Study abroad students experience political shift in Northern Ireland

With a combination of classes, field work and internship, students witnessed the change.

by Lindsay Guentzel

Major changes in Northern Ireland’s government took place May 8 and now University students are being given the opportunity to be a part of it.

The Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs organization offers a study abroad program in Northern Ireland that allows students to be directly involved with the country’s social change.

Nigel Glenny, HECUA’s Northern Ireland program director, said Northern Ireland is trying to restore peace after more than 30 years of conflict, as the Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Féin party were elected to share the country’s First Minister position.

Many people never thought devolvement would happen in Northern Ireland, he said.

“It came as a shock to many people,” Glenny said. “The thought that there could be a political accommodation between diametrically opposed political positions seemed unrealistic at best.”

HECUA, an off-campus education program, is a nonprofit fellowship in St. Paul that incorporates classroom involvement, internships and field work.

Political science senior Joanna Fullmer, who left Northern Ireland three days before the government’s announcement, said it is an exciting time for students to be involved with HECUA there.

“They will get to experience the transition,” she said. “They will get to ask the question, ‘Is it working?’ “

Because of the two different political groups working together, the program might have new options as the political situation continues to change, Glenny said.

“One of the themes that could be explored is the sense of moving from a divided past to a shared future,” he said.

The 14-week program, for which students earn a full semester of credits, runs each spring, so students haven’t been able to experience the changes yet, Glenny said.

“The folk who arrive at the end of January will be the first to experience Northern Ireland governed under this administration,” he said.

Once they arrive, students spend three weeks attending orientation sessions at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Glenny said.

“Everyone gets a chance to get their head around this place,” he said.

Students also go on field visits to Belfast and Londonderry, where they meet peace activists and spend time working in the community, Glenny said.

“Students meet a man blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier in 1972, who has devoted his life to helping others in need,” he said.

After their time in Coleraine, students spend seven weeks interning with community organizations in Belfast and Darry, Fullmer said. Some students work alongside government organizations while pursuing an independent study project.

Students are able to include their own ideas and opinions when working in the community, she said.

“I was seen as an equal player,” she said.

A coalition government was formed in Northern Ireland Dec. 2, 1999, after the British government transferred power to the Northern Irish parliament. The coalition was suspended on Oct. 14, 2002.

Political science professor Phil Shively said students will get to see a different political atmosphere in Northern Ireland.

“This is just a historic time for them,” he said. “This is working out, possibly, a peaceful future for Ireland.”

Because the devolvement happened recently, Shively said the country’s situation is not completely stable.

“There are still glimmerings of violence to be dealt with,” he said.

The students who traveled with HECUA last spring learned about the devolvement after it was announced on March 26, Fullmer said.

“We had seen the elections,” she said. “We definitely wanted to stay and watch it happen.”

Fullmer said students should take advantage of the chance to see political change in a country that has a violent history.

“For me, Northern Ireland changed my life,” she said. “I saw the impact that community workers can have on the outside world.”