Program Aims to Unite Irish Factions

Posted July 30, 2004 at 3:43pm

For many college-aged interns, summer is the time for building one’s résumé before returning school in the fall — when the memories from their brief foray on Capitol Hill begin to fade.

But for at least for one group of young people, this has been a summer they’ll never forget.

Now in its 10th year, the Washington-Ireland Program for Service and Leadership brings about 30 Irish-born university students to Washington, D.C., where they spend the summer living with area host families and interning for a variety or organizations, ranging from government offices, nonprofit groups and public relations firms to medical research organizations. Dependent upon the Irish government for most of its funding, this isn’t just any summer study program. Organizers break cultural taboos by purposefully mixing Protestant and Catholic students — encouraging them to transcend the sectarian conflict that traditionally divides Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Paul Costello, a former missionary priest who has directed the program for seven years, likened the Irish situation to segregation in the 1950s and ’60s. “The Catholic kids go to Catholic school; the Protestant kids go to Protestant school,” he said, noting that the two cultures typically do not intersect until students reach the university level.

“If you’re a young person who’s trying to make friends, there’s a famous poem — there are two rules: You don’t talk religion, and you don’t talk politics.”

Recruited from universities throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, selected students participate in group activities, community service and leadership training. Students are also required to keep an online journal to record their experiences and impressions. Though the D.C. internship itself lasts only six weeks, the full commitment is not satisfied until September, when students are formally “graduated” from the program during a meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

But organizers hope the lessons learned this summer last much longer. Started in 1995, the main objective of the program is to train the next generation of Irish leaders so that upon return, they can begin to change a political climate often characterized by violence and polarization.

“They’re not expected to just have the experience, but do something with it,” Costello said.

For 21-year-old Anna McLoughlin, a native of County Down in Northern Ireland, the first time she interacted with Catholic peers was when she entered St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. “Being from Northern Ireland, I think politics can be pretty tiresome, so I kind of backed away from it,” she said. “From a very young age, you’re split. My parents don’t distinguish between Protestant and Catholic — it’s just society.”

This summer, McLoughlin is living with a host family in Chevy Chase, Md., with fellow student Jacqueline Taaffe, who is Catholic. Despite the political conflict back home across the Atlantic, the two have become close friends. “That’s why programs like this are brilliant,” McLoughlin said. “You get to go out and meet people who actually aren’t all that different.”

Working for Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), McLoughlin is one of eight students interning in Congressional and Senatorial offices on Capitol Hill this summer. She said one of her most rewarding experiences so far has been conducting research for a resolution classifying the current humanitarian crisis in the Dafur region of Sudan as genocide, which was adopted in mid-July. “It kind of felt like my work was paying off,” she said. “That was really encouraging.”

In addition to interning four days a week, the students spend Mondays in training seminars, studying the methodology of four prominent American leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Andrew McCann, a past student who now heads the program’s four-person management team, said studying leaders in depth allows the students to assess what strategies worked — and use them back home in Ireland.

“It’s interesting because a lot of the interns can identify with the issues that those leaders were tackling at the time,” McCann said.

Taaffe, a 21-year-old graduate of the University of Ulster Law School in Northern Ireland, cautioned that leadership is only one component of the program. “It’s not just about political leadership,” said Taaffe, who is working this summer in the General Counsel’s office at the Library of Congress. “It’s leadership with service — that’s what the emphasis is on, giving back to our communities.”

Though she lives within a half-hour of the border into Northern Ireland, Irish-born Taaffe said she was 18 years old when she crossed it for the first time.

“The program has on a number of occasions taken people across the border for the first time,” McCann said. “Which is remarkable when you consider that Ireland is such a small country.”

Organizers and interns agreed it would be difficult for students to put aside sectarian influences and form lasting relationships if the program did not take place in Washington.

“Miles and miles from home, we’re completely dependent on each other and the program,” Taaffe said. “I think that’s why we’ve bonded so quickly.”

Costello said the Irish interns have become so popular that the program receives intern requests from Congressional offices. “The American-Irish connection is just stronger than ever. Americans love Ireland,” he said.

Experiences with host families — who keep in touch with students, often venturing across the ocean to visit their one-time Irish son or daughter — have confirmed that sentiment, he added. “Young Irish people with a European focus can be very critical of America. But in terms of what they experience when they come to Washington, it’s kind of like, this is another side of America — it’s the part of America that is the shining light.”

When asked what differences between the United States and the Irish countries they found most striking, both McLoughlin and Taaffe agreed that the size is overwhelming. “That and how everyone is on the South Beach Diet,” McLoughlin added.

Costello summed up the program’s goal. “It’s about a new story for Northern Ireland,” he said. “The old story of Northern Ireland is guns and terrorism and bombs. I haven’t found one person yet who wants to live inside that story.”

“People have come a long way,” he said. “But a program like ours says there’s a long way to go.”