One of the pleasures of being a ‘former’ elected leader/politician is that from time to time I am asked to contribute to panels or speak at events, and so in that context I am just back from University of Notre Dame, in Indiana over in America.

For those of you unfamiliar with Notre Dame, it is the foremost Catholic university in America.

As with most things in the US, the scale of everything – from the campus, to the 80,000-seater American Football stadium – is enormous.

The university is home to 10,000 students, 95 per cent of whom are Catholic, and to facilitate their spiritual need, each dormitory – of which there are 31 – has their own chapel and their own priest.

The university was set up by a priest from the Holy Cross Order, and they still provide the President of the university to this day.

Not only is the university very Catholic, it is also very Irish – the slogan of the football team is ‘Go Irish’, and everywhere you go on campus, you are left in no doubt that this is an ‘Irish’ university in America.

The week before I arrived, one of the guests on campus was the former Irish President – and my former lecturer at Queen’s – Mary McAleese.

She was speaking about Global Catholicism; my conversation was a little less grand!

So, I hear you ask, why did this Irish Catholic college ask the former leader of the DUP to have a conversation with their students on women in political leadership, and her political belief in Unionism?

The genuine answer is I had no idea before I arrived, but as I spoke with the professors and staff from the Irish institute, it is, I believe, because they genuinely wanted to listen and understand the different perspectives that exist here.

I went for a similar reason – to engage with Irish-Americans who were prepared to engage in a meaningful way, and not just accept the caricatures of Unionists in Northern Ireland.

The campus, if I am entirely honest, was initially outside my comfort zone, but the warmth of the welcome and the graciousness shown to me soon put me at my ease.

I was shown around the campus by a lovely young woman from Cork who was studying international affairs, and hopes to go to work in diplomacy.

I attended and spoke with undergraduates (who were studying The Troubles) for an hour, and then the event in the evening which I was invited to participate in was polite and engaging.

With the rise of secularism in the United Kingdom at present, not to mention the ongoing Middle East crisis, and the ensuing fallout here in our democratic structures, it was strangely comforting for this Protestant to witness students and academics extremely comfortable with their Christian faith.

Walking past young people in corridors talking about Bible study and going to chapel was refreshing.

Every day in the House of Lords, we begin our deliberations with a time for prayer, and yet for those of us who are practising Christians, it often feels a cold house to speak about matters of faith.

For a country built on the values of Christianity, there are many in our society who seek to devalue the role of the Christian church today – some atheists blame religion for all of the woes of the world – bad religion never does any good that is true, but genuine faith, having a personal relationship with God and trying to live out His teachings, will not bring anyone to strife, let alone some of the awful conflicts that we are witnessing today. Anyhow, lack of faith was certainly not an issue for the young people I met in Notre Dame.

I found an openness and genuine curiosity – the opposite of closed minds.

One of the professors put it very well. He said, ‘We are a Catholic Irish university, but if we want to claim to be a top-class academic facility, then we must interrogate all sides’.

If I had one wish for the new administration at Stormont, it would be that they do just that – that they genuinely listen, learn, and try to understand ‘the other’.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended a Northern Ireland football match on Tuesday night to reach out to the wider Northern Ireland community. That is good and to be welcomed. She attended with the deputy First minister Emma Little Pengelly and the two junior ministers, as well as Communities Minister Gordon Lyons.

It is not the first time the leader of Sinn Féin in Stormont has attended a Northern Ireland match as Martin McGuiness watched Northern Ireland verses Germany at Euro 2016, but that was in France. When I attended the GAA Ulster Final in Clones in 2018 I did so to show respect for the “other”. I went along with the late Christopher Stalford and we both stood for the Irish National anthem. We were in the Republic of Ireland and therefore had no difficulty in doing so. I am pleased that the First Minister has done the same when she attended Windsor Park on Tuesday evening, bearing in mind we are, according to the Belfast Agreement, in the United Kingdom. It is important that the national anthem has been respected as up until now it has been avoided when senior Sinn Féin members attended events at Windsor Park. I think it is a positive step forward for a Sinn Féin First Minister to stand for the national anthem of the country she leads with Emma Little-Pengelly.

Some people may say why has taken so long? I’m glad it has even at this late stage.

Reconciliation and respect are not easy, it is about going outside our comfort zones, and I certainly did that last week, but I am extremely glad I did. Bringing the rational, logical message of Unionism is something I will continue to do – wherever the invitations come from. It’s why I set up the TogetherUK foundation to bring out the positive messages of being part of the UK. Others will try and destroy the UK: the job of those of us who believe in the UK is to bring the positive message of our Union.