No country can choose its history or its geographic location. Ireland’s past and its position on the planet provide a unique lens to view the world, which attracts researchers, visiting lecturers, academics, students, and practitioners from around the globe, who seek a frame of reference that is different from their own.
A small country with a population of just over four million, its higher education institutions offer more than 50 global-issues related thought-masters programs, from international relations, politics, diplomacy, law, and economics to peace and conflict studies, environmentalism, ethnicity, anthropology, equality, social activism, human rights, gender equality, and more. Just under half (49 percent) of students following these programs are from overseas and regularly include Mitchell Scholars.
But why? Well let’s start with the past. In modern history, Ireland is unique in the developed world, having suffered an internal conflict running over decades. Perpetrated by the Republican IRA and INLA on one side and Loyalist groups on the other, the violence has resulted in the killings of more than 3,000 Protestants and Catholics over 30 years.
But also uniquely in the Western world, by successfully brokering a political settlement through a lengthy peace process, Ireland has shown that it is possible to replace violence with diplomacy and negotiation. Supported massively by the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, on April 10, 1998, the governments of Ireland, Britain and the political parties in Northern Ireland signed the ‘Good Friday’ or Belfast Agreement, which subsequently was overwhelmingly endorsed by the public on both sides of the border at the ballot box.
In 2012, Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State, noted that “the lessons learned here in Ireland about how to build peace could be of great use to other peoples and nations”. Her words came as she officially launched the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction at Dublin City University – one of more than 20 specialist research institutes in Ireland devoted to global issues.
At Maynooth University, the Edward M Kennedy Centre for Conflict Intervention aims to build capacity for constructive approaches to conflict at all levels in society through research and teaching conflict intervention approaches, including mediation, peace building and restorative practice.
Meanwhile, the current Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Professor Micheal O’Flaherty is co-director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights and Professor of Human Rights Law at Galway University. A renowned human rights expert, he has been an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee since 2004 and is currently a Vice-Chairperson.
Irish influence on the world stage
Ireland is also unique in having been the only Western Europe country to have been colonised. Its history has consequently been defined by a constant struggle for independence; the legacy of harsh penal laws, severely restricting the rights of the Catholic majority, and a devastating famine that saw over a million die and at least as many again emigrate, sowing the seeds of the vast Irish disapora in the four corners of the globe.
A personification of Ireland’s twentieth century journey, Sean McBride was born in Paris, the son of Major John MacBride, who was executed after the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, and Maud Gonne, a feminist, Republican activist and muse to the Anglo-Irish poet and Nobel Laureate WB Yeats.
McBride returned to Ireland to be educated and, over his lifetime, was to become a key force in drafting and securing the acceptance of the European Convention of Human Rights, a founding member of Amnesty International and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Continuing his tradition of defending human rights for all, the Human Rights in Criminal Justice program at the University of Limerick explores the mainstreaming human rights within the criminal justice system and is somewhat unique in Ireland and Britain in merging the two areas of human rights and criminal justice, replacing the traditional approach of these modules being addressed separately.
Sean MacBride was also responsible for Ireland’s decision not to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a move which copperfastened the country’s neutrality, enabling an unpartisan voice in global diplomacy and a special role in UN peacekeeping missions, with its army a trusted partner in many conflict zones.
A more recent product of Irish education, Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. Describing her contribution, she says “I’ve always recognised the importance of addressing shortcomings and being outspoken – an awkward voice.”
Since resigning from the UN, she has continued to campaign vigorously on human rights issues, founding the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, and she is Chair of the Institute for Human Rights and Business at Trinity College Dublin among a host of other visiting lectureship and academic positions.
A place to reflect – from a different frame of reference
If history is one half of the equation that makes Ireland’s frame of reference unique, then geography is the other half. To the west of this small island nation, the ‘next parish’ is Boston.
The Irish have always had an almost intuitive relationship with the United States through the assimilation of so many of its emigrants and their role in building the American dream. Irishman John Barry is credited as the father of the US Navy, and in the words of former US President John F Kennedy “no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters”. Yet, while geographically on the edge of Europe, Ireland is very much committed to the core ideals of a politically united Europe and the European social model. And its perspectives on world matters are inevitably accented by the reflective weight of European history.
For the international student, this provides an alternative prism through which to view their chosen subject. Take just one example: those pursuing the MBS in International Public Policy and Diplomacy at University College Cork. Their field trips will to be institutions such as NATO and the European Union agencies in Brussels, and they will have placement opportunities with organisations that include the Egmont Institute, the Royal Institute for International Relations, and the International Security Information Service, Europe.
“The perspectives gained from studying outside of the US and being exposed to these institutions will give them an additional and unique edge over US graduates who remain in the US,” says Program Director, Dr Andrew Cottey. The academic approach is also likely to throw up alternative challenges. “In addition to providing the quantitative and positivist training that they might receive in an American MA programme, they will also be exposed to qualitative and critical approaches that characterize the ‘British’ school,” says Dr Sam Brazys of the MA/MSc in International Political Economy, which he directs at University College Dublin.
A time for thought, a time for action
Just as Ireland’s neutrality gives it the independence to comment freely on global affairs, in development too, Ireland has always been free to determine its allocation of development assistance unhampered by political or strategic motives. Instead the focus is on the world’s poorest countries, where need is greatest. The Irish government was the first of a developed country to advocate 100 percent debt relief for the Least Developed Countries, and, having always given assistance as grants rather than loans, Ireland has never been a bilateral creditor.
The core principle of Irish Aid, is that of partnership and support for locally owned strategies. This approach is shared by most of Ireland’s development NGOs and has won international recognition for the due dignity that it affords developing nations.
Students from Afghanistan to Zambia are attracted to the Master’s degree in Development Practice (MDP), delivered jointly by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in collaboration with the National University of Rwanda, the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation, and a wide number of national and international organisations. Moreover, its fieldwork training model has been adopted as the template for the newly established Global Association of Masters in Development Practice, which comprises 23 MDP programs, offered at universities in 16 countries on six continents and is headed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General.
From presidents to rock stars
Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that Ireland’s history has shaped a psyche that is acutely tuned to social justice, and, while deeply patriotic, is globally aware and connected. Take the powerful voice of rock musician Bono – an adept force in enlisting support from a diverse spectrum of leaders through his campaign for third-world debt relief and the fight against the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Likewise, fellow Irishman and rock musician Bob Geldof, who cofounded the charity supergroup Band Aid in 1984, followed a year later by Live Aid, and in 2005 the Live 8 concerts, has helped mobilise the conscience of the world.
Speaking to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania back in 2004 , Bono challenged students by asking them “What’s your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of [this university]?”
He could have added: And where will you begin? If you are planning a career with an international dimension, whether in development, public service, politics or academia, studying in Ireland will help you to view the world from an alternative perspective. Moreover, it will open up a wealth of challenging and influential lecturers, visiting professors, placement opportunities, shared alumina and careers.