Spring Fever in Belfast and Abroad

Belfast is a constantly buzzing city with one event or another no matter what time of year. And while feeling somewhat disconnected from it these past two months with lots of travel with fellow Scholars, the news followed wherever I went. Some recent events:

1. The murder of Constable Ronan Kerr

In an event that was shocking for most everyone in Northern Ireland, a Catholic Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was killed when dissidents Republicans set off a bomb that was wired to his car at his home in Omagh.  Until this killing, targeted killings were seen as a thing of the past.   For students in the School of Politics at QUB, it was a wake up call to discuss the politics and policies of policing in Northern Ireland.

Ronan Kerr was 25 years old. He came of age to join the PSNI under one of the hallmark policies that arose from the 1998 peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement, namely the decision to recruit more Catholics into the police force. During the Troubles, over 90% of police were Protestants.  This caused distrust among Catholics who viewed the police force as biased at best.

So after the peace accord, a commission established to review and revise policing practices recommend that the newly constituted PSNI recruit an even number of Catholics and Protestants for a period of at least 10 years (effectively Spring 2001 to Spring 2011) to raise the Catholic proportion of the police force from approximately 8% to 30%. Just before Ronan Kerr’s death, it was made known that the Catholic proportion had reached over 29% and that the policy, in effect for ten years, had accomplished its goal and should be ended. A few days later, Republican dissidents affiliated targeted Kerr, one of the Catholics who joined the PSNI through the 50-50 recruitment policy.  This is an unfortunate incident, which the vast majority have condemned.

The best discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues don’t happen in any classroom, they happen in pubs and coffee shops all across Belfast. My advice to any American who reads this, interested in studying in Belfast, and any future Mitchell Scholars who are coming to Northern Ireland – go out of your way to make friends with people at pubs and coffee shops and outside the classroom who you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with. They’re tremendous portals into the rich history and people of Northern Ireland. All too often we fail to connect with people outside of our courses, and thus we miss better understanding where we are. Yes, you should read this as go to pubs, order a drink and chat up the person next to you.

2. Elections

The elections in Northern Ireland also (unsurprisingly) held my interest for some time. I even had the chance to volunteer for one of the Alliance Party’s newest councilors, Conrad Dixon. Thanks to former scholar Ty Dillard from the ’09 Mitchell class, I met and helped Conrad for a short while (though not nearly as long as I wanted to) on his campaign in Craigavon. This election was the first election since the initial, post-Good Friday Agreement, Assembly   In fact, this was the first four-year period in decades of stable governance in Northern Ireland, a true milestone for the state.

I write “state” for even after eight months here, I’m still unsure what the right word is to refer to the six counties of Ulster that comprise Northern Ireland. It is still a part of Britain but with unique properties, such as the free ability of each citizen of Northern Ireland to choose to affiliate as an Irish or a British citizen, a rare choice of national identities that is validated through passport choice.

The elections were great fun to watch and read about, especially as the Mitchell Scholars as a group had the opportunity to meet with the well-known Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the staff of First Minister Peter Robinson. At the time we meet with them in late February, they were knee-deep in hammering out budget deals.

I can only wonder as to what the next four years will politically bring to Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, the two major parties in the seven-party hodgepodge that comprises the Northern Ireland Assembly (and the political landscape for all other elections) made further gains in the recent elections. The middle-of-the-road parties that still hover on either side of the old divide, SDLP and UUP, both lost seats, and the progressive, centrist, non-sectarian Alliance Party made gains. So, I’d like four years of funding to watch what happens next… and of course study… please?

3. Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, and Newcastle

For anyone reading the Mitchell blogs, you’ve got to give it up to Kyle Krieger, the world traveler of the Mitchells. Kyle has traveled the world I think. He was my inspiration to do the little traveling I did. (When you’ve got a great partner from Northern Ireland who can unlock parts of Belfast to you that books and Queen’s U can’t, no reason to leave until you’ve explored your own backyard). Kyle led the charge to Paris at the end of March. But just before that, a sister/rival city of Paris was visited by the Mitchells, and that was Brussels.

Of all the Mitchell-related events and happenings this year, Brussels was by far the best and most instructive. The Irish diplomats who took care of us were fantastic and some of the most welcoming hosts I’ve ever encountered. Barry Tumelty hosted me and, truly Barry I’m so sorry for this, tried to explain the European Union (EU) to me late at night. The poor welcomes me to his place on the night I arrive from Dublin at 10:30 PM only to be peppered by me about the structure of the EU, the European Commission, and a whole range of other things. Barry spent a good hour explaining, and then lent me a law textbook on the matter I should have followed Barry’s advice from the get-go: you’ll figure it out with enough time.

Fortunately, the speakers that were lined up for us by foreign officer Ciara O Floinn were perfect for doing just that. By the end of three days, I had a better understanding of the trinity at the heart of EU governance, the role of the heads of state, and many other smaller bodies associated with the EU.  For the first time I can actually began to understand the system of governance that exists just across the Atlantic.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least say publicly Thank You to America’s Ambassador to the EU, Bill Kennard. A man whose work I was familiar with thanks to his years in government service, he graciously hosted a two hour lunch with the Mitchells and opened up on his own journey through public service and other topics that us enthralled. His candor and personal warmth were unmatched by any person of his rank I’ve recently encountered.

Paris. What can be said but with Kyle at the helm and Ibrahim helping him plan several journeys, we owned Paris for a weekend. Yongjun, Ibrahim, Kyle and I took to the streets of the city, attempted to storm the Bastille (didn’t really get to happen thanks to its not quite existing anymore in the same way), shopped on Boulevard Haussmann, gawked at and mocked the Mona Lisa (at least I did), experienced the Eiffel Tower’s beautiful lighting at night, and of course visited Versailles. I wish we could buy Versailles for the Mitchell Scholarship’s summer home!

Visiting Paris was rewarding not simply for itself but because of the company. Perhaps the strongest point for supporting the Mitchell Scholarship I can think of is the fellowship it creates amongst scholars, , and the effects that fellowship may possibly have decades down the road for the US, its domestic needs, and its foreign relations (and its continuing relations with the island of Ireland). This is hardly an idealistic sentiment. The same thing can be said of different fellowships supported by the US, such as the Truman Scholarship.

Next time I’ll summarize all the things he’s helped me uncover about Belfast, the political movements of the Troubles, and the need for a closer look at the ordinary in the neighborhoods of the second largest city on the island of Ireland.

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