Building Bridges across the Atlantic; for More Than Two Years, Boston College's Irish Institute Has Been Working to Foster the Northern Ireland Peace Process. IAN STARRETT - Himself a Graduate of Boston College - Looks Back at a Unique Project

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Byline: Ian Starrett

IT takes something special to bring Ian Paisley Jnr, Bairbre de Brun, Alex Maskey, Bertie Ahern, Mo Mowlam, David Trimble and John Hume together on the same project.

Yet that is what has happened in an eastern US city famous for Ally McBeal, the Cheers bar and the Boston Red Sox baseball team, among other things.

Pioneering programmes and trail-blazing cross-community ventures like those managed by Boston College's Irish Institute since the autumn of 1998 have produced some remarkable results and cemented friendships across the divides back here in Northern Ireland.

The Irish Institute at Boston College, working out of the magnificent Connolly House in the leafy Newton district, is the American component of the Northern Ireland Transition Programme.

The Irish Institute, explains director Dr Sean Rowland, has "played a quiet role in bringing together officials from across the Northern Ireland divide".

Dr Rowland said: "Throughout the peace process, the institute has hosted many of the significant figures from political life in Northern Ireland.

"From elected officials to former prisoners, credentials often embodied in the same individual, from unionists to Irish republicans - in government for the first time - from civil servants to Assembly staffers. All have found places on Irish Institute programmes."

That list also includes journalists - which is how I came to be the proud recipient of a Boston College "degree" in civic journalism, a course taken along with four other Northern Ireland journalists and eight from the Irish Republic. It was also a course that took us not only to idylic springtime New England itself but to Louisville, Kentucky, and on to New York, along the way meeting some of the movers and shakers of east coast US journalism.

Dr Rowland said that the role of Boston College in Northern Ireland's new government was "a fascinating one".

The college's Irish Institute, he said, had engaged the island of Ireland at its most complicated level - politics.

The institute's political role began in 1998 when Eire premier Bertie Ahern opened the institute and the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam inaugurated its transition programme.

Since then, the institute has hosted officials from every level of government and politics in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

As Dr Rowland says, the learning process on all sides has been remarkable.

Boston professors Marc Landy, John Tierney and Dennis Hale - specialists in United States politics - have found themselves leading seminars for politicians from every community in Northern Ireland.

Prof Landy has become an expert on US-Northern Ireland relations, visiting Belfast several times in recent years under the auspices of the Irish Institute. He said that he and his colleagues have never approached the task as "yanks telling the Irish how to run a democratic system".

"Yes, we tell the participants from Ireland sometimes American politics gets it wrong. We do pass bad laws. There is discrimination. There is a race problem. But difficulties are what stable democracies exist to solve. Difficulty and differences need not mean the absolute victory of one side over another. Compromise can be efficient. It can work," said Prof Landy. …