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31st January, 2024

US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland: “It all begins with education”

SUC Principal and CEO Prof Jonathan Heggarty (left) interviews US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joseph Kennedy III (right).

Stranmillis University College was delighted to welcome the United States Department of State Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs , Joseph P Kennedy III, as the Keynote speaker for the inaugural Dr Éamon Phoenix Memorial Lecture.

The Dr Éamon Phoenix Memorial Lecture at Stranmillis was established to honour the legacy of our esteemed and greatly missed late colleague – one of the pre-eminent historians of our time, with a unique ability to bring history to life, and an educator whose unwavering dedication to fostering innovative teaching approaches, promoting critical thinking, and nurturing a vibrant intellectual environment left an indelible mark on colleagues, students and Northern Ireland society as a whole.

Speaking at the Lecture, Principal and CEO of SUC, Professor Jonathan Heggarty, said: “It is a mark of Dr Éamon Phoenix’s reputation and respect that we are thrilled to welcome the US Special Envoy  as our Keynote speaker for this inaugural event. Education has, and continues to be, a passion for Joe Kennedy III, not just in words, but in positive action through driving policy reform and plans for education that addresses each step along a child’s path; through promoting early childhood learning that prevents the achievement gap; continually advocating for universal proficiency and dynamic innovation in the classroom; and ensuring higher education is accessible to all. Themes and actions that would resonate strongly with Dr Éamon Phoenix.”

In his keynote speech, ‘Education as a Catalyst for Economic Progress’, the Envoy spoke passionately about educational disadvantage, early years education, the need for educational innovation and education as the foundation and cornerstone of economic prosperity:  “No one doubts the role of education as the catalyst of economic progress. It’s self-evident in a world growing increasingly interdependent through technology and increasingly reliant on the products of research labs and institutes to develop heat-resistant crops, more efficient appliances, smarter grids and genome-altering medical advances.”

“It all begins with education. Northern Ireland has one of the most highly educated work-forces in the world. The talent here has drawn investments from over 230 U.S. firms who now employ over 30,000 workers. Northern Ireland is the number one destination for cyber-security investments in Europe. Innovations in AI, genome-sequencing, film industry CGI and aerospace are reaching everywhere from the River Foyle in Derry to the docksides of Belfast.”

“I would be remiss not to mention when learning begins: at birth.  Research shows us repeatedly the dramatic impact of early childhood education not only on education attainment, but on economic opportunity, as well. Access to early education sets children up to be ready for primary school, improves early literacy, and is critical to a child’s social-emotional development. It directly contributes to a higher likelihood of completing secondary school and advancing to higher education. The early years are when we learn how to work with others, make critical decisions, and relate to each other: all skills needed not only in the classroom, but in the workplace as well. It also builds stronger communities. Access to early education not only sets children up to thrive, but it also provides families with greater financial security. When children are in care, parents can work; student parents can achieve degrees. Early education is perhaps the best investment in education – and economic opportunity for families – that we can make.”

The Phoenix Family.

“And it is where Northern Ireland has a chance to stand apart.  You want to keep that young talent from going to London or Boston?  Provide those young parents access to affordable childcare.  You want to get more caregivers back into the workforce?  Provide more access to affordable childcare.  You want to build the earning capacity of young couples?  Provide more access to affordable childcare.  You want to increase opportunities for integrated education?  Provide more access to affordable childcare.  You want to increase the prospects of peace and prosperity?  Provide more access for affordable childcare.”

“Why?  Because kids are kids.  In all of my travels to almost every corner of our world, I have yet to find a child where if you don’t throw a ball to them they won’t throw it back.  Kids laugh and play.  They don’t know how to hurt or hate.  Their wants and needs are the simple, basic things that unite us all.”

“That is, of course, the great lesson that Northern Ireland teaches the world.  A lesson that Dr. Phoenix knew well, and that has certainly taken hold of me.  That despite our differences and divides, our future is shared.  Our prosperity is linked.  That there is, in fact, only one path forward — together.  It’s a lesson demonstrated again last evening, and one, I’m certain, that would have Dr Phoenix cheering.”

The inaugural lecture was also addressed by Dr Jayne Brady MBE, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who paid a heartfelt tribute to the work and impact Éamon Phoenix made to so many on the island; a fascinating lecture on Partition and Education Policy divergence in the 1920s by Prof. Noel Purdy (Stranmillis) and Dr Tom Walsh (Maynooth University); and closing remarks from Éamon’s wife Alice, including an announcement on the creation of the Éamon Phoenix Foundation.




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