Texas visitors chart peace progress

On a whistle-stop tour to West Belfast, the sun came out at Clonard Monastery to welcome a student delegation from Houston, Texas, who were on the final leg of a visit to the Northern Ireland.

Choosing the hallowed grounds of the iconic monastery, the undergraduate and graduate students from the University of St. Thomas met with cross-community clergy, including Father Gerry Reynolds of Clonard, and former presidentof the Methodist Church, Reverend Harold Good, as well as former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Ken Newell.

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Lori Meghan Gallagher, director of the William J. Flynn Center for Irish Studies at St. Thomas, explained that the study abroad trip was an opportunity for the students to see the progress of peace building.

"We have spent two weeks in Belfast and have 12 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing two courses of study for credit: Northern Ireland: Conflict and Peace and Contemporary Ireland: Society and Culture.

"This is the second year in which the University of St. Thomas has brought students to Belfast and other areas of the North to meet with people across the community," Gallagher explained.

"The overall program lasts five and one-half weeks, two of which are spent in the North. The students began the program with four days in Dublin and one day in route to Belfast, visiting Newgrange, the Hill of Tara and the High Crosses of Monasterboice with Dr. Peter Harbison, renowned Irish historian and a good friend of the center, "she added.

And Galalgher continued: "Our 2011 program has been made possible through the outstanding mentorship of many very good friends of the Flynn Center, including Rev. Harold Good, an active peace builder, Father Gerry Reynolds of Clonard and Rev. Bill Shaw, also an active peacemaker and director of the 174 Trust at Duncairn Complex.

"Rev. Good and Rev. Shaw have presented lectures on their peace process work in Houston for the Flynn Center Cultural Outreach Program on several occasions.

""Through their ability to open doors to the students, the 2011 study abroad program has been the best ever. In less than two weeks, our group has met with and interviewed over 50 individuals in Belfast, Derry and the North Antrim Coast.

"Notable among these interviewees are First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Minister of Justice David Ford, and other participants in the power sharing government, while visiting the Executive and the Assembly at Stormont, as well as several grass roots community and cross-community workers, city councilmen, religious leaders, journalists, former prisoners and combatants, writers, artists, experts in education and members of the community at large.

"Our 2011 visit gives us hope for the continued progress of peace building here. Since our 2009 visit, the British government has devolved policing and justice to the Northern Ireland government and the government has experienced a full term of power sharing. There is a sense of moving the peace process to the next level.

"People express the desire to get on with life and to build a better future for their families and friends. We will take back what we learn to our own communities and homes, to build greater peace on a personal level and ideally throughout the world."

Graduate student, Rachael Havranek, said her visit to the North of Ireland had been "really good."

"Through meeting with other students, local people and clergy, we have been learning about peace building through dialogue. The Reverend Harold Good has spoken at length of the importance of dialogue to resolve conflict and I am learning lessons that I can take back home with me," she said.

Undergraduate student Natasha Alvarez said what had affected her the most on her visit was how "nice the people of Northern Ireland have been to us and what a warm welcome we have received."

"We have been listening intently to how the Northern Ireland model for peace can be emulated in other parts of the world," she said.

Carlow native and Irish Visiting Scholar at the University of St. Thomas, Aoife Ní Ghloinn, said the trip was a chance to take learning out of the classroom and away from history books.

"We hope that by giving our students the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a variety of people involved in the conflict and the building of peace here in Northern Ireland, that they will gain a much more meaningful insight into the complexities of the conflict situation and the reconciliation process.

"We hope that they will be able to take the lessons they learn here home with them and to see their own communities from a new perspective and in a new light," Ní Ghloinn said.