Three women in formal business attire sit in an elegant library. In the middle there is a table with flowers. The American flag is in the background.
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First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Discuss Peacebuilding and Prosperity During Georgetown Visit

Georgetown University welcomed Michelle O’Neill, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Emma Little-Pengelly, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, to Riggs Library for a discussion on conflict resolution, women in leadership, and building prosperity across political boundaries. 

The ministers of the recently re-formed power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland visited the United States for St. Patrick’s Day to meet with President Joe Biden and strengthen their relationships with partners in the country. 

“We have a strong relationship with the United States and this week, our focus will be on showcasing Northern Ireland as a compelling investment opportunity and highlighting the many benefits of doing business here,” said O’Neill in a prepared statement.

From Resolution to Rejuvenation

Joel Hellman, dean of the School of Foreign Service, introduced the event, noting Georgetown’s reputation as a center for the study of post-conflict resolution.

A man in a gray stand speaks at a podium emblazoned with the Georgetown University Seal. He wears glasses and stands in front of an elegant library.

Dean Joel Hellman addresses the crowd in Riggs Library.

“Through difficult times, Northern Ireland has prevailed, thrived and continued to offer the world a road map on how to negotiate a lasting peace,” Hellman said. “We know here at Georgetown — thanks especially to the work of our Institute for Women, Peace and Security — that there is no lasting peace without women at the table. Today, we are excited to hear from two women who are not only at the table but at the head of it about their hopes and plans for building a better Northern Ireland.”

The conversation was moderated by Kimberly Cowell-Meyers, an associate professor of government at American University. The talk, before a packed audience of visiting dignitaries, esteemed faculty, and engaged students, began with a reflection on the legacy of the past and ventured into visions of the future.   

Both O’Neill and Little-Pengelly grew up as children in a zone of conflict, and their adult lives have been defined by the fragile peace ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement. 

“We have been a society that, despite an eagerness to move on, is dragged down by the unfinished threads of the past, the legacy of issues not yet resolved,” said Little-Pengelly. “We are at this moment of incredible opportunity where people have this huge eagerness to look to the future now despite the, in Maya Angelou’s words, ‘wrenching pain’ of the past that ‘cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.’” 

O’Neill, the first nationalist First Minister in Northern Ireland’s history, reflected on coming from a different political party and a different personal background than Little-Pengelly. Despite their differences, she affirmed, they are united in the hope of achieving tangible changes for the people of Northern Ireland. 

“Emma and I are the epitome of the Good Friday Agreement ourselves because we come from two very different backgrounds, two very different lived experiences,” said O’Neill. “If we’re going to be successful into the future and ensure that today’s generation is not burdened by yesterday’s, then we need to properly deal with the past and find ways to heal wounds.” 

O’Neill and Little-Pengelly visited the Hilltop last year for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, participating in an event with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Reflecting on their personal lives and the history of Northern Ireland, they situated the recently-formed government in a pivotal location – a quarter of a century away from conflict and determined to build another quarter of a century of peace and prosperity. 

A woman with long, dark hair speaks in front of an American flag. She gesticulates with one hand and wears a baby blue suit jacket.

Emma Little-Pengelly, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, addresses the crowd in Riggs Library.

“I hope that Michelle and I can bridge that transition, between some of the remaining threads of the past that sometimes wind themselves around and bring down our institutions and move to 25 years of building success and prosperity,” said Little-Pengelly. 

In addition to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, both Junior Ministers in the Executive, Aislin Reilly and Pam Cameron, are also female. The conversation turned to the role of women in leadership positions. 

“Women being in leadership roles is undoubtedly important for the framework that it provides for people to see what that can be, but more than that we want to deliver,” said Little-Pengelly. “No matter what the symbolism of women in leadership roles, we want to deliver.”

The event was organized by three on-campus programs, Global Irish Studies, the BMW Center for German and European Studies and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, in collaboration with off-campus partners, the Washington Ireland Program, the John & Pat Hume Foundation, the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Bureau and the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland.

The event marked the second annual meeting of the Washington Forum on Northern Ireland, a joint project of Georgetown University, American University and Ulster University. Watch the full conversation here

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Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security
Global Irish Studies