St Brigid’s Day 2000 was dominated by crisis talks in Northern Ireland to save the Executive from collapse. A report of the international decommissioning body had documented no progress by the IRA towards the decommissioning of weapons. The Irish government was pressing the paramilitaries for a commitment in this regard, while attempting to persuade Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble not to resign as First Minister.
Ten years on, while the threat of guns has largely been removed from the streets of the North, the element of brinksmanship which has so long pervaded Ulster politics is alive and well. This evening, there are optimistic noises in the air that a solution can be found to the dispute on the devolution of policing and justice, parades, etc. Vox pops broadcast on radio over the past few days have indicated a growing level of frustration amongst the populace of the North with their political representatives. Focus on the important issues and get this economy working again was a dominant theme.
February the first that year was also the date on which I commenced my first term as president of AIT. I remember my feelings of apprehension and enthusiasm for the job, and the sense of anticipation for the work that lay ahead. Having spent several years previous in the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College, Portrush I was looking forward to settling into the Midlands and establishing a new network of friends here.
Writing this on the first day of a second ten-year term, it is hard to credit that an entire decade has passed since I arrived in Athlone. Some of the moments that linger longest in my memory from those years include the visit of President McAleese to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the institute’s foundation; the expansion of the institute’s infrastructure to feature the development of a new east campus, the construction of dedicated facilities for hospitality, tourism and leisure studies, and most recently, engineering and informatics. The sporting infrastructure too has benefited from considerable investment, and is now, on a par with the finest international facilities.
Institutional maturity has also been signified with the delegation of authority to award our own qualifications, with the authority to award doctorate degrees now pending. Similarly, the increasing internationalisation of the student body, the growth in research and innovation activity, and enhanced links with industry, are signs of a higher education institution that is proactively engaging with its many stakeholders and the wider community.
The coming decade will be no less challenging than the one just passed, while the current economic conditions underline the hard-sought balance between tightening resources and addressing greater societal needs.
Let’s hope that by February 2020 we will have witnessed more than incremental change in Northern Ireland and that AIT will continue to be a vibrant, progressive higher education institution.