November 2005 Reflection

Welcome to my Mitchell Journal! This is a brief documentation of my first-ever experiences east of Maine, and the North and South of Ireland.

From the moment that Carie Windham and I set down in Derry/Londonderry Airport, I have noticed the people here to be warm, patient and welcoming — from a couple that offered to call a taxi, to the cab driver who waited while we spent a half-hour in the student accommodation queue to get our keys, to the university staff and fellow students, who have made it a great joy to be here.

I have also noticed that many people here have a solid understanding of American politics. It seemed to surprise some that there were Americans here who had the same active interest in their own situation: my first night at a pub in the North, when someone told me that she was from Omagh, Co. Tyrone, I told her that the only thing I knew about the town was the deadly bombing that took place in the August after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. She stared silently at me, shocked that an American would know anything about the tragedy. It seems strange, for many people here to talk about their own politics, but as an American I feel like I can get their perspectives from my unbiased one.

I decided that while a pub is not a bad place to learn about Northern Ireland politics, I could learn far more by participating in it. Recently, I started interning for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The SDLP is a moderate nationalist party, and although I have no position on the constitutional question, agree with many of the social and economic policies that it advocates. I have learned a great deal, specifically about housing, disability and employment issues facing people in the North and the implications of a regional Legislative Assembly, which is currently not meeting. Plus, I have great chats with the people in the office over tea breaks. (These sure don’t happen in Maine!)

With each conversational exchange, I am getting more used to the accent and word use. One of the first words that caused me initial alarm and then humor was ‘craic’ (pronounced ‘crack’) which means ‘good time.’ Some other examples peculiar to the Derry/Londonderry vernacular and accent are ‘fifty’ being pronounced ‘fufty,’ and being greeted, ‘Yes, Ben’ rather than ‘Good Morning” or ‘Hello, Ben.’ As a Mainer, made well aware of my own accent, I can appreciate these regional linguistic differences.

I have spent much of my free time touring the island. The locals here often return home for the weekends, and so the Mitchell Scholars usually spend the weekends travelling and visiting each other. With the others, I tasted a perfectly-poured pint at the Guinness Gravity Bar, watched Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest at the Abbey Theatre, and the heard the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in two visits to Dublin. I’ve seen the Spanish Armada exhibit at the Ulster Museum and toured the parliament building at Stormont in Belfast, and also have bussed down to Galway and cycled the hilly stonewalled roads of the Aran Islands. The other Scholars here are an amazing group, and in many ways we have already become good friends. I feel very fortunate to have this experience with and among them.

This city is an amazing place to study conflict resolution. I am at a university that has a partnership with the United Nations University (UNU) called International Conflict research (INCORE), which allows my course access to a diverse group of conflict research specialists and admission to interesting speakers and events. Recently I attended a lecture by Ramesh Thakur, the UN Senior Vice-Rector of UNU, who discussed the idea of “human security,” protecting humans from starvation, disease, and disaster in addition to military or terrorist threats, as a concept needing more emphasis by policy-makers.

I am learning from people in a place that has undergone, and is still undergoing, conflict. One of my professors was an active member in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and in addition to academically studying the conflict, he participated in years of negotiation processes that helped make the Good Friday Agreement possible. I am learning each day from a second classroom, the surrounding city, from some who have experienced the worst years of ‘The Troubles’ and others who are still victimized by sectarian violence today.

It is a very different world to witness children pelting armoured police vehicles with stones, to see those stones become glass bottles used for the same purpose by republican pub-goers on Halloween in Derry, or to read about those bottles becoming pipe-bombs used for the same purpose by loyalist marchers in September in Belfast. This is still a divided society: the vast majority of children in Northern Ireland grow up in segregated areas and go to segregated schools, political party participation for the most part is based on ethnicity, and paramilitaries still exert a tremendous amount of control over their neighbourhoods.

But although Northern Ireland is still divided, there is peace where even a decade ago people might not have thought it possible. The recent IRA decommissioning is a testament to this peace. The economic revival of the all-Ireland economy has been augmented by this peace. The Mitchell Scholarship, to honor Senator Mitchell’s role, was created because of this peace. So this peace, by the generosity of the U.S., Irish and Northern Ireland governments through the US Ireland Alliance, is why I’m able to study here. At this point I owe so much gratitude –especially to Trina, Dell and Kathy — and to those others who made my experience here possible.

It has been a little over six weeks since I boarded the plane at the Portland Jetport, and already I have had one the greatest experiences of my life. I eagerly await the challenges, excitement, and good craic that await me in the coming year.

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