Heard on the Hill

Irish Interns Learn About Bridging Gaps in Divided US

Political students learning to ‘stand up and lead’

Boniface Odoemene, right, is New York Rep. Peter T. King's 19th intern from the Washington Ireland Program. (Courtesy Rep. Peter T. King’s office)

During a pivotal time in U.S. politics, students from Ireland are learning how things work — and don’t work — in Washington, and how to apply that knowledge to their studies back home.

The Washington Ireland Program, or WIP, has been a coveted student development program for more than 20 years. Alumni include Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, former Northern Ireland Justice Minister Claire Sugden and former Lord Mayor of Belfast Nuala McAllister.

The 25 students in the program this summer are interning in House, Senate and diplomatic offices and at the Irish Embassy. New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King has had the most WIP interns come through his doors over the years — 19 to be exact.

HOH talked to King’s 19th intern — Boniface Odoemene, a 23-year-old graduate in law from the Dublin Institute of Technology — and to Lisa Whitten, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student studying politics and law at Queens University in Belfast, who is interning with Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

Q: Why did you want to do this program?

Whitten: The program  has a couple of values that they hold as core. One of the values was a belief that the problems on the island of Ireland can be solved. I just love that. That was my motivation for applying, and the opportunity to come here and to find out about the U.S. system and compare it to back home, it’s just so enlightening.

Odoemene: I had applied multiple times for the program and I was lucky enough that this year I got selected. I [realized] how much of a personal impact this program could be for myself, especially around one of our principles, which is dealing with difference, whether that be political difference or ideological difference. … I wanted to learn more in regards to the north and south of Ireland.

Lisa Whitten, right, is a PhD student interning in Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick's office. (Courtesy Fitzpatrick's office)
Lisa Whitten, right, is a PhD student interning in Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick's office. (Courtesy Fitzpatrick's office)

Q: How did you get placed in your offices?

Odoemene: I had said it at my interview that I would probably consider myself a black Republican, so when they had put me in a place with the Republican Party, I was very happy personally. It’s very interesting because our program is about bridging the gap and the understanding between north and the south, Catholics and Protestants, and working on more collaborative endeavors for our island as a whole. And so, [it’s] ironic, putting us into the American current system, where currently there’s not enough bipartisanship, per se, in politics.

Whitten: I wouldn’t consider myself a Republican. I wouldn’t consider myself a Democrat. I study politics. I am really interested in governance structures and procedures. I previously worked in the U.K. Parliament and that really sparked an interest. I worked for a very different politician, on the political spectrum, than I’m currently working for. Congressman Fitzpatrick has a lot of experience and interest in government reform, anti-corruption legislation. That’s something that’s in my research for the Ph.D. … I love that stuff. I would describe myself more as a political analyst. A lot of people in Northern Ireland find it difficult to align themselves to a party just because of how polarized it is at the moment. … Not being party-political isn’t that unusual for people back home.

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Q: What kind of work have you done so far?

Odoemene: What was really interesting for myself is when I went to a Foreign Affairs hearing on democracy last week, where it was always centered around what can we give more to the world? How do we lead the world more? It’s just such a contrast coming from Ireland, a smaller country, where we participate rather than lead in most things major.

Secondly, in having political discussions with the other interns, it’s interesting because I’ve never been around so many [young] self-identifying Republicans in my life. There’s always a stereotype of what a Democrat or Republican person may look like or think like, but I’ve come across socially liberal Republicans or economic Republicans and then self-identifying Trump Republicans, which is very interesting to see and just to hear as to why they identify themselves as that. What is probably one of the most important principles of WIP is this idea of consistently having your opinions and assumptions challenged.

Whitten: Learning. Just being in the office, being immersed in it, you absorb a load. Answering constituent phone calls. Also then going along to hearings and committee meetings and taking notes on those, and sharing those within the office. Doing a bit of analysis on legislation coming through.

Q: Who is your host family in D.C.?

Odoemene: WIP deliberately … gave me a hardcore Democrat host family, who actually have an award for ‘Most Anti-Trump.’ Throughout my time here, I’ve been hearing both sides, debating, questioning and discussing different topics. At home, it’s Democratic. Here [on the Hill], it’s Republican. Allowing myself, personally, to question my assumptions, I wouldn’t say my political opinion is the same now as it was when I first came. So I thank WIP for that.

Whitten: My host family, they’re more centered. … We are encouraged to not just be open to but to actively embrace differences and to seek out different opinions. It’s such an opportunity to go and hear from senior, experienced Democrats who are so passionate and have such belief. That’s what I’m finding is consistent. … Ideals are often really quite shared. I was really inspired, intrigued, in an intern lecture series. … The attitudes of America and American culture is that you can do this, rise up and help the world. WIP instills that in us, but WIP is relatively unique in Ireland in really emphasizing that — to stand up and lead. That’s not really a strong premise of our culture.

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