Saint Mary's looks to expand peace and conflict studies

Saint Mary’s could be launching a new summer field school in Northern Ireland with potential connections to Yale and Lebanese American University as soon as July 2020.

A multidisciplinary delegation of students, faculty and staff from Saint Mary’s and Yale visited Belfast in July, in hopes of creating a field course that would expand on Saint Mary’s existing expertise in peace and conflict studies and peace education.

Delegation members included criminology professor Dr. Ashley Carver; Bridget Brownlow, Conflict Resolution Advisor and President, Peaceful Schools International; Emily Anderson, BA Advisor and Vice-President, Peaceful Schools International,  undergraduate student Michaela Peters from Saint Mary’s, and Dr. Peter Twohig, Associate Dean of Arts.

They were joined by Yale counterparts Dr. Bonnie Weir (Political Science); Hira Jafri, Assistant Director, Global Programs (The MacMillan Center) and graduate student Dermot Byrne.

The timing of the trip was significant. Each year around July 12th, thousands of people attend Unionist / Loyalist / Protestant parades and participate in events which include massive bonfires held across Northern Ireland to mark the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. While mostly peaceful, the celebrations are frequently contentious, underscoring old tensions and stoking unrest.

The group met with a wide range of community members and partners, including Republican and Loyalist ex-combatants and ex-prisoners; visited community outreach centres and witnessed the bonfires and parades first-hand in order to assess the feasibility of creating this particular type of experiential academic study.

Twohig and his fellow delegates feel the setting would provide a “different kind of opportunity for students to have a field school experience that is robust, that is linked to faculty expertise and that will give students a profound experience on the ground.”

 Building on success

The idea builds on the leadership of Dr. Hetty van Gurp founding Director of Peaceful Schools International (2001) and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education at Saint Mary’s sine 2005. Open to students from all faculties, peace education courses offer experiential learning for SMU students. They combine academic study of peace with teaching school children in Halifax and Belfast.

The long-standing initiative has received continuing support from the university and SMUSA; with significant multidisciplinary contributions from the Irish Studies Programme, the Faculty of Education, and the Department of Political Science. In addition, moving forward, the program will continue to benefit from the long term involvement and extensive level of support and expertise provided by Dr. David Bourgeois, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology. Dr. Bourgeois is the program’s Faculty Advisor for Science and he is also conducting relevant research concerning youth in Northern Ireland.

“The program has touched the lives of thousands of children,” says Twohig. “We want to expand on relationships that have been built by hundreds of students as well as dedicated faculty and staff and link it to research, curriculum and academic partnerships.”

The project team for peace and conflict studies has proposed that two alternating courses be developed: one centred on the Unionist / Loyalist / Protestant celebrations and one on the Féile an Phobail [Festival of the People] in West Belfast, which reflects the Nationalist / Republican / Catholic celebrations.

The courses would be part of a proposed Northern Ireland “suite” that would include the annual peace education trip in February, academic conferences and research opportunities, and compliment current activities such as the minor in Peace and Conflict Studies.

Potential for partnerships

“Yale is very interested in this project and additional partnerships,” says Brownlow. “They are committed to working with us in several capacities… joint courses, shared grant applications, conferences, continuing participate in the Northern Ireland trip on the ground in Belfast and also connecting virtually with our students at Saint Mary’s. We are currently finalizing the terms for an MOU between Yale and Saint Mary’s directly linked to the work in the North of Ireland and we have invited Dr. Bonnie Weir to join the Advisory Board for Peaceful Schools International which is very exciting”.

Another potential partner is the Lebanese American University (LAU). Saint Mary’s signed an MOU with the institution last year with President (and former Saint Mary's VPAR) Dr Joseph G. Jabbra.

The Beiruit-based LAU has strong programs and expertise in social justice and conflict resolution, presenting an opportunity for knowledge exchange and collaboration.

“LAU doesn’t do the type of local outreach work we do in Halifax. And we could have access to their faculty expertise to build up our potential in the area of peace and conflict studies as an academic program,” says Twohig.

Though the proposed field school is still being developed, hopes are high that the courses will be approved by the university Senate.

"Saint Mary’s has along-standing track record in the area of peace and conflict – it is an area of strength for us,” says Twohig.  “We are uniquely positioned to provide students with an incredibly relevant opportunity in an increasingly unstable world.”