Summer class takes students on field trip of a lifetime

The war in Northern Ireland is over – except for the handful of violent spasms since the 1994 cease-fire between the warring paramilitary factions.

But peace has yet to find its niche in this archaic enclave of fatalistic culture where the politics of intimidation still reign, and a factionalized political process hangs over the 1.6 million residents of this landmass the size of Rhode Island.

“I was in a small town talking to a young mayor and I asked him about his views on peace,” former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell told political communication Professor Steven Livingston’s summer class on the peace process in Northern Ireland last week.

“He replied, `We will repair our buildings long before we repair our souls,’ and I think he was right. It will be a long time before there is genuine reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” said Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations.

Only months ago, critics said it would be a long time before the two factions in Northern Ireland would come together for peace talks.

In fact, year ago, when Livingston began planning a two-term class on the Northern Ireland peace process, he didn’t know the group of students he brought to Belfast would see history in the making.

Even so, he had a good idea his summer seminar course would be more than a field trip to the land of the leprechaun.

Livingston said the group will arrive in the United Kingdom just days after Northern Ireland votes for a new legislative body under provisions in the Good Friday Accords. Even more dramatic, the students will arrive in Belfast July 11, which is traditionally the high point of the Protestant “Orange Order” marching season, a series of bonfires and rowdy parades in Catholic ghettos that sometimes spur violence between the two religions.

But Livingston notes that statistically, Belfast is a safer place than Washington, D.C.

“The trip will offer students an immeasurable degree of insight by actually being there in person and talking to people like Sen. Mitchell,” Livingston said.

“As an observer up close, you frame and look at and analyze everything without the intermediary of others telling the story,” he said.

Livingston says the idea for the trip grew out of his own interest in the sociological and psychological dynamics of conflict and conflict resolution, and the media’s role in that process.

His work on the intertwining of media with subjects like foreign policy and terrorism takes him to all corners of the globe, and this summer’s course is a chance to include students in those travels.

“I am constantly going to places like Northern Ireland, and I thought Belfast would be a relatively reasonable and secure place for students to go and see first-hand how conflict is fostered, and how it is reconciled,” Livingston said.

“When you’re studying media and violent conflict with a group of students, you can’t go to a place like Bosnia or Kosovo,” said Livingston, whose own research has taken him from the Gaza Strip to the Rwandan border during the 1994 genocide. “But Northern Ireland is a safe and manageable place.”

In preparation for its trip, the class already has heard from numerous experts on the situation in Ireland, including the Washington bureau chief of The Irish Times and a representative of the Irish embassy.

The trip’s itinerary is still being finalized, Livingston said, but it will include several days in London meeting British government officials and journalists. From there, the students will take a train through Scotland and a ferry to Belfast July 11.

In Belfast, the group will spend nine days talking with the peace process’ local protagonists and antagonists. The final week will be spent in Dublin and will focus on the media’s role in the process.

“Where in other circumstances, students would only be able to read about it, on this trip they will experience it,” Livingston said. “There is nothing like seeing the places and people in action. It’s the difference between watching football on television and standing on the fifty yard line.”

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