After working for a couple years, being back in the academic world is a blessing. There is nothing like being able to spend your days sipping a cappuccino, eating a raspberry and white chocolate scone, debating the circumstances under which it might make sense to derogate from Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are very few other situations in which such behaviour might even be called “productive.” The ability to manage your own schedule, to get up when you want to, to go to the gym, to take a walk, to take a couple days off to travel through Southern Spain, to spend a Sunday watching all three Lord of the Rings, or most importantly, to sit down and think for a moment—these are the things that I have missed and have regained during my time here thus far. They are not things that you have the freedom to do at your leisure for most of your life. Coming here to Northern Ireland has been the perfect and much needed chance not just to regain such opportunities, but to truly cherish them as well, knowing that my sole purpose here is to experience, to grow, and to learn.
Though my academic program has been central to my experience here thus far, it is true what they say, that in the British/Irish system, it really is what you make it. I only have two classes and each only meets for two hours once a week. Coming to Ireland from an experience in which I was working ten hour days, I was at a bit of a loss during my first couple weeks here—what was I supposed to be doing with all this time I had on my hands? (see above paragraph about Lord of the Rings). I enjoyed class and often got a lot out of it, but felt like I needed a bit more. Luckily, I quickly found ways to occupy my time and I think I can understand now why they organize the course in the way they do. In U.S universities, we are often so overwhelmed with “required” reading and work for our courses that we don’t have the opportunity to really pursue things on our own. Though I went to the library every now and then while an undergrad, I don’t think it ever really registered for me that there were books there, and that I could check them out, and that some of them might actually be worthwhile.
Thankfully, I’ve realized that pretty quickly here and have spent much of my time just reading—mainly books that are in some way relevant to what I’m studying here, but also philosophy, history, literature, things that I’ve always wanted to learn about but have never had the opportunity to. The other students in the course are incredibly diverse and a great resource as well. I’d say that about two-thirds are either from Ireland or Northern Ireland, with the other third being from all over the world. The discussions that we have, not just in class, but also before and after class, have been very valuable. I’m often looked to in order to speak for the “American perspective,” which is a strange position to be in, but it’s fun, and it has helped me better understand how Americans are perceived abroad. I also signed up for a Spanish class which I’m taking a couple hours a week and for a Salsa dancing class. Who would have thought that I might come back from Belfast with better Spanish vocabulary and a more fluid “Cuban step”!
I have also just started an internship at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was established as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and is considered one of the few truly successful human rights commissions in the world. I will be performing policy analysis for the Commission a couple days a week, looking at the policy submissions and consultations they have made and following up to find out what the results were. For learning about human rights in the Northern Ireland context, this is the place to be, and I’m excited about my experience there, however brief it is going to be. I literally am sitting in the office three doors down from the Chief Commissioner, who was a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, and next door to the woman who is in charge of writing the Bill of Rights. I guess in the Northern Ireland context that would sort of make me like the equivalent of Thomas Jefferson’s intern’s intern. Whether or not that means anything I don’t know, but it’s cool to be able to be right in the middle of where such important decisions for the future of this country are made.
Belfast itself is an interesting city and has abundant cultural and social resources for those who seek them out. I really did not know what to expect before I came here. Maybe for that reason I tried hard not to “expect” anything. With that said, some of the news must have slipped in at some level, because I was indeed surprised by the “normality” of Belfast. When I lived in Sarajevo for a couple months last summer, it was impossible to ignore or forget what the city and its people had recently gone through. The battle scars were still there and open for everyone to see. The buildings were all riddled with bullet holes. Some still had mortar shells right through the middle of them. Though Bosnians were resilient and tried to live perfectly “regular” lives, this was still a post-conflict society and you could see it and feel it wherever you were.
Belfast doesn’t have the same feel, at least not in the areas where I have spent most of my time. Things here seem pretty normal. The city centre feels like that of any medium- sized European city. All your major chain stores are there. Young people are everywhere. There seems to be very little fear. Societal divisions don’t take center stage. There are no advertisements or signs for protests or political parties. Very little political graffiti, and what is there seems directed mainly at Israel and the U.S rather than each other The murals are there, yes, but in many ways they feel like relics. Maybe relic is the wrong word. But in any case, it is hard to make the connection, at least thus far, from these murals to the people who feel so strongly about what they represent.
Traces of the conflict and the divisions within have crept out at strange times in very indirect ways. The other night when we were leaving a night club, I stood with a group of new friends for half an hour as they asked some 30 different taxi drivers to take them home. According to the friend, none of the taxi drivers would take them because they “lived in a Catholic area.” Or with another friend at a bowling alley, I asked him if he voted. And he said, “Yeah, my Dad would kill me if I didn’t.” And I asked who he voted for, and he put a finger over his mouth, looked around, smiled, and whispered “Sinn Fein.” Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, is the more radical of the Nationalist parties and has had close ties with the IRA in the past. As a party though, it played a pivotal role in jumpstarting the peace process, achieving an agreement, and actively implementing and promoting the agreement over the past few years. It is actually one of the most popular of the parties in Belfast, but in certain parts of Belfast, it can still be dangerous to say that you are a supporter.
I don’t want to read too much into something that I don’t know very much about, but it seems as though they are at a stage here in Belfast where most people want to move on. Yet the peace here is still tenuous enough that people have not yet moved on enough to feel all that comfortable talking a lot about things.
It has also been an interesting experience being an American here in Belfast. It is nice to see a place where American engagement and leadership is acknowledged as playing a positive role (thanks in large part to our scholarship’s namesake). With that said, there is a lot of disillusionment with the United States and I can understand that. It comes out a lot, as one might expect, in many discussions about human rights. Yet it is almost as though people feel that America is “disappointing” them in a lot of ways; they know that America can do better and American leadership can achieve more, because they have seen it here firsthand. In this way, they still “believe” in America here and that has given me hope.
All in all, I’ve really enjoyed my time here thus far. Being in school, with control over my own schedule, and able to learn and discuss simply for the sake of learning and discussing, is great. But beyond that, Belfast is also the ideal place to study human rights, even if much of the learning must be done on one’s own initiative. Best of all, I’m really excited about the rest of this year. With all that I have already gained, I know that this is only the beginning.