September 7, 2006

Ignore the cynics: co-operation works!

It’s now less than three months away from the 24 November deadline imposed on the local parties for agreeing among themselves a way to share power in Northern Ireland. All the indications are that it won’t happen in that short a timescale, even with the two governments closeting them away in a Scottish castle far from the prying questions of journalists and the wary eyes of their constituents.

In this situation, there is a tendency to bemoan the hardening positions of the politicians and the deepening divides in the communities since the DUP and Sinn Fein took over the leadership of their respective ‘tribes.’ As so often in the North, the optimists are lonely voices while the pessimists smugly declare a moratorium on the peace process.

But people in most parts of Northern Ireland – outside the still dangerous sectarian interfaces and in some depressed and intimidated loyalist housing estates – know it’s not like that. The quality of life for most people has improved enormously: people aren’t being killed on a weekly – and sometimes daily – basis any more; a reformed police service is working to make the streets and estates safer places; unemployment is lower than ever before; and quietly, ever so quietly, hard-working and idealistic people are trying to build bridges of dialogue and friendship across the sectarian divide and the jurisdictional frontier.

And don’t let the cynics tell you that cross-community and cross-border co-operation doesn’t work. The Centre for Cross Border Studies knows that it does. We can point to the 90,000 young people who have crossed the border as part of school and youth exchanges in the past five years, and the letters we have had from teachers about the great value of this experience to them. Another 15,000 young people have been trained together in North America, Europe and Australia for job opportunities as part of the Wider Horizons programme. The Centre has brought over 4,000 civil servants, teachers, farmers, social and health workers and others together in conferences, seminars and training courses to talk about their common interests and concerns. The Centre’s Border Ireland website shows that EU funding has supported over 2,800 cross-border activities involving 1,750 groups and organisations since the late 1980s. Is it possible that these huge numbers of cross-border exchanges, unthinkable even 15-20 years ago, have not begun to change people’s attitudes? As one school principal from Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road, writing to the Centre after a recent North-South teachers’ conference, put it: “It was a real joy to meet so many interesting people and hear about all the links that occur between our two countries.”

But don’t take our word for it. A recent study of inter-generational attitudes and identities in the border area by leading psychologists and political scientists at Queen’s University Belfast and University College Dublin* concluded that present British and Irish government and EU policy “to encourage cross-community and cross-border contact, is on exactly the right lines, and should be extended. This is the way in which lasting change can be provoked in enough individuals to percolate through entire communities.” They warned, however, that this would be a long-drawn out business and “it would be counter-productive to demand immediate and measurable political results from cross-community and cross-border initiatives.”

Andy Pollak

* Intergenerational Transmission and Ethno-National Identity in the Border Area. School of Psychology, QUB; Department of Politics and Geary Institute, UCD. May 2006.