Aspin Fellowship: Menitove

Jonathan Menitove, Ezra Stiles College ‘07
Les Aspin ’60 International Public Service Fellowship
State Department Summer Internship, US Consulate General Belfast

For eleven weeks during the summer of 2006, I served as an intern with the US State Department at the US Consulate General in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  My experiences during those extraordinary three months constitute one of the highlights of my college career and I believe my time in Ireland will serve as one of the defining moments in my education.

When I applied for my summer internship with the State Department in November 2005, I expected my work primarily to involve immigration issues.  I even specifically requested being placed at a US consulate rather than an embassy in the hope that my internship would primarily involve the visa process.  Accordingly, for the initial two weeks of my internship, I worked exclusively with the consular bureau, learning the details of visa procedure and how post-9/11 visa regulations have affected various nationalities disproportionately.  Belfast was a wonderful place to work in consular affairs on account of the wide range of nationalities present in Northern Ireland.  Immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and the Balkans have all flocked to Belfast to capitalize on the growing number of jobs available in Northern Ireland’s rapidly developing economy.  My experience in Belfast afforded me the opportunity to see how individuals from the EU enjoy a tremendous advantage in obtaining visas while Filipino applicants face more difficulty on account of more rigid background checks by the Department of Homeland Security.

While I enjoyed my work in consular, the most interesting duties this summer involved the political bureau.  Northern Ireland’s Troubles dominated all work conducted by the political officer.  While Northern Ireland has been relatively quiet since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, for the preceding thirty years, a low-level civil war engulfed the country with frequent murders and violence perpetrated by competing paramilitary organizations.  The timing of my internship could not have been better, as the Consulate’s political officer position was in rotation for six weeks during my internship and I fulfilled the duties of the political officer.  The most fascinating project during my summer internship involved an effort the US Consulate was promoting to encourage reconciliation among the competing factions.  As part of this effort, I helped organize a series of meetings between two groups of widows—one Protestant who had lost their husbands to the violence of the IRA, the other Catholic whose husbands had been killed by RUC policemen—hoping that an open dialogue between these two groups might bring them closer together.  By the end of the third two-hour session, women who initially attended these meetings by sitting on opposite ends of the room now chatted comfortably with each other.

While my work with the political bureau provided some hope that Northern Ireland was on its way to recovery, my work with the economic bureau was less encouraging.  Working with Invest Northern Ireland, a UK government sponsored initiative to promote foreign investment, I compiled a database of American firms with operations in Northern Ireland and discussed with these firms the benefits and detractions of doing business in the North.  My research exposed me to some disappointing realities as a negative public perception of Northern Ireland, an older and decreasing workforce, and high corporate taxes (double than the corporate taxes of the Republic of Ireland) all served to discourage foreign investment.

While my work in the consulate was truly a unique experience, I also learned a tremendous amount by simply being immersed in the Northern Irish culture.  I found that while many neighborhoods—particularly those of South Belfast—have made great progress, other neighborhoods in North and West Belfast remain largely segregated.  Protestant and Catholic children still attend separate schools and, even in the few schools that Her Majesty’s Government has integrated, Protestant and Catholic children refuse to play with each other during their free hour.  Violent and sectarian murals dominate the cityscape while graffiti displaying violent messages can be seen along any main road.  Being present in Belfast for the Orangemen Festivities of July 12 further exposed the deep-divisions that plague the environment.  Every July, in commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne when Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II, the Protestant neighborhoods amass wood, old furniture, and even caravans to burn in massive bonfires throughout the city.  The Pope, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and the Irish tricolor are all burned in effigy and Catholics are encouraged to remain at home.  The Consulate closed down for July 12 and July 13 and many of my co-workers planned to be out of down during those days.

I feel privileged to have lived in Belfast at this moment in its history.  While Northern Ireland has progressed tremendously over the last ten years, the scars of Northern Ireland’s tumultuous past remain.  I had the unique chance to witness a country at a turning point with a rapidly changing economy and political system.  November 24, 2006 will be an important day in Northern Ireland, as it marks the date by which the Secretary of State Peter Hain either will recommend power devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly or will request that that Her Majesty’s Government administer the province directly.  I intend to keep up with my friends and colleagues in Belfast to learn more about the nation’s progress as this deadline approaches.

My eleven weeks in Belfast were an experience I will never forget.  I wish to thank the Les Aspin’60 Public Service Award committee with my utmost gratitude for its support, without which my summer experience would not have been possible.  In closing, I will admit that my trip to Ireland did bring me to the occasional pub, where a friend of mine shared with me a well-known Irish blessing he recommended for those who made my summer possible: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”  It was a pleasure meeting you all and I thank you for your support.