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Two Minnesota Law Students Monitor the Ongoing Inquiry Process in Northern Ireland
The decommissioning of weapons by armed groups in Northern Ireland began in 2005. Over the past few years, however, the ‘Troubles’ have not completely disappeared. While Nationalist and Loyalist groups maintain fierce allegiances, now the fierceness is less often expressed in overt violence. When violence does erupt, the news media is prone to hype up the events to stir up passionate sentiments.
With the support of generous donors, namely Samuel D. Heins, the Robina Foundation, and the Otto Bremer Foundation, two of the 2009 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellows were able to spend ten weeks in Belfast at the Transitional Justice Institute. Kyle Lewis, a 2007 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, and Elizabeth Super, a 2L student at the Law School, contributed to the Inquiries Observation Project. The Institute was founded in 2005 and is led by a four-person directorate including University of Minnesota Law School Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. TJI remains an active player in the continuing peace process in Northern Ireland.
The Inquiries Observation Project at Transitional Justice Institute was developed to act as a watchdog during the public hearing process to investigate the appropriateness of government and other conduct during the Troubles. Although they do not make international headlines, the Inquiries in Northern Ireland into government collusion during the Troubles remain of vital importance. This project has an important role in this process: to ensure the inquiries are held in an open, public forum. Over the summer, Kyle and Elizabeth monitored the proceedings in the Inquiries into government collusion in the deaths of Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson, and Billy Wright. By reading court transcripts, writing daily summaries and reports, and analyzing each decision, Kyle and Elizabeth made sure that justice was done with no irregularities or inconsistencies. This key piece of research was incorporated into TJI’s report on the Inquiries process.
When Kyle left Minneapolis for Belfast, he believed he was heading for a post-conflict situation. He quickly learned that a Northern Ireland in transition following years of violent conflict was not free of all conflicts. Likewise, Elizabeth was surprised by the level of animosity and tension that remained. Coming from St. Paul which has a sizable Irish population, she was not expecting to find this degree of segregation and separation between the two factions in a modern European city. Like many Human Rights Fellows, Kyle and Elizabeth expressed that their perspectives changed most by interacting with people outside of the immediate work. Kyle recounted that one researcher, in telling the history of the events from a Nationalist view, believed that he was imparting impartial facts. Elizabeth stated that she could not discuss the nature of her work with some Protestant friends because they believed the Inquiries were not a legitimate exercise.
The Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship gave these two Minnesotans a chance to learn about continuing issues in transitional justice. Kyle, a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis, has returned with a fresh perspective on the role of prejudice in communities and how to fight those views. Elizabeth is eager to continue researching transitional justice and is working to incorporate concepts of transitional justice into the curriculum of the social justice program at her former high school, Cretin-Derham Hall High School.
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