- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

The areas of Northern Ireland that Andre McClean and Kevin McNamee call home are a mere 10 to 15 miles apart, but they come from different worlds.

Mr. McClean is from the affluent, unionist town of Bangor; Mr. McNamee hails from Turf Lodge, a rough, strongly nationalist Belfast neighborhood where few dream of college. But as a result of the Washington-Ireland Program for Service and Leadership, they are more than summer roommates. They have become unlikely friends.

Each year, Washington-Ireland Program (WIP) brings about 30 students ages 18 to 25 from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, to Washington for an eight-week summer internship. The program hopes to train the next generation of leaders and expose the students to peers from backgrounds different than their own, building bridges in a country divided by strong political and religious differences.

“We are preparing the next generations of leaders in Ireland and Northern Ireland to secure the peace process,” said Paul Costello, executive director of WIP. “I think the current generation has carried the peace process an enormous distance. And I think they’re getting older and ready to retire at some point, and the next generation has to take up the torch.”

The students — in Catholic-Protestant pairs, when possible — are assigned an American host family. They must participate in community-service projects both here and at home and must brainstorm proposals — practical ways they can implement the skills they’ve been taught. Their internships range from jobs on Capitol Hill to assignments at Imagination Stage.

They practice the art of public speaking. A few have shared a microphone with congressional members at a Hill reception, and others have practiced their speaking skills at a ceremony at the Irish Embassy.

The program is funded in part by the American government and private U.S. citizens, the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, the Department of Education of the Republic of Ireland, the International Fund for Ireland and Irish universities.

WIP evolved out of Project Children, a program that began in 1975 when Denis P. Mulcahy brought six children from Northern Ireland to Greenwood Lake, N.Y., to create a summer escape for children torn apart by the conflict in the country, said Carol Wheeler, Washington coordinator for Project Children.

“The thought was, ‘It’s been great working with younger kids, but if we work with older kids, not only could [we] enhance their careers, but also inspire them to take a proactive role back home in hoping to spark reconciliation,’” said Ms. Wheeler.

Jacqueline Taaffe, a Catholic from Ardee in the Republic of Ireland, spent the summer working in the general counsel’s office of the Library of Congress. Her roommate for the summer, Anna McLoughlin, a Protestant from a small village called Spa in County Down in Northern Ireland, interned in the office of Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey Democrat.

Miss Taafe applied to the program because she saw a need to encourage links between the north and the south. She “loves the work placement” and has learned the Washington art of networking when arranging a last-minute tour of the Capitol for a member of the Scottish Parliament. But her favorite part is the friends.

“I’ve made friends for life here,” Miss Taafe said.

And the differences that at home could seem so important, somehow seem to matter less here.

“For me, it’s kind of, like, I’m not really sure who is Protestant and who is Catholic in the group,” said Brian O’Connell, who interned in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office. “I know which a few people are. And I think that’s a good thing. I am also friends with people who have very different political views and make them known and people I never would have been friends with otherwise.”

In fact, it is the American political system that some of the youths and Mr. Costello say can serve as a model for the students — how two opposing points of view can come together and reconcile their differences through negotiation and compromise, not violence.

“Back home, a lot of the issues aren’t being tackled because they see that they are focusing on what they see as the big issue,” said Conor Gibson of Belfast, “so they’re not focusing on social and economic problems. I think there are a lot of issues that Americans have been able to put aside their partisan differences.”

In a delicate time for American international relations, the program also allows the youth to see another side of America, said Mr. Costello, a side that is giving, generous and hospitable. Some of the students have been to the United States before, others have not, but many say it is the relationship with the host families that leave the strongest imprint.

At a recent farewell dinner for the host families at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown — the students left Sunday evening — Kathy and Jim Ryan of Kensington reflected on the summer with their students, Mr. McClean and Mr. McNamee.

The Ryans have been hosting students since 1999, and at one point during the summer, were housing up to five current or former interns at the same time.

“My favorite part of the program is sitting around the kitchen table, just talking, discussing, shooting the bull,” said Mrs. Ryan.

Although the Ryans say the students are so busy they don’t see much of them, it’s clear that the host families play a pivotal role in the experience of the students.

“Why did you get in when so many others didn’t?” Mr. Ryan asked Mr. McNamee. “What do you think you brought that Paul saw?”

Mr. McNamee, slightly embarrassed, said he is unsure, that he wasn’t expecting to get into the program. After thinking a little more, he replies that the summer showed him that he was capable of more than he thought he was, and maybe Mr. Costello saw that.

Mr. McNamee spent his summer working with Habitat for Humanity and organized a recent work project for the team. He speaks passionately about continuing to work with Habitat in the future and strong-arming the other students to volunteer as well.

Mr. Costello dreams of a program where Irish students would train other students from conflict-ridden areas of the world — such as the Middle East — in leadership and reconciliation skills.

“Back home, running for office is looked on with suspicion,” said Mr. McClean. “Do you think you are somebody that you can do things? Over here, it’s entirely different. You’re encouraged. Everybody’s encouraged to push themselves and take risks.”

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