By Christopher Gillett
The former Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, is visiting Youngstown State University from Oct. 12 to 14 and will receive the Sean MacBride Humanitarian Award at a dinner on Oct. 14 from the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
This dinner, located in the Debartolo Stadium Club in Stambaugh Stadium, is part of the midterm national board meeting of the AOH, a national nonpartisan Irish American fraternal organization founded during the 19th century.
Ahern will be receiving the award for his negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement with Britain in 1998 early into his time as Taoiseach — similar to a prime minister — which ended the Troubles, a decades-long conflict in British-controlled Northern Ireland.
The Troubles stemmed from tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the disenfranchisement of Catholics. Ireland had been ruled by Britain for centuries, with Catholics being subjugated by a Protestant ruling class.
After Ireland won its independence in the 1920s, the U.K. still held six counties which became Northern Ireland.
David Simonelli, a professor of contemporary history, teaches Irish history this semester and said Protestant rule was a form of Apartheid.
“Protestants developed a system of Apartheid in Ireland in general and when Northern Ireland was broken off in 1922, they reasserted that system in Northern Ireland,” Simonelli said.
During the 1960s, Catholics were inspired by the American Civil Rights movement and began nonviolent marches for equality. Protestants and the British Army responded with violence by attacking and shooting at protesters, which resulted in a 1972 massacre that became known as Bloody Sunday.
Catholics turned to the Irish Republican Army, a long-standing underground terrorist organization which had been unpopular beforehand.
Many died and were scarred by the Troubles. The GFA between Ahern, Tony Blair in the U.K. and political factions in Northern Ireland ended the Troubles with mediation from the U.S.
YSU Interim-President Helen Lafferty will sit with Ahern at the dinner. Lafferty said she was excited to commend Ahern for his work on the GFA.
“The reason that the Good Friday Agreement was so important was because it transformed relations for the better between Ireland and Britain. It instilled a new ethos — an ethos of tolerance and respect,” Lafferty said. “I am most excited to meet him and to actually commend him for his work.”
Danny O’Connell, the director of Support Services at YSU and National President of the AOH, is hosting the meeting. While O’Connell has met Ahern previously, O’Connell said he’s excited to become closer with Ahern through the visit.
“One of my predecessors [at the AOH] always said ‘When you break bread with somebody, your relationship changes, and that’s when it goes from business-formal to friendship,’” O’Connell said. “I’m excited to be able to sit with Bertie Ahern and President Lafferty Saturday night and just be part of that conversation.”
Alongside the dinner, Simonelli will host two public interview sessions at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor on Oct. 13.
The first will be from 10 to 11:15 a.m. with the honorary consul of France for the Midwest of Ireland and historian Loïc Guyon. The second will be with Ahern on the GFA from noon to 1:15 p.m with a reception in between.
Simonelli said interviewing Ahern about the agreement is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“As a professor — you don’t often get opportunities to talk to people that are so connected to the actual history that you’re discussing in a class,” Simonelli said. “It’s just an interesting life event, let alone an interesting professional event for me. I haven’t met anybody I can think of that’s of that political pedigree.”
To learn more about the Ancient Order of Hibernians, go to its website.