Appreciation: Elizabeth Marian Meehan, academic

Elizabeth Marian Meehan, academic. Born: 23 March, 1947 in Edinburgh. Died: 6 January, 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 70.

Elizabeth Meehan
Elizabeth Meehan

Elizabeth Meehan, beloved sister, aunt and grand-aunt, dear friend and esteemed colleague, was a brilliant academic and generous friend. A warm, witty and engaging woman, Elizabeth brought together the academic, policy and campaigning worlds. Indeed, Elizabeth’s life flowed in a seamless manner between these three different sectors.

It took Elizabeth some time to find her way to academia. She began her third level education with a spell in the Edinburgh College of Art, but quickly decided that this was not the life for her.

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She entered the civil service and spent about five 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.

Moving to Bath University in 1986, she taught politics there. In 1989 Elizabeth secured leave to take up the prestigious Hallsworth Fellowship in Manchester University 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. She went on to hold many positions of importance in Queen’s – including Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences in 1995. 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.

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.

After 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.

Elizabeth was the first woman to chair the Political Studies Association, serving in this role from 1993-1996. She then became President of the PSA, and in 1999 was made life Vice-President of the Association.

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In 2007, the Irish Taoiseach appointed her to the board of the National Social and Economic Council as one of his five appointees to that body.

Elizabeth was very excited about the creation of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, as it reflected her deep commitment to gender equality in politics.

Elizabeth often told with obvious glee the story of how the Coalition out-manoeuvered the naysayers just as the result of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was being announced. Members, including Elizabeth, and other political parties, were gathered at the count centre in the Kings Hall, Belfast for the announcement.

As the TV cameras of the world were poised to film political reaction to the result, a senior politician opposed to the Agreement moved to take centre stage. In a moment of co-ordinated inspiration, the Women’s Coalition members, including Elizabeth, danced joyously in front of said politician, cutting off his access to the microphone.

The image conveyed to the world was that of celebration, reflecting the overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement on the island.

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.

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.

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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 outstanding mentor, especially to women.

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.

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.

ABRIDGED ADDRESS BY Professor Yvonne Galligan, Queen’s University, Belfast