Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

2022 Social Change Initiative Fellow

Ciara Nolan

Ciara Nolan
BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation); BA Political Science ‘22

Social Change Initiative

“I can honestly say that my time in Belfast was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life thanks to my fellowship from Donia Human Rights Center and was the perfect capstone to my career at the University of Michigan. My internship was focused on human rights in Northern Ireland and was supposed to continue the work of last year’s fellow, but new legislation in the House of Commons changed my project. The government had introduced a bill called the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that could threaten the agreements protecting human rights in Northern Ireland following Brexit, so I began researching the legal basis and political implications of the bill. Under the supervision of Martin O’Brien at Social Change Initiative and Chris McCrudden at Queen’s University Belfast, my report came to the conclusion that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill posed a real threat to the human rights regime established in the country.

I’ve always been interested in British and Irish politics, because my mum is from Scotland, and my dad is from Ireland. I was in Ireland on the day of the Brexit referendum in 2016, and that first-hand experience of the vote’s aftermath motivated much of my academic career. During my senior year at Michigan, I wrote a thesis applying a game theoretical framework to British-Irish relations in the 20th century as both states integrated into the European Union. I was able to build on this research while exploring a different area of policy and law through my fellowship.

The work I did in Belfast allowed me to apply my previous knowledge to a current-day problem. Human rights in Northern Ireland present a particular challenge to British-Irish relations because of the historical tensions in the region. My thesis research, as well as my coursework at Michigan, prepared me for this challenge, but this was the first time I was able to get hands-on experience in the policy areas I had studied.

The biggest thing I learned from this fellowship is that domestic law, international law, and international relations are far more intermixed than I previously thought, especially in countries that are members of international organizations. Even though the UK is no longer a member of the European Union, EU law still influences British domestic law, which motivated the British government to create the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in the first place. But this legislation potentially violates international law, and if other states believe the UK is not living up to its international obligations, British relations with these states may suffer.

I thought I knew about international relations, European law, British politics, and the UK’s system of government because of my Michigan courses and my thesis, but there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself. I had to quickly learn how British bills became law, how the House of Commons functions alongside the House of Lords, and how European law still affects British domestic law. This quick introduction to a different political and legal system helped me develop my ability to adapt and fostered my curiosity about the inner workings of the British system. My ability to adapt to a new system, gain a new subset of knowledge quickly, and then communicate that knowledge to a specific audience are all valuable skills that I can take to my next position and throughout my career. Additionally, my experience working in the British political system opens up the option of a career in that space, either in the UK or in the US.

While my coursework and thesis project required a lot of research, I had never done legal research before working with this legislation. This was certainly a challenge for me, because I had not encountered that type of technical language before, and at first it took me a few attempts to understand the author’s argument. However, after a few days of reading chapters from legal textbooks, I started to get the hang of it. It gave me an appreciation for the work necessary to go into the legal field, and having the legal background meant I understood the legislation on a deeper level. Because this is a different type of research that I didn’t get much exposure to during my time at Michigan, I am rethinking some of the plans for my future that I made during college. I’m considering law school more seriously after being exposed to a different area of law, which would open up more career options. I’m weighing a legal education against obtaining a Master of Public Policy, which would allow me to work more closely with the crafting of legislation. My research during my fellowship has given me some inspiration for possible projects in graduate school if I decide not to pursue law, a route that would also further my educational goals.

The funding from the Donia Human Rights Center made all of this possible, and it gave me the ability to travel to and live in the UK with relative ease and left me with funds to explore the city I was living in. I visited as many museums and tourist attractions as I could, and I was even able to use the funds to travel to Dublin for a day to attend a meeting of cross-border human rights academics. Working with SCI and Queen’s University Belfast gave me many of these opportunities to network with experts in human rights. Talking to people who have built careers around this subject gave me new perspectives on what education I might need and how people can reach their respective positions.

These parts of my stay in Belfast enriched the educational aspect of my fellowship, giving me even more context about the politics involved in my research. I learned so much about British and Irish politics and culture, both through my work and by living in Northern Ireland, all of which furthered the educational goals I had set for myself during my time at the University of Michigan, far beyond what I learned through my thesis. In addition to achieving some of my educational goals, I made progress toward my long-term career goals, because this fellowship gave me the opportunity to experience working in British and European politics as well as US-UK relations. I hope to make a career in one of these areas, so being able to complete research through the SCI fellowship was invaluable.”