Being at Stormont for the past three days has been like a political immersion program. I am overwhelmed with how welcoming and open some of the politicians, civil servants and other Stormont staff have been with myself and the other ambassadors. I've been going to Stormont while the other ambassadors have gone to do other placements with hospitals, law firms, museums, Gaelic and heritage centres and outreach centres. I had done a significant amount of research back home on the political background of Northern Ireland over the past 40 years to better understand the Troubles and to anticipate what I could expect for when I got here. But, never in my wildest imagination did I think I'd be coming back three days in a row and be on a first name basis with some of the staff here.
I think what impresses me most is how the peace process is put into practice by the politicians at Stormont. Here we have Martin McGuinness as the current deputy first minister. This is an individual who in the past was a self-declared IRA (Irish Republican Army) commander. Now he's working here in collaboration and harmony with politicians from different opposition parties. Go back to the early 1980s and a scenario such as this would have been an idea of a utopian society amidst all the violence that was taking place.
I don't think I could have ever said that I felt sincere admiration for a politician, as I do for some of the individuals I've met up here...And I know, I know, politicians are charming and very good at convincing you to see them in a positive light. But there's something different about these blokes and lassies. Maybe it's because I'm getting this insider look, but this admiration is also attributed to my understanding of how far this institution has come from the Troubles to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement to today.
A wee bit of History
Stormont is a beautiful place, it was built to impress and that it does. The design of the grounds and building were designed to be perfectly symmetrical. The floors match the ceilings etc. There are six columns along the outside and 66 steps leading up to the entrance. These symbolize the six different regions of Northern Ireland. There is a beautifully ornate chandelier that hangs in the centre of the hall. It was as a gift from a former King of England. As the story goes, Queen Elizabeth asked for it back some years ago and the Northern Irish politicians said no. Imagine that, saying no to the Queen Mother... So the Queen let them keep under the condition that it remain on public display and be maintained properly. So there it hangs in Stormont building atop the hill in Belfast. Another interesting bit of historical trivia is that Stormont, being a big white building in the middle of green Irish hills, was painted black using manure and tar during WWII so that it couldn't be spotted from the air by German bomber planes.
So I've been following some political coverage with my placement with the BBC and a lot of the journalists have been very helpful, acting as mentors to me. They even let myself and another ambassador, Kaitie, sit in on a talk show they do about politics called 'Live at Stormont'. It was here that I sat about four feet away from Gerry Adams, the president of the Sinn Fein party and a major player in the peace process brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.
All of the journalists I've met are interested to speak with me and share their thoughts on the upcoming Apostolic Visitation that will be coming to several of the Diocese of Ireland. I'm equally interested to hear where local Catholics stand on their opinions of the issues of abuse in the Church. I'm compiling these thoughts into notes and once I get a chance to speak with some of the local clergy I'll be posting a blog on Northern Irish Catholics and what the thoughts and sentiments are surrounding the recent controversy and need for reconciliation that needs to take place within the Catholic Church in Ireland.
What I learned from my crash course in Northern Irish politics is that transparency is a key tactic in reconciling what is taking place in an institution so that the general public understand and accept what is going on within it. Many laypeople that I've spoken to are complaining that they aren't hearing enough from the Church and some have said that they want to see a major change occur in the Catholic Church in order to move forward.
Like the peace process, followed and implemented by the politicians of Northern Ireland, a process of peace must too take place in the Catholic Church of Ireland. The Apostolic Visitation can be seen as means to bring about this peace process.
My next blog will take a closer look at the Catholic Church in Ireland and the issues and peace process between Irish Catholics and Protestants. Watch Perspectives this Thursday for an introduction to the Young Ambassadors' visit.