Lower Mainland students interact with key Northern Ireland political figures in the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland

Langley, British Columbia—They read about world leaders in textbooks, but most university students never dream of meeting the prominent political figures who shape history. This summer, ten Trinity Western University students traded in their books for the real thing. As part of studying the peace and reconciliation process with Trinity Western’s Irish Studies program, the students trekked to England, Ireland and Northern Ireland to meet and interact with high level political figures, academics, community leaders, security force personnel, religious leaders and militants from both sides of the conflict.

“It was almost surreal,” says Jessica Houghton of Belcarra, B.C., a second year student at TWU. “When you read about someone, you form an opinion about them from what you read. Then you meet them face to face and suddenly your opinions change. You learn about their backgrounds and why they think the way they do, and you realize that their opinions are valid, even though you may not agree with them.”

Over the course of three months, the students met with more than 30 key figures including Martin McGuinness, minister of education and chief negotiator for the political wing of the IRA, Paul Murphy, secretary of state for Wales and former minister for political development in Northern Ireland, and Peter McGuire, detective superintendent of the Irish Police and the man responsible for counter terrorism in the Irish Republic.

“Initially, we thought we would only have a limited amount of time with some of the key people we met,” says Craig Seaton, PhD, associate professor of sociology and director of the Irish Studies Program at TWU. “For instance, we thought we would have only 45 minutes to one hour with former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, one of the key figures in obtaining the IRA cease fire. We ended up having about two hours because the interaction between the students and Reynolds was so positive.”

In preparation for the journey, students completed a rigorous month of classes at Trinity Western University, researching and acquiring information about the conflict. They then went to London, England for three days to meet with political figures before moving on to Dublin for the duration of ten days. While in Dublin, the Canadian Embassy provided the group with a meeting room to interact with Irish political leaders. For the final five weeks of the program, students lived in a residence hall at Queen’s University of Belfast in conjunction with the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s.

“We met everyone from the Irish Prime Minister to the locals,” says Houghton. “No matter who we met, they all wanted to tell us their story—what they were doing and why they were doing it.”

For Adrienne Dueckman, a third year student at TWU from Maple Ridge, B.C., the program provided the opportunity to learn how to apply lessons from the conflict in Northern Ireland to situations in Canada. “So many people are unaware of the other side and don’t really understand each other,” says Dueckman. “It makes you consider how you can apply this at home. We know that there are problems here, but we often don’t think about them because they aren’t as widely known.”

Dueckman admits that Northern Ireland’s beauty and safety surpassed her expectations. “We often only hear about negative things surrounding the conflict in Northern Ireland,” says Dueckman. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found it to be so calming there. The people are just wonderful.”

Craig Seaton’s sentiments, exactly. That is why he has traveled to Northern Ireland every summer, save one, since 1988, and has led five student groups on the Irish Studies program.

In 1990, Seaton received a grant to study the reconciliation movement, and spent four weeks conducting interviews with people across Northern Ireland’s communities. During that time, an IRA bomb exploded, killing several policemen as well as an innocent bystander.

“I felt so badly about how things were,” says Seaton. “The weather had been really awful that June, but one morning the sun was shining brightly. As I looked across the garden of where I was staying, I saw these beautiful butterflies and was struck by the parallel between butterflies, as a picture of transformation, and the work of the reconciliation groups.”

So when Seaton took his first group of students to Ireland in 1992, he, along with the group of students, presented laser copies of a painting of butterflies by a Canadian artist to five reconciliation groups. In 1998, Seaton and his group of students presented the original painting to the president of Ireland. It now hangs in the White House of Ireland.

While the Irish Studies Program has taken on more of a political flavor over the years, Seaton maintains that peace and reconciliation are still the underlying themes. “There is still a strong emphasis on working with the reconciliation movement, the larger context around which the conflict has developed and how it may be possible for Northern Ireland to have a better future,” says Seaton.

And according to the man who founded and continues to develop the Irish Studies Program, it’s an experience that no classroom can emulate. “I don’t think that it can be compared to a regular classroom at all,” says Seaton. “It gives students a chance to ask questions of the people that they have read about and have seen on videotapes.”

While Seaton decides when he will take his next group of students to Ireland, he will bring a little of the Irish flavor back home. As part of a series of speaking engagements called the Irish Studies Colloquium Series, several speakers involved in the conflict and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland will speak to Trinity Western University students and the general public this year. The series will begin on October 20th and will feature Roy McGee, who played a prominent role as an intermediary between paramilitaries and the Irish government.

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a privately funded Christian liberal arts university enrolling 2,763 students this year. With a broad-based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 34 major areas ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 12 graduate degrees including counselling psychology, theology and administrative leadership.

Last Updated: 2012-08-21
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