A tribute to Elizabeth Meehan
Elizabeth Marian Meehan was born in Edinburgh 23rd March 1947, the first child of David Charles Meehan and Marian Byas, nee Mackenzie. Her parents moved their growing family to West Linton, some miles from Edinburgh and Elizabeth attended school there. She went on to Peebles High school for her second level education. From her earliest days, Elizabeth’s remarkable facility to learn was evident.
After secondary education, Elizabeth enrolled in the Edinburgh College of Art, but quickly decided that this was not the life for her. She entered the civil service in 1965 and spent eight years in the Foreign Office before returning to university. She graduated with a first in politics from Sussex University in 1976 and a D Phil from Oxford in 1982.
Following a period of tutoring and part-time lecturing in Oxford, Elizabeth held a position as lecturer in politics at the University of Bath until 1990. She secured leave to take up the prestigious Hallsworth Fellowship in Manchester University in 1989 before going on to accept a professorial appointment at Queen’s University in 1991.
With this appointment Elizabeth became the first female professor of politics on the island of Ireland, breaking that particular glass ceiling for women in the profession. In fact, she held two professorial titles shortly after her appointment: one was her regular professorial post, the other as a Jean Monnet Professor of European Studies.
A colleague remembers that “she came to Queen’s as a breath of fresh air, in part because her appointment marked two interesting vital departures for Queen’s – the appointment of women to senior professorships in the social sciences and the European focus she gave Politics at the University. She pioneered these two developments and helped reshape the University very significantly.”
Elizabeth went on to hold many positions of importance in Queen’s – including Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences in 1995. When her term as Dean came to an end, Elizabeth was afforded a year’s sabbatical, which she spent in the Policy Institute at Trinity College Dublin. While there she wrote a ground-breaking paper in the TCD Studies in Public Policy series on Free Movement between Ireland and the UK from the “common travel area” to The Common Travel Area”. This work was supported by the Irish Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
In 2001, shortly after her return to Queen’s, she became the Founding Director of the interdisciplinary Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research.
In this role, she brought people together from the academic, policy and third sector, and invested much time and energy in fostering interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral work. Doing excellent research was necessary, but not sufficient, was Elizabeth’s view. It also had to be useful knowledge, empowering as well as enlightening, with an application to the policy puzzles and societal problems of the day. Elizabeth reflected this in her extensive policy-related activities. She gave over 50 presentations to policy bodies in governmental, international and civil society arenas including the Council of Europe, European Commission, EU Committee of the Regions, European Parliament, British and Irish Ministers and civil servants, the British-Irish Association, multiple non-departmental bodies in the UK and Ireland, trade unions, and other social partners.
In her role as Director of the Institute of Governance, Elizabeth initiated an innovative Doctorate in Governance and partnered with the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin to deliver it. This was a novel project, educating civil servants from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland side by side. Another innovation was the Chatham House seminars which generated a policy papers series.
Elizabeth’s innate understanding of the power of shared endeavour in knowledge-creation led her to link Queens and the University of Ulster through the Social and Political Archive project (ARK). She later served on the ARK international advisory board. It was an outstanding success and continues to be so to this day.
These are some examples of the nurturing and dynamic intellectual environment Elizabeth created, where scholars, visiting fellows, policy practitioners and early career researchers flourished.
She retired from Queens in 2005, became Professor Emerita in the School of Law, and continued her active academic life.
Elizabeth was the quintessential scholar, with a deep and abiding interest in citizenship, the European Union, equal opportunities and gender equality. From the 1990s onwards, her research interests incorporated the politics of devolution, governance and accountability in the UK, and the role of the European Union in framing relations between Britain and Ireland.
Elizabeth’s thoughts on these matters can be found in a wide range of publications, including at least eight authored and edited books, many journal articles, and numerous chapter contributions to significant collections. These works have shaped the scholarship of a generation, with her book Women’s Rights at Work: Campaigns and Policy in Britain and the United States (1985) particularly influential in bringing the study of equal opportunities to international attention.
Although Elizabeth was modest in her presentation of her own work, one knew immediately that her analysis was nuanced and incisive.
In a contribution to the book Citizenship, Democracy and Justice in the new EU, Elizabeth argued persuasively for a new conception of citizenship flowing from EU membership. She saw this new citizenship being tied to a shared moral order and not to the traditional nation state. She argued for a cosmopolitan form of citizenship long before that strand in intellectual thinking became fashionable. That piece is as relevant today as it was when published in 1997.
In 2006, she began a discussion of borders, employment opportunities and barriers in Ireland with the following observation:
Both countries [the UK and Ireland] are experiencing greater permeability of borders on a global scale; both are having to face up to “borders of the mind” that are not confined to the “Irish question”; and both countries (this time from Belfast rather than London) are refocusing cooperation from a 90 year old common immigration policy to collaboration over integration.
These reflections also stand the test of time.
Elizabeth was not only a brilliant individual academic. She was also a valued research collaborator.
From 2000-2005 she contributed to a project monitoring devolution with other leading Irish and British scholars, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. She was a member of the editorial and advisory boards of eleven journals, including Contemporary Politics and Government and Opposition.
Around the same time she was a member of an advisory board for the first democratic audit of the UK. The publication, entitled The Three Pillars of Liberty: Political Rights and Freedoms in the UK, was written by Francesca Klug, Kier Starmer and Stuart Weir. The advisory board reads like a who’s who of UK academic and political life.
In May 2015, she worked with others on a report entitled A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways Forward for the United Kingdom, which recommended a Charter of Union as a basic written constitution.
Her most recent book project was the 2017 collection co-edited with Niall O’Dochartaigh and Katy Hayward, entitled the Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island.
After her retirement Elizabeth became an Adjunct Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, where she contributed substantially to the Institute for British-Irish Studies. She also held an honorary position in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University. In both universities, she gave her time and talents in a typically full and generous manner.
She was external examiner at Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, a position she really enjoyed, in part because it gave her an opportunity to observe close-up the politics of post-conflict Bosnia.
Elizabeth was highly committed to the development of the discipline and scholarly community. She expressed this commitment in numerous ways, and typically was a pioneer in these areas too.
She was the first woman to chair the Political Studies Association, serving in this role from 1993-1996, steering the Association in a manner that commanded universal respect. She then became President of the PSA, and in 1999 was made life Vice-President of the Association. Her support for the PSA was unwavering, demonstrated most recently when she attended the annual awards ceremony in London on 5th December.
During the 1990s, Elizabeth served on many research funding and related bodies across these islands, and was highly sought as a board member on account of her fair and balanced judgement.
In 1992 she was a member of the Politics and International Studies panel for the first Research Assessment Exercise. From 1992-1999 she was a member of the ESRC Research Programmes Board and related steering groups.
She went on to chair the Politics and International Studies benchmarking group of the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
Her contribution was not confined to UK higher education organisations. She was a member, and deputy chair of the Irish Social Sciences Research Council from 1995-1999, and later served as a member of the Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
This necessarily brief profile of Elizabeth’s scholarly life gives us an inkling of her illustrious career. And there are yet more aspects to Elizabeth’s professional life, this time beyond the walls of academia.
Elizabeth had an expansive notion of service. She saw it as her duty to give back to the wider community, and this she did in full measure. In 1991 she became trustee of The Scarman Trust, a charity devoted to raising public awareness of political and constitutional matters.
In 1994 she became a Commissioner of the Fair Employment Commission of Northern Ireland. In 1996 she was appointed to the advisory board of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and in 1997 became director of the think-tank, Democratic Dialogue.
She was director of the London-based Youth Research Forum from 2006-2010, and about the same time Commissioner on an Independent Commission on Democracy in Ireland, created by the think-tank TASC.
In 2007, the Irish Taoiseach appointed Elizabeth to the board of the National Social and Economic Council as one of his five appointees to that body.
Three different groups capture Elizabeth’s commitment to transformative change. One is the charity Bryson House. From 1998-2001 she chaired the charitable group and brought her inspirational style of leadership to that role. Bryson House touched a special cord with Elizabeth - she cared deeply for its work of addressing social and economic need. She was very proud of Bryson House and its role in changing and transforming the lives of those on the social and economic margins of society.
The second is the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Elizabeth was very excited about the creation of the Coalition, as it reflected her deep commitment to gender equality in politics.
She hosted many Coalition meetings in her home, where the party’s policies were shaped and formed.
The third group was the Home Office Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration, created by Des Browne, Minister for Immigration in November 2004. The role of this board was to advise on the most effective means of encouraging the integration of applicants for citizenship into UK society.
This appointment gave Elizabeth the opportunity to return to her long-held intellectual interest in citizenship. It addressed, too, her other priority – that of making knowledge relevant to policy-making. This group charted a course for immigration and naturalisation educational supports that are still in effect today.
Although Elizabeth was universally recognised as a woman of brilliance, she was modest about her accomplishments. She was quite overwhelmed when it was put to her that her friends in Queen’s wished to commission her portrait to hang in the Great Hall.
Her choice of John Kindness as the artist was typically adventurous, and the process was one of shared enjoyment.
He painted Elizabeth in profile – an unusual pose. As John Kindness pointed out on the day of the unveiling, this pose is reserved for monarchs and for those at the pinnacle of their world.
A fitting depiction of Elizabeth.
In 2002, Elizabeth was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy and went on to serve the Academy in many roles, most recently as Vice-President from 2015-2017. She was also a member of the Royal Society of Arts, and a founding academician of the Academy of Social Science.
Other recognition came in 2006 when the University Association for Contemporary European Studies conferred on her a Lifetime Achievement Award to mark her contribution to European Community Studies in Ireland. Likewise, the Political Studies Association honoured her service to the discipline with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2005.
In the midst of a full working life, Elizabeth always made time for the people around her. She was an inspirational mentor, especially to women – and I count myself among the many women and men lucky to have been mentored by her.
She had a way of encouraging people that built their confidence, and she always made sure that those she mentored benefited from her outstanding connections in the political, policy and social worlds.
Elizabeth was also great listener, and a confidante to many. Her hospitality was legendary – she opened her home to friends and colleagues alike and supported each of her friends, new and old, in many ways.
A long-time friend recalled how well Elizabeth looked after her during her period as visiting professor at Queen’s. Elizabeth invited her to stay in her lovely house on Ulsterville Avenue, took care that she was integrated into the social and intellectual life of the Institute, put her in the way of dinner invitations in Belfast, and fully supported her project. Many can relate to this experience, for Elizabeth’s generosity was boundless.
And so, we grieve the loss of our beloved friend and colleague taken from us so unexpectedly on 6th January 2018. We extend our sincere condolences to her sisters Mary Turnbull and Margaret Saunders, her brother David Meehan, her extended family and many friends. We remember her kind, warm-hearted friendship, ready smile, good conversation and constant generosity of spirit. We remember her as an enormously impressive scholar with a rare breadth of vision. We recall, too, her full and unstinting contribution to making this world a better place. We are thankful for the friend she was to each and every one of us.
She was, in every sense, a very special person.
30 January 2018