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SIPA Program Fosters Community Building in Northern Ireland


Participants in SIPA's Northern Ireland Community Builders Program

A few weeks ago, 22 police officers, community leaders and agency workers from Northern Ireland sat together comfortably here in New York during two weeks of classes, engaged in spirited discussions over topics such as globalization and conflict resolution, as part of the School for International and Public Affairs' (SIPA) Northern Ireland Community Builders Program.

Law enforcement and community leaders also were paired up for a two-week field experience, working with groups ranging from the NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office to NYC Homeless Services, NYC Agency for Children's Services and NYC Small Business Services.

Just four years ago, when SIPA began the program, participants were reluctant to pose for a group photo lest they face retaliation back home for conspiring with "the other side." Today's comfort level is the result of changing sentiments in Northern Ireland and SIPA's inroads.

Law enforcement officers are historically Protestant in Northern Ireland, while community leaders are historically Catholic. In a country with deeply rooted conflicts between the two religious traditions, creating law enforcement and community leadership teams there is difficult for many to imagine.

Following the War of Independence in 1921, Ireland was partitioned into The Republic of Ireland with 26 counties whose capital was Dublin, and Northern Ireland with six counties whose Parliament was in Belfast under British control. Two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland, mainly Protestants, wished to remain under British rule. The other third, mostly Catholic, wanted to unite with the Republic of Ireland. During the 1960s, a civil rights movement combined with actions by the British Army and Northern Ireland Police Force toward the Catholic minority resulted in significant violence and gave rise to paramilitary groups and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The peace process progressed through the Belfast -- or Good Friday -- Agreement of 1998. The Agreement was endorsed by the British and Irish governments and most of the Northern Ireland political parties. Last summer, the peace process took a major step forward when the IRA ended its violent campaign and called on volunteers to use only peaceful means. While major violence has stopped, paramilitary organizations are perceived to continue their control in some areas.

"The Northern Ireland Community Builders Program helps build bridges between communities and the police force," said Bill Eimicke, founding director of SIPA's Picker Center for Executive Education and co-organizer of the program with its founder, Frank Costello. "The community sees that the police want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and the community expresses the same desire to the police."

"Through a session led by the Center for Conflict Resolution, the two sides talked about issues with the other that bothered them. It is the kind of learning that has to be done in small groups," Eimicke said.

Fiona Magee, deputy director of Advice Northern Ireland, a group that provides housing, employment and welfare assistance, spent her placement with the NYPD and was impressed with their interaction with community groups. She observed that in working with Youth Services of Jackson Heights, "the community seemed to have positive relations with the police."

Likewise, Magee said, "the Police Academy Youth Explorer Program had a sense of community development and engaged the community on many different levels."

Police inspector David McCausland spent his placement with the NYC Special Narcotics Unit, where he learned about their effort to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin into the city. McCausland said he planned to bring those lessons home and try to establish community awareness about drugs.

In the week before and after the field experience, participants attended classes led by Columbia faculty, including Lisa Anderson, Steve Cohen, Bill Eimicke, Thomas Ference, Arvid Lukaukas and Zachary Metz. Practitioners included Bridget Brennan, NYC special prosecutor for narcotics; Joe Dunne, former NYPD first deputy commissioner; and Don Shacknai, deputy commissioner of the FDNY. Discussion topics ranged from narcotics, crime and public safety to community development, leadership and conflict resolution.

Participants said the discussions on conflict resolution and globalization were the most helpful. Magee said Lukaukas and Eimicke "presented a very balanced view on globalization.

"There are a lot of things happening at home relating to globalization, such as the border tax charge," she said.

Magee also valued Christina Seber's discussion of community development and funding challenges. Magee said Seber, director of planning for Action for Boston Community Development, "talked about the blurred boundary between volunteer and government delivery of services. We are reviewing public administration in Northern Ireland and are restructuring the delivery of services and professionalizing the volunteer sector."

Berni Cowan, a neighborhood police officer in Belfast, said she benefited from the practical lessons on leadership and community building and the personal contacts provided by the SIPA experience. Even more significant, Cowan said the SIPA program has inspired her to continue her education in the social sciences when she returns home.


Published: Nov 07, 2005
Last modified: Nov 04, 2005

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