, committed to the promotion and protection of the rights of vulnerable children caught in the crossfire of poverty. Children in Crossfire works in partnership with local organisations in Tanzania and Ethiopia to deliver projects on the ground, protect the rights of vulnerable children and provide access to improved health and education.
In celebrating His Holiness's 80th birthday we should celebrate the positive example he has continued to be in the world. There is perhaps no greater advocate for peace and compassion as respected worldwide as the Dalai Lama. He is a man of great warmth, depth, knowledge and insight. As a refugee from his native Tibet he has suffered a great deal alongside his people. His extraordinary work for peace has been recognised by his Nobel Peace prize in 1989. However, it is the great admiration and esteem The Dalai Lama is held in, by people from all walks of life and all faiths, that makes him such an important figure in a world that is deeply grabbling with complex economic, ecological and social problems, and the need to cultivate human understanding, connection and collective action.
On this occasion of his 80th birthday I would like to take this opportunity to thank His Holiness for his courage and incredible example of compassion.