Ireland- The Conference

When I sat down to write this post about this weekend, I intended to try to skim over everything. However, I realized that I was writing a lot more than I originally anticipated. My account of the weekend in Ireland is going to be broken up a bit- this part runs through the conference itself. I’ll post about overall impressions soon!

This weekend, I had the amazing experience to go to Derry, Northern Ireland for the Conference on Divided Societies. I cannot begin to describe what a wonderful time I had there! Honestly, I believe this was the most fulfilling experience of my semester abroad.

Wednesday night, our group of eight left Marseille and flew to London. Thanks to Ryanair’s crazy flight schedules, five of us camped out overnight in the airport. Fun fact- the London-Stansted airport is one of the most slept in airports in the world. We joined the masses and slept on the cold, marble floor for a while before finding a much more comfortable table where we spent the rest of the night and the next morning.

We finally arrived in Derry Thursday night. I love flying at night. I love looking out the window and watching all of the lights twinkle below. The view coming into Ireland was beautiful- the countryside dotted with small towns and Derry with its many bridges snaking back and forth across the river. During the flight to London, we flew over Paris and I could pick out the big sites like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur. Especially after walking around Rome at night last week, I’ve come to loving sightseeing at night even more than sightseeing during the day.

When we arrived at the conference straight from the airport, we jumped in and listened to a panel of speakers including a professor from Ulster University who specializes in the Irish Conflict, a director of the United States Institute of Peace, and an Irish journalist who was a former IRA prisoner. It was fascinating to hear their views of the current situation in Ireland, and it was a good discussion to set the stage for the rest of the weekend.

Friday’s activities did not disappoint. We first had another panel entitled, “A Global Review: Conflicts in Divided Societies.” The panel consisted of a wide range of experts who talked on various subjects to provide a background for the topic of divided societies. The topics included the process of peace building, the role of economics in conflict, gender inequality (specifically in China), the relationship between Islam and the West, and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I won’t get into the details since that would be too much information to cover, but the topic was incredibly interesting.

Friday afternoon was a very emotional experience. The Theatre of Witness is an organization in Derry that seeks to share people’s life stories and give people who have marginalized by society a voice and an outlet for their feelings. We saw an excerpt from the Theatre of Witness’s production of the play I Once Knew a Girl. This play features three woman who were all deeply effected by the conflict in Ireland. One woman grew up during the Conflict and was forced out of her home because of the violence. Her family was forced to seek refuge in an IRA safe house and constantly lived in fear. Her cousin took advantage of the crisis and her fear and sexually abused her.

The most moving story came from another woman whose husband worked as a cook on the British military base near Derry. Because he worked for the British, her husband became a target for the IRA. During one attempt, the IRA kidnapped Patty and forced him to drive a car full of explosives onto the base. Luckily he managed to jump out and warn everyone, and the army was then able to safely detonate the bomb and no one was killed. After this failed attempt, the woman and her husband thought they were safe and that lightning wouldn’t strike twice. One night after an evening out, she and her husband came home to find the IRA waiting for them again. She and her daughter were kept at home at gunpoint while her husband was kidnapped. The IRA decided to carry out their previous attack again, but this time Patty was chained to the vain, which he was forced to drive onto the base before it was remotely detonated. Patty and five soldiers were murdered, and there were no remains to return to their families.

The production of I Once Knew a Girl was unbelievably heartbreaking and most of the audience was teary-eyed listening to these brave women’s accounts of their hardships. I cannot even image the strength it took for these women to deal with their pain. The one woman to this day still goes to meetings between Catholics and Protestants who were involved in the conflict in order to try to improve relations between the two groups. Her strength even when facing former IRA members who could easily have been the ones who murdered her husband is unfathomable.

Especially after the performance, I was struck by how unimaginable this kind of hate and violence is to me. When I looked around Derry and Ireland, it was hard for me to imagine that even 20 years ago, the country was rocked by violence and murders. It seems unthinkable that a developed country in this day and age could be filled with war. Maybe it’s because I was too young to be aware of any of the events when they were happening.

Saturday’s conference activities were luckily more upbeat than Friday afternoon’s. The first panel of the day featured the vice-principal and students of the integrated school in Derry. By law, schools in the United Kingdom must teach religion, and most schools are either public schools, which feature Protestant-based curriculum, or Catholic. There are over 60 integrated schools across Ireland whose aim is to bring students of all religions together in order to foster better relations and promote understanding. The school makes a huge effort to have it’s student body made up of 40% Protestants, 40% Catholics, and 20% others. All of the activities at school are designed to equally represent Catholics and Protestants, and instead of focusing on one denomination, the required religious courses feature units on all world religions. The school also creates activities in order to promote discussion on divisive issues.

This panel sparked some interesting debate. On the one hand, integrated schools are often seen as a success in Ireland because they teach all students to get along and they bring together social groups who might not otherwise come together. The students at the school generally feel like the school is successful in disproving stereotypes and fighting prejudices, which are still sometimes taught at home. On the other hand, some people are critical of integrated schools because they put too much emphasis on religious difference. They argue that because the schools take such pains to make sure all religions are represented and differences are always addressed, they are actually furthering the belief that religion always has to be an issue in Ireland. Critics argue that it would be better to be integrated but to remove religion entirely and follow a more American style education. I haven’t developed an opinion on this issue because I feel I would need a more thorough understanding, but I think both arguments have very valid points.

The afternoon this day featured student panel discussions. Small groups of students lead by one expert discussed varying issues about divided societies including climate change refugees, economic inequality in the US and the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the role of NGOs and the international community in crises, etc.

My group discussed climate change refugees. The debate was inspired by the question, “Do refugees forced from their homes because of climate change have the right to asylum in our country?” Our group started by talking about global warming and how it is affecting the world. Even now, droughts and famines in Africa (Sudan for example) are driving people from their homes. Over time, we’ll see more and more countries go under water, forcing people to flee. Deforestation and desertification will also force people to move to more inhabitable areas. Our group agreed that at a human level, these people deserve to be aided because it is generally the actions of the developing world that are destroying their homes. However, we could not easily decide how to deal with the issue. It’s highly unlikely the US would start allowing huge numbers of refugees into the country, and it’s not practical long-term to rely on food drops to affected areas. As much as we want to think people will respond and help refugees, our group feared that the world will choose to turn a blind eye to the issue and let people die. It’s a grim outlook, but I feel it’s realistic. Although small changes are being made, there is not enough global effort to combat the affects of global warming. This discussion left everyone pretty depressed.

The conference ended Saturday evening after the student panels. Sunday we did a walking tour of the city. The tour guide took us around the ancient walled part of the city and told us stories about the history. The first fashion cat walk took place in Derry, by the way. The guide was very entertaining and obviously loved his town and sharing it with people.

And now after two flights and a night in a hotel, I’m finally home. Rather than preparing for school tomorrow, I’m spending too much time writing. After thinking all weekend and constantly doing something, I feel like I haven’t had adequate time to reflect and really absorb the experience. I apologize that these posts are really long; these posts are partly to share my experience and partly to allow me to chronicle the weekend and process the trip. Thanks for reading so far!

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