For the first time, a major international summit is being hosted in Northern Ireland, when the G8 meets at Lough Erne next Monday and Tuesday. As a prominent international research university, Queen's University, Belfast is hosting a pre-summit conference today, at which experts and academics from Queen's and across the world will dissect the summit's agenda in front of an invited audience.
This is not an inconsequential activity. The summiteers may be meeting behind layers of security, but leaders of democracies cannot afford to be too remote and aloof – and they cannot remain immune to wider public debates.
The reality is that the modern G8 summit has become a gathering point for a plurality of political perspectives to debate global affairs.
The vibrant discussions, arguments and disagreements that occur in events surrounding the formal summit have become an important part of modern world politics in their own right.
Belfast, for example, may not be hosting the summit, but it will be host to thousands of protesters and dozens of alternative events that will contribute to a global conversation about the world's priorities.
As a civic university, Queen's has a duty to participate, facilitate and catalyze this process. Universities such as Queen's have an important civic function to play, not just in serving their community, but in enriching the civic culture and deepening the quality of democracy.
Universities can best do this by encouraging and enhancing informed debate; by presenting the knowledge and insights of its experts to the wider community, to provoke and stimulate thought, reflection and discussion.
And to encourage people to ask the very probing questions that, sometimes, governments and politicians would rather you didn't ask.
This is the democratic process, but without knowledge, information and understanding, democracy whithers on the vine.
The G8 summit represents an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to pause and think about world politics, its priorities and agendas, but also to participate in and actually taste it up close.
Summit veterans frequently report that host areas and cities are swept by summit fever. We can either ignore the summit and wait for it to go away, or we can embrace it, get involved and try to participate – even influence – the global debate on our doorstep.
The School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's has long had an active specialism in international relations.
It runs Masters programmes in international politics; violence, terrorism and security; and EU politics and has a number of leading experts in global affairs on its staff.
Several of them feature on the conference programme, including Dr John Barry on the question of post-carbon sustainable development, Dr Stefan Andreasson on the rise of Africa and Professor Beverly Milton Edwards on Islamic Jihadism. They will be joined by international experts, including former summit sherpas from the US and UK and Professor Paul Collier, who advises David Cameron.
The conference will act as an informational and educational exercise and to stimulate public debate.
For this reason the conference programme is eclectic, reflecting a genuine plurality of perspectives, including those more favourable towards the G8 record and those, such as Prem Sikka of the University of Essex, who has long campaigned and produced critical scholarship on tax avoidance, which David Cameron has made a priority for this summit.
In hosting the event, sponsored by the Department for Employment and Learning, Queen's has partnered with the world's leading G8 research group at University of Toronto.