A vital role in the peace process

March 5, 1999

As Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam struggles to set up Ulster's assembly, Noel McAdam and Olga Wojtas examine higher education's contribution to the fragile peace.

Northern Ireland's two universities are for the first time to have a direct input into the peace process through the Civic Forum, a consultative body designed to represent interest groups including business, the church, the voluntary sector and terrorist victims.

Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster indirectly have two seats on the forum. But before it meets there must be some form of decommissioning of IRA weapons, and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party must work in a cabinet alongside Sinn Fein.

Queen's and UU have been invited to form a consortium to pick two forum members. A report by first minister David Trimble and deputy Seamus Mallon said the nominees should have "a thorough knowledge and direct experience of the educational challenges confronting Northern Ireland".

There is to be a separate Northern Ireland department for higher and further education, seen by Bob Osborne, professor of applied policy studies at UU, as both an opportunity and a threat. "Our university systems in the north and south have been very lacklustre in promoting research collaboration and staff and student exchanges. There has been nothing systematic because of political nervousness that was unwarranted," he said.

"The opportunity is that, with a new government department that has only two universities, 17 further education colleges and a training agency, the minister will want to see some action on collaboration. I would hope the universities would be less shrinking violets. The threat is that the minister will want to get involved in the fine detail of what happens."

Looking to the future, UU and the Belfast Institute of Higher and Further Education see their much-vaunted "peaceline" campus at Springvale in west Belfast as a strong symbol of the new era. And United States senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks resulting in the Good Friday Agreement, is to become the new chancellor of Queen's.


Research from the two universities has informed policy-makers.

The Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's has polled public opinion on, for example, the principle of a negotiated settlement and on various aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. These attempt to find the common ground between opposing views to give politicians a firm platform on which to build.

The Centre for the Study of Conflict at UU, headed by Seamus Dunne, produced a well-received report on the issue of parades which led, in part, to the Parades Commission.

In conjunction with the United Nations University, UU formed the Incore project on conflict resolution and ethnicity, which is led by former community relations council chairperson Mari Fitzduff.

United States president Bill Clinton recognised its work by inaugurating the Tip O'Neill chair in peace studies last year. One of Incore's projects is on peer mediation, where children are taught how to work out school playground spats by negotiation.


The real contribution of the universities to the peace process is that the majority of thousands of young people who have gone to Queen's and UU over the past 30 years have experienced integrated education for the first time. The growing integrated sector still accounts for less than 2 per cent of the school population.

There have been countless individual triumphs - one student, in a wheelchair after a 1975 gun attack, went on to gain a first-class honours degree.

But there have also been individual tragedies. Last year, UU student Ciaron Heffron, 22, was on a trip home when he was shot by the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the first group to decommission.

The province's conflicts have resonated through the student community. A number of unionists have blamed students for starting the Troubles with civil rights protests in 1969. Some nationalists praise them for kick-starting the opposition to 50 years of unionist "misrule".

Just last month unionists in Queen's students union blocked giving official recognition to Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Sinn Fein picketed the union building, and PUP leader David Ervine demanded a meeting with vice-chancellor George Bain.

But the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland has fought to build up a consistent anti-sectarian programme.

NUS-USI manager Peter O'Neill said: "Student leaders are keen to place the perceptions held by sections of the community in a more positive context. Today we want to encourage students to engage with political processes, debate issues and not back away from them."

Mr O'Neill said it is arguable whether history will show higher education institutions making any significant contribution to the peace process. He believes they have tried to create an ivory tower approach to the Troubles, above the seedy violence, and that this denial of the conflict has limited education's role in transforming it.

"We have been to the fore in encouraging the Department of Education and institutions to actively develop structures and policies to tackle sectarianism.

"But much more needs to be done in releasing the talents and skills of academia and assisting local politicians in reaching a consensus on how we govern ourselves," said Mr O'Neill.


Many of the key figures in the assembly, such as Monica McWilliams, who formed the Women's Coalition, and the SDLP's Sean Farren, who could be one of the ten new ministers, have a university background.

Dr Farren and Professor McWilliams are both on unpaid leave of absence from UU. Professor McWilliams is a professor in social sciences and Dr Farren is senior lecturer in education.

Ulster Unionist Dermot Nesbitt is another potential minister. Mr Nesbitt, senior lecturer and former head of UU's department of accounting and finance, on leave of absence for the assembly's first term, says: "During the past 18 months, I was heavily involved in the talks. The university was very supportive, and viewed it as a contribution to tackling the problems in Northern Ireland and the final resolution."

Some of the cross-community links that helped create the climate change leading to the assembly were forged in the universities.

Two members from opposing sides have a shared past. Pro-agreement nationalist Donovan McClelland, of the nationalist SDLP, shared offices for 15 years at UU's Jordanstown campus with anti-agreement Unionist Patrick Roche, who recently resigned from the United Kingdom Unionist Party. Both were lecturers in public policy, economics and law.

Both universities have been terrorist targets, suffering bomb attacks, and academics have been killed. Edgar Graham, a law lecturer at Queen's and a leading Ulster Unionist, was shot dead on campus by the IRA.

But higher education can also boast one of the most influential figures in the peace process, first minister David Trimble. A law lecturer at Queen's for almost 20 years, he left the university less than a decade ago for full time politics.

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