Irishman’s story intertwines politics and education

Last week, an older Northern Irish gentleman visited John Brown University and many of its classes across campus. In case anyone missed him, he is Patrick “Paddy” Roche, an adjunct professor for the Irish Semester Studies program.

In the classes, he discussed the European Union, Northern Ireland politics, the Belfast Agreement and the role of religion in Irish politics.

Paddy Roche came to Siloam Springs to visit his old friends Billy and Mindi Stevenson, to take a holiday and to enjoy the weather.

“We first met Paddy and Liz Roche in 1997, the year we were planning the first Irish studies program for the summer,” said Billy Stevenson, director of international programs.

The Roches attended a dinner that year, put together by Stevenson to reach out to prospective faculty for the program.

“We came in late,” Roche said. “My wife took a seat by a JBU faculty and I sat in the last spare chair in the corner. By the end of the evening they had planned the entire course. Elizabeth had volunteered herself as coordinator and literature professor. She told them I would teach economics—they didn’t even need to ask me.”

The Stevensons were impressed immediately with Elizabeth Roche and subsequently with Paddy. His past career as economics professor, including four published books, and current involvement in public debates of politics, made him a great fit for the job.

So Roche embarked on two new careers at once: adjunct teaching for the University and joining Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament, as a Member of Parliament.

He became a Member of Parliament the same year as the Belfast Agreement, which brought an end to the 30-year conflict between Nationalists and Unionists.

This conflict, called The Troubles, began when he was 28 years old. Despite raising three children during the years of car bombs and terrorism, Roche said he was fairly apolitical.

It was not until the 1990s, when Roche felt that the civilian Unionists, the majority in Northern Ireland but also the most affected by terrorism, were being portrayed internationally as the aggressor rather than victim, that Roche joined the public debates.

“This was a very historic time in Northern Ireland,” Roche explained. “Before and during my political career I got involved in the moral debates in bringing a name and an end to the terrorism.

“I argued that terrorist groups must decommission their arsenal for peace. I also argued against the release of prisoners. These were men that set the car bombs, but because they were considered political prisoners rather than criminal prisoners, they were set free after the Belfast Agreement. And I argued that we couldn’t forget the past—it wouldn’t be wise to eliminate it. To a certain degree, we need to remember.”

He said he typically aligned himself with intellectual defenders of unionism.

Although Roche was involved in an important time of political history for his country, he said he considers his work with the University just as significant to him.

In 2003 his wife died. Roche decided to leave the political sphere and continue working with the University.

“Paddy is a permanent fixture of the semester program now,” Stevenson said. “He still teaches Irish politics and economics for us, and we enjoy having him with us. His knowledge of the EU and the UK really broaden the study program.”

Roche said he is enjoying his holiday in Siloam Springs and the election season in the United States.

“I think U.S. politics is so much more exciting than the UK,” he said with a smile. “The content of the political debate is much higher intellectually than in the UK as well. People don’t debate the proper role of government or the merits of free capitalism in the UK.”

Roche added that he enjoys watching the rousing political speeches and seeing the amounts of money flowing into campaigns.

“The amount of money spent on these races is an index of how important the races are to people,” he said. “And thousands of Americans will turn out to hear Romney or Obama speak, but if the prime minister got a few hundred listeners, he’d feel quite pleased with himself.”

Roche’s second trip to the University, though full of talks and class visits, gave the professor an American holiday before he returned back to Belfast and Lakeside Manor to teach this year’s crop of semester students all about the Easter Rising, the Celtic Tiger and where Northern Ireland is today.