Talking to American students

Taking a break from organising the annual Alliance Party conference, I went up to Parliament Buildings to address a large group of undergraduate students from Notre Dame University, Indiana.

I don’t mind addressing fellow Yanks. They are always surprised to discover that I grew up in the Midwest. Their first few questions are always along the lines of, “How did you end up in Northern Ireland?” Well, I might as well tell you, too.

Like many Americans, I’m aware of my Irish ancestery. And just like many Americans, there is both Catholic and Protestant lineage. (But many Irish-Americans blissfully ignore their multiple background.)

At about the same time as I was investigating this, I came across an article on Garret Fitzgerald’s work on the New Ireland Forum and engagement with the British Government. I wrote a letter of support to the Taoiseach, and to my surprise and delight, he replied.

At Boston University, my major study was international relations. There wasn’t an Irish studies programme, so I created one of my own. For every politics, history and economics course I took, I applied an Irish/Northern Irish twist to the assigned essays and papers. I finished with an expanded essay on unionist attitudes to the Anglo-Irish Agrement.

Took me a few years to get myself organised, but I abandoned my banking career path for the pursuit of a postgraduate degree at Queen’s (another story in itself). Completed my academic career with a Master’s degree from University College Dublin. My thesis was, “The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and power sharing in a divided society”, which examined the evolving approach of Alliance to power sharing over the decades.

I’ve been on the Alliance Party payroll since 2002, and have been acting as General Secretary since October 2005.

After this explanation, I then get to provide answers to their Alliance Party questions.

One that invariably comes up by North American (and other) students is that if what Alliance offers is so appealing, why has the party had limited electoral support. “Ah, if it were only that easy,” is my usual reply. I then explain the hostile environment in which any cross-community party operates in, in a deeply divided society. Not only is there competition within unionist and nationalist blocs, but that the ‘moderate’ wings of each bloc will also appeal to those inclined to support cross-community politics, to vote for their ‘tribe’ first, to prevent someone from the other ‘tribe’ (usually an extreme ‘other tribe’ candidate) from getting in.

I must figure a way to get these kind Americans to give Alliance more financial donations!

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