Cross-Border Co-Operation in Ireland: How to Become Good Neighbours and Friends
John Whyte Lecture
16 November 2000
Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies
Firstly can I say with a little bit of humility that it was a great surprise and a huge honour when Dr Jean Whyte asked me to deliver this year’s John Whyte memorial lecture. The clarity, even-handedness and breathtaking scholarship of the late Professor Whyte’s work have always been an inspiration to me, both in my journalistic work and my occasional essays into the thorny uplands of the Northern Ireland situation. Thank you, Jean.
I am going to alter the advertised title of this lecture very slightly by adding four letters to one key verb, and by changing the order of two key nouns. Instead of addressing the subject ‘Cross Border Co-operation in Ireland: How to be good friends and neighbours’, I am going to talk about ‘Cross Border Co-operation in Ireland: How to become good neighbours and friends.’ The reasons for this, when one thinks about it, are obvious: after centuries of bloodshed and misunderstanding, what we are talking about in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement is the long, slow, difficult, painstaking process of becoming good neighbours and friends on this island; and obviously we have to learn how to build up the necessary trust and mutual understanding to become good neighbours before we move on to the even more demanding and farther off state of friendship. I will come back to the virtues of slowness at the end of my talk.
I should also maybe offer an apology to those of you here who are of the nationalist persuasion. I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure that I do not have to persuade many of you about the benefits of cross-border co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I chose the title of this lecture on purpose: what I will try to set out and do this evening is suggest to non-nationalists, and unionists in particular, that such co-operation can also be in their interests, and that the North/South strand of the Good Friday Agreement is not some terrible stalking horse inevitably leading towards a united Ireland, but a sensible, practical element in the marvellously complex handiwork of that agreement which can be a benefit to everyone in Ireland and a threat to no-one.
17 years ago John Whyte, then Professor of Politics here in Queen’s University, published a paper entitled: ‘The permeability of the United Kingdom – Irish border: A Preliminary Renaissance’. In it he sketched the extraordinary range of voluntary organisations which spanned the Irish border and/or the archipelago which is variously called ‘these islands’ and the British Isles.
Burrowing through reference books and almanacs from 1973, one of the darkest and most violent years of the Troubles, he discovered over a thousand private organisations then operating in Ireland. 21 per cent of these – a substantial minority – operated on an all-island or an all-archipelago basis (with nearly 15 per cent in the former category). He felt this underestimated the extent of cross-border activity. This was because many bodies which formally confined themselves to one side of the border in practice accepted members from the other; and many bodies on one side had affiliations with parallel bodies on the others.
Churches and trade unions, usually the largest organisations in what has come to be known as “civil society”, tended to be the ones most likely to cross the North/South frontier (and that, of course, included all the significant Protestant denominations). Sporting organisations were split roughly half and half, with Professor Whyte suggesting that those sports organised on an all-Ireland basis before partition tended to continue as before, and also that more middle-class games (rugby, tennis, golf) were more likely to remain all-Ireland than working-class sports such as soccer and cycling. (He noted the small irony that the world’s most popular game, soccer, was split by its Southern, nationalist adherents setting up their own separate organisation in the face of opposition from its Northern, unionist followers who tried to keep it united under the Belfast-based Irish Football Association).
Professor Whyte concluded that politics did play a part in the pattern of voluntary organisations in Ireland. Other things being equal, nationalists preferred to belong to an all-Ireland body, and unionists to a United Kingdom or Northern Ireland one. However he went on to point out that other things often were not equal, and here I quote: “Again and again, people join organisations which might not seem to square with their political preferences. Partly it is due to an accident of date: organisations founded before 1921 tend to continue on their previous all-Ireland or all-archipelago basis unless something occurs to change them, while organisations founded since 1921 are more likely to observe the border. (now here is the interesting bit). But to a great extent it is a matter of self-interest or self-esteem overriding wider national preferences. Nationalists join British-based trade unions or professional associations; unionists accept selection for all-Ireland sporting teams or cultural bodies. People are more flexible than their political ideologies might lead one to expect: they are willing to accept different territorial frameworks for different activities.”
With his usual wisdom and foresight – and he warned carefully that the political implications of this should not be pressed too hard or too far – John Whyte was envisaging in this essay the sensible, pragmatic basis on which North/South-East-West co-operation at government and public agency level, as well as voluntary organisation level, could work, and is now beginning to work in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
This is the “totality of relationships” between North and South, Britain and Ireland, in action. John Whyte pointed out that, even at the height of the Troubles, there were many other fields where Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Republic, are inextricably intertwined: business, banking, the media, the arts and many aspects of public administration. “Anglo-Irish relationships are more complex than the strident simplifiers on either side are aware. Unionists are not irrevocably opposed to any kind of all-Ireland framework: in some fields they adopt it already. Nationalists do not inevitably perceive an all-archipelago framework as a throwback to tyranny: they accept it for some purposes already,” he concluded.
Let us now briefly look, with the help of another outstanding Queen’s-based scholar, the present Professor of Irish Politics, Paul Bew, at how unionists might see – and indeed, in Professor Bew’s view – have sometimes seen this kind of North/South co-operation. And remember that Paul Bew writes not just as a political historian, but as a Unionist moderniser, an ally of and adviser to the First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble.
In his contribution to last year’s mighty tome from the British Academy – ‘Ireland North and South: Perspectives from Social Science’ – Professor Bew looked at the prospects for North/South co-operation in the context of the political history of Northern Ireland. He makes a compelling case that as long ago as 1922, in the middle of the violent formation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, leading politicians on both sides of the new border were already talking the language of Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement.
What he is referring to is the Craig-Collins pacts. Under the first of these the Unionist leader, Sir James Craig, and the head of the new provisional government in Dublin (and IRA leader), Michael Collins, agreed, inter alia, a mechanism for mutual cooperation between the two embryonic administrations on the island which would be more suitable than the Council of Ireland proposal from the British Government (an idea which had originated with Lord Carson). The pact’s language appeared to recognise there were now two governments in Ireland. Craig certainly believed this to be the case. Collins did not – or maybe changed his mind – and the agreement fell apart within a few weeks in a welter of renewed violence. A second pact, briefly resurrected, included a clause for a half-Catholic, half-Protestant police force in mixed areas of the North.
In his defence of the pact, Craig invoked Edward Carson’s words that “Ulster might be wooed by sympathetic understanding – she can never be coerced”. This is not the place to go into Craig’s apparent willingness at this juncture to leave the way open for a settlement at some future date which could bring the North into the Free State (a concession apparently aimed at protecting the still significant and frightened Protestant minority in the South). What is important is that the principle of consent (recognition of the Northern parliament) and the recognition of the need for North/South co-operation, were already at the heart – however momentarily – of the discussions between Belfast and Dublin.
Professor Bew then analyses the O’Neill-Lemass talks in the 1960s. He regrets Lemass’s tendency to present this agreement’s limited achievement in the area of North/South economic co-operation as having the potential to lead to a relatively quick end to partition (a mistake at least one leading SDLP politician and the Irish foreign minister Brian Lenihan were to make again in the 1970s and early 1980s).
There has been a dramatic change in the language of nationalists since those days, which some might suggest represents a return to the kind of momentary pragmatism which brought Micheal Collins to sign the pact with the then leader of Unionism. It is worth comparing such comments with the address by one of the main nationalist designers of the present North/South architecture, the Taoiseach’s advisor, Dr Martin Mansergh at a conference on European Cross-Border Co-operation here in Queen’s less than two months ago.
After stressing that the Good Friday Agreement should be evaluated in its own terms, and not judged against an ulterior destiny, whatever that might be, Dr Mansergh went on: “There is no evidence, let along inevitability, from international experience that limited cross-border co-operation necessarily leads to political unification. The Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt was a very worthwhile contributor to détente during the Cold War, but it was neither the cause nor a major contributing factor to German unity – but the fact that the Ostpolitik had occurred was probably a lot more helpful in the subsequent situation than if it had not occurred. In an Irish context, democratic decisions by the people, and nothing else, will determine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, which will not be changed over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland without their agreement and participation.”
In his essay, Professor Bew concludes that the underlying themes of the pre-Good Friday Agreement talks process (his essay was written before the signing of that Agreement) were those of the Craig-Collins pact: the need to produce equality of treatment for Northern Catholics; the need for a system allowing the two administrations, North and South, to co-operate on an all-Ireland basis; and the need for the Irish government to recognise the North. He warned: “We are not served by a history – unsupported by serious acquaintance with the latest available material archives – which exaggerates unionist intransigence on the matter of cross-border co-operation. It deprives those unionist leaders who wish to reach an understanding with Dublin of the necessary cultural and ideological resources.”
Anyone who has watched the remarkably uncontroversial and friendly meetings between Northern and Southern ministers in recent months should agree with that sentiment. There might have been unfortunate elements of nationalist insensitivity at the inaugural North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh last December, with the arrival of squadrons of ministerial Mercedes bringing the whole Southern cabinet into town, and the few Unionist politicians lost in a sea of nationalist faces in the next day’s press photos. But at the sectoral meetings on issues like trade and business, heritage and culture, it was clear from their smiles and body language that pragmatic Unionist politicians like Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey really do believe that Northern Ireland can benefit from friendly interchange with the booming and innovative Republic of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. Having taken the leap of faith of sharing government with nationalists and the political wing of the IRA, they now also have the confidence to engage in cross-border co-operation without feeling they are endangering their British birthright.
This appears to me to be considerably more than the “necessary nonsense” pro-Agreement unionists used to mutter about as the unpalatable price they had to pay for getting devolved government. David Trimble may have used the ban on Sinn Fein ministers attending such meetings for tactical purposes as part of his struggle for the soul of the Unionist Party. But he too has said the Agreement “got the architecture right” as far as North/South co-operation was concerned. At the same European Cross-Border Cooperation conference which Martin Mansergh addressed, Mr Trimble spoke of the need for “sensible co-operation” with the Republic, with its internationally-admired economic performance; he stressed that “the development of effective co-operation throughout these islands can only have a positive impact on the economy and good governance of Northern Ireland.”
That conference was for me the highlight so far of my 14 months as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies. It was organised jointly with the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen’s University, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Liam O’Dowd, the director of that centre, for his co-operation in making it such a success, and particularly for his fascinating opening paper (which I have now read, Liam, if you’re in the room).
I believe that the successes of such co-operation, particularly in areas like the Dutch-German and Danish-German borderlands, can help Unionists to understand that co-operation across contentious borders can be undertaken in a spirit of equality and partnership, without threatening the national identity or sovereignty of either side.
I have listened, for example, to a number of speakers from the Euregio region on the Dutch-German border explaining the 40 year process which has led to that region becoming the prototype for cross-border co-operation in the European Union. The speakers all emphasise that the first way peoples divided by recent war and bloodshed can start coming together is through ‘people-to-people’ social, sporting, cultural and artistic activities. As the speaker at last month’s Queen’s conference, Wim Schelberg, said: “Without the creation of awareness of the need for cross-border co-operation among the population, the authorities on both sides of the border would push through cross-border projects affecting the economy and infrastructure either not at all or only with considerable resistance.” This process of social and cultural co-operation must be both intensive and ongoing, Schelberg stressed, with each new generation being “made aware of its neighbour’s needs all over again” and taught how to overcome psychological barriers and prejudices.
He said that mutual economic self-interest – which is what many people in Ireland, certainly at official level, have tended to stress in recent years – is equally important, but the Dutch and the Germans didn’t start with it.
(And we in Ireland would do well to remember what we often tend to forget: that our 30-year conflict in the north of this island has been a small affair compared to the massive bloodletting which took place in continental European borderlands during both world wars. When in 1958 the far-seeing and courageous people living between the Rhine, Ijssel and Ems rivers on the Dutch-German border started the process which led to the first Euregio region, their memories of war and occupation were very fresh and painful indeed. And it was not just the Second World War they remembered, for this was historically a poor region – with high unemployment and too much dependence on agriculture and textiles – which had been fought over by Holland and Germany for 350 years.)
When the people of that region started to work to heal the wounds caused by centuries of conflict, they started with a cultural and social programme. With funding from both governments, 100 towns and cities on both sides of the border each appointed a ‘Euregio ambassador’ to oversee a rapidly growing series of exchanges in music, sport, the arts and education. By the early seventies an estimated 150,000 people a year were involved in cross-border activities in the region. This allowed mutual trust and knowledge to build up and contribute enormously to the success of the second phase of the cross-border process, the business and economic development programme. I have heard several Dutch-German Euregio speakers in recent years and they have all stressed they had been absolutely right to work in that order, since to do business with someone, you have to know and trust them, and the build-up of personal trust and mutual knowledge through artistic, sporting and educational activity proved invaluable in achieving this.
The lessons for Ireland are obvious, and they are lessons that everyone concerned with cross-border exchange and reconciliation on the ground knows. From a nationalist and Southern viewpoint, they particularly concern – or should concern – relations with the Protestant and Unionist community in Northern Ireland, many (perhaps most) of whose members continue to mistrust and suspect overtures from South of the Border as being aimed not at the mutual interest of the two jurisdictions but at edging the North gradually into a united Ireland.
I believe the difficult and lengthy task of converting mistrust and suspicion into neighbourliness and, eventually, friendship and the beginning of common understandings and feelings, is threefold. Firstly we must follow Euregio’s example and meet across the border as much as possible in those most unthreatening and life-enhancing fields of human endeavour – culture, sport, the arts, education and their associated activities.
My experience of cross-border interaction is that this can provide a real base for the next stage of meaningful economic interaction, particularly between people from the Republic and Northern Unionists (and you only have to read the letters columns of the Irish Times every summer during the Orange marching season to see how very deep the gulf of mutual incomprehension is there). For years – even at the height of the Northern conflict – sports like rugby, hockey, athletics, boxing, basketball, cricket, bowls and motor sport – have played a large, if largely unacknowledged role in increasing contact and understanding between Northern Unionists and Southerners. I have friends from the Northern unionist background who were deeply ignorant, and thus mistrustful, of the Republic of Ireland, until they came South to play sport and socialise with the people they were competing with and against. For them sport was a truly mind-opening experience: they did not become any less Unionist, but they came to understand that as Unionists they had to share this island – and could gain huge enjoyment out of sharing it – with the rest of its inhabitants.
The same is true of the arts: for example, I believe that for many years the plays of Frank McGuinness – and particularly ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, his powerful drama of Ulster soldiers in the First World War – did more to explain Northern Protestants to people in the Republic than any political development I can think of . I have a powerful memory of seeing it in the Odeon theatre in Paris during L’Imaginaire Irlandais festival some years ago, and listening to the amazed empathy expressed by my companion, a French leftist and strong supporter of the IRA, who was discovering for the first time how the ancestors of the Ulster Protestants he so detested had stood shoulder to shoulder with his grandfather, fighting and dying to defend France.
On the Dutch-German border education – through school and youth exchanges – is another of these non-threatening areas. At first sight it might appear that in Ireland this has sadly not been the case, largely because of the stranglehold of powerful and historically antagonistic religious interest blocs. However the Centre for Cross Border Studies is currently in the process of finishing a study on cross-border school and youth exchanges for the two Departments of Education which has shown surprisingly high levels of contact between schools North and South, and – even more surprisingly – between mainly Protestant Northern schools and schools in the South. According to the Centre’s figures, nearly 540 schools on the island (nearly 10 per cent of the total), are now engaged in cross-border programmes, the vast majority involving either face-to-face or ICT contact. Well over half the North’s secondary schools are involved in such contacts. In this sector – if our figures are correct – an extraordinary 44 per cent of Northern mainly Protestant secondary schools now have cross-border contacts. With this level of contact, there must be real hope that future generations will not inherit the terrible mutual ignorance and misunderstanding of their parents which has crippled North/South relationships for most of the last 80 years.
The second area of fruitful co-operation that will bring in unionists is where the benefits to the people of both jurisdictions of doing things together rather than separately are so clear that even the most fearful can be won over – notably in the economic area where the new, prosperous, confident Republic is able for the first time to share the lessons of its booming economy with its northern neighbours. This is the area from which the Centre for Cross Border Studies takes much of its raison d’etre. If I could quote from our mission statement: “Controversy about relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland tends to obscure the broad consensus that exists in both jurisdictions about the value of cross-border co-operation on practical issues. This holds that low levels of contact and communication across the Irish border damage the well-being of both parts of the island.”
It goes on: “The pragmatic view, that co-operation should take place where it brings real benefits to both parts of the island, is weakened by an additional factor: there has been too little research to date on how this practical co-operation is to be achieved. The Centre for Cross Border Studies – itself a unique expression of cross-border co-operation (in that it is a North/South, higher-further education partnership between Queen’s University, Dublin City University and the Workers Educational Association) – provides an objective, university-based environment for policy research into and development of such practical co-operation.” President Mary McAleese has been kind enough to describe the work we are doing in Armagh as “mould-breaking.”
On the basis of the pragmatic philosophy set out in our mission statement, we are currently involved in research projects ranging from disadvantage in education to waste management: from health services to local history societies; from telecommunications to EU funding programmes; from local government to labour mobility. What these research projects have in common is that they are meant to identify and make proposals in those areas where the synergies from working together are so obvious that all sensible people will support such joint, “across the fence” neighbourly working. In this we are working alongside other non-governmental cross-border bodies such as the Joint Business Council, a partnership between the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland and the Irish Business and Employers Confederation in the Republic to improve trade and business links, and, as a consequence, the number of jobs; the North/South Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions; and Co-operation Ireland – the first new non-governmental organisation to enter the field of cross-border co-operation in recent decades – which promotes co-operation in business, education, sport and the arts.
The third way to cross-border co-operation with Northern unionists is to give the East-West dimension as much weight as the North/South dimension, thus reassuring them that their links with England. Scotland and Wales will be as important in the future as their growing relationship with the Republic of Ireland. I believe there is a danger south of the border that most of the real energy will be devoted to bringing North and South closer together (an understandable and legitimate nationalist aspiration) to the virtual exclusion of – or at the most lip service being paid to – the East-West strand of the Good Friday agreement. Already this is leading to perhaps inadvertent discrimination against Northern unionists: for example, in the North/South schools study I have already mentioned, we came across an example of a well-funded East-West youth exchange programme between Britain and the Republic, which allows Northern youth groups from a nationalist background to declare themselves as Irish for the purposes of applying for funding to organise exchanges with English and Welsh groups, but excludes Northern youth groups from a unionist background who would not dream of declaring themselves in such a manner, and are therefore not able to avail of the same exchanges.
Here is the kind of formula I believe we will increasingly see emerging. I was speaking to a trade unionist in the South recently who was trying to persuade fellow trade unionists in his professional area to set up an all-Ireland body to discuss and lobby on matters of mutual interest. Not surprisingly, I was enthusiastically in favour of this. However when I read the correspondence on the issue, I noticed that his northern counterpart had suggested instead setting up a North/South committee linked to the existing British-Irish trade union body in the area. My first reaction – as a ‘North/South co-operation’ person – was to be less than enthusiastic. My second was that this was by far the most sensible way forward, a transparent East-West-North/South compromise formula.
Compromise and transparency in all things: that could be the motto of the civil servants working the North/South Ministerial Council and the cross-border implementation bodies which have come out of the Good Friday Agreement. I can’t speak for the politicians involved since it is the civil servants I have to deal with, and I have no illusions about the potential for a clash at any time between the maximalist aims of the Irish Government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, and the absolute minimalism of the Unionists. But the whole Good Friday Agreement was forged out of hard-won compromises. The document that George Mitchell presented on the Monday of that fateful Holy Week two years ago contained so many different areas of executive-style cross-border co-operation (“not unlike a government” was David Andrews’ inadvertent description of what the Irish Government was seeking in the cross-border area at that time) that John Taylor famously said he would not touch it with a barge pole. Yet four days later it was agreed that there should be six areas of co-operation carried out through existing jurisdictional bodies; and six more on a cross-border or all-island basis through so-called “implementation bodies.”
As I have said, from being one of the most controversial elements in the pre-Good Friday Agreement negotiations, these North/South institutions have turned into one of the Agreement’s surprise success stories, as they start to go about their low profile and useful co-operation work on waterways, food safety, aquaculture, minority languages, EU programmes, and trade and business development.
The new North/South architecture takes much of its inspiration from the checks and balances of European Union institutions. In European style the North/South Ministerial Council meets in plenary session, with the cabinets from Dublin and Belfast in attendance, twice a year; and in sectoral form – bringing together the Ministers for Agriculture, Education, Health, Transport, Environment and Tourism – more regularly.
I believe the secret of this success so far (and these are very early days – remember that the North/South institutions, like all the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, came into existence for two months a year ago, were suspended from February to June, and have been properly up and running for less than six months since then) – much of that early success is based on a twofold fundamental principle: firstly, the North South Ministerial Council is totally accountable to the power-sharing executive in Belfast and the government in Dublin; and secondly its decisions are based on consensus both among the wide-ranging coalition of parties which make up that Northern executive and between the two administrations in Belfast and Dublin, so that there can be no question of the views of one community or tradition being overridden by the other. This is reflected in the presence of two Ministers from the Northern side at every sectoral council: the unionist or nationalist/republican Minister who holds the relevant portfolio plus a ‘shadow’ Minister from the other tradition.
This need for transparent consensus is reflected in the agenda of every meeting, which is widely known and agreed beforehand. There must be “no surprises”. “We want to be boring” is how one the Southern joint head of the NSNC secretariat, Tim O’Connor, put it at last month’s Queen’s conference. This complex, layered and bureaucratic architecture, partly at least inspired by the EU institutions, is what David Trimble means when he says “we got the North/South architecture right”.
Martin Mansergh says opinions differ on whether the North/South bodies are quite modest in ambition or actually quite substantial. The important thing, he stresses, is that such cross-border co-operation, along with the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, will “help to underpin peace and stability in Northern Ireland after 30 years of tragic conflict, and will also contribute to employment and prosperity.”
He goes on: “Left to itself, it will develop, I suspect, along the lines of a compromise between two schools of thought, to be found particularly both in the business and the more middle of the road sections of political opinion. On one side are those enthused by the potential of an all-Ireland domestic market, and for example the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor, without prejudice to existing constitutional arrangements. On the other side, which includes the thinking behind the Northern Ireland Growth Initiative, Northern Ireland, given the chance, will develop a dynamic economy of its own, a regional economy within the UK and the EU, parallel and to a degree in competition with the Republic’s economy, with North/South co-operation playing an auxiliary rather than a determining role.”
This being Northern Ireland, such steady compromise work cannot be taken for granted, of course. The problems with decommissioning, and the internal opposition this has caused within the Ulster Unionist Party for David Trimble, have perhaps inevitably spilled over into the area of North/South co-operation. Mr Trimble’s decision to ban Sinn Fein Ministers from attending North/South Ministerial Council meetings has thrown the process into momentary crisis. And I believe (and hope and pray) that it is momentary. Based on my reading of the best-informed commentators , people like Ed Moloney and Mary Holland, I must believe that if the crucial and excruciatingly difficult issue of RUC reform is well handled by the British Government in the coming weeks, this crisis, like so many before it, can eventually be overcome.
I’m going to end with a little more about the European context of Irish cross-border co-operation. For as knowledgeable teachers and education officials involved in North/South schools and youth exchanges have been telling me constantly in recent weeks, such exchanges are least threatening and therefore most fruitful for Unionist parents and children – and therefore the Unionist community at large – if they are set in the “wider, safer” environment of a European link-up. Thus, many of the Northern schools which have become most involved in North/South exchanges have done so through the European Studies Project. This was started at the suggestion of a far-sighted Northern school inspector in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; has been well (some might say surprisingly well) funded by the two Departments of Education; and in the past 14 years has become by far the most important cross-border and international schools programme on the island (and one of the more significant in Europe). It involves nearly 200 Irish schools on both sides of the border, and another 200 or so from 19 countries elsewhere in Europe, from Poland and Romania to the Faroe Islands. It deserves to be far better known than it is.
The second thing about the European context is that it emphasises the importance of community-based “bottom up” initiatives running alongside “top down” innovations, of which the Strand Two institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are a classic example (the Implementation Bodies, for example, were put in place by politicians for political reasons, with little or no consultation with the groups on the ground involved in the areas of activity affected). I was speaking earlier this week at a conference in England on ‘Europe of the Regions’ and in one of the discussion sessions, the role of the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme for Northern Ireland and the Republic’s Border Counties came up. This Jacques Delors-inspired fund has poured around £300 million in European money into the areas worst affected by the Northern Ireland conflict for the past five years, and will provide another £300 million over the next five.
The consensus among this group of politicians, civil servants and academics from all over Europe was that this Fund represented a remarkable breakthrough in persuading “ordinary people” that both the Irish peace process and the faraway EU institutions backing it could make a real difference to their lives. Tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of pounds are going to community groups, women’s groups, rural development groups, ex-prisoners groups, other marginalised groups, and the kind of local economic development projects aimed at providing them and their families with employment and a better hope in life. Much of this money has been distributed by what some might see as the radically innovative mechanism (it was certainly much too innovative for the senior Northern Ireland civil servants who opposed it) of “intermediary funding bodies” – many of them voluntary sector organisations involved in anti-poverty, partnership and reconciliation work: bodies like Co-operation Ireland, the Combat Poverty Agency in the Republic and the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust in the North.
My third European point is a very personal one. Having quoted from political scientists, politicians and civil servants, I wonder if I might be allowed to finish with a personal view – that of a director of a Centre for Cross Border Studies near the Irish border who also has a lot of European cross-border blood in his veins. For although I am proud to be both an Ulsterman and to be an Irishman, I am also lucky enough to carry around in my genetic make-up some of the characteristics which make European border regions like the one I am working in so culturally complex and compelling, but also so potentially hate-filled and violent. My father came from a family of Polish Jews who settled in western Bohemia sometime in the 18th century. He grew up as a citizen of the new state of Czechoslovakia in Carlsbad – now Karlovy Vary – close to the Czech-Austrian-German border. Many of his family were sent to concentration camps when the Nazis first occupied the Sudetenland and then invaded Czechoslovakia as a whole. My father ended up in Northern Ireland as a political refugee in the late 1940s.
I am involved with the Centre for Cross Border Studies because I believe that at this time of unprecedented hope in Ireland, our mission to research and develop new and practical co-operation projects – in education, health, business, public administration and other areas – across the Irish border can become a small but key element in the slow movements towards peace and reconciliation on this island.
And I’m going to end – and this really is the end – with a word about the virtue of slowness, and particularly the necessary slowness of historical, cultural and attitudinal change. Because, as an Ulsterman with a Czech father, I am reminded of the words of that great Czech, Vaclav Havel, about the need to accept that a country’s history is a slow and never-ending growth, and, like a plant, there is little point in pulling it to make it grow faster. We Irish have seen a few miracles in recent years – the Good Friday Agreement in the North and the Celtic Tiger in the South are the two main ones – and we could be lulled into believing that history is going to miraculously speed up and solve the deep-rooted, centuries-old problems of this country in a few short years. It’s not going to happen, and the hard work of cross-border co-operation is not going to make it happen, any more than it will make it happen in any other European region traversed by a disputed frontier. But if done properly – and this is something I always emphasise, in ways we can learn partly from our European colleagues and cousins – I believe it can lay the basis for some real justice, peace and harmony on this island for our children and the generations to come.
So to finish with Vaclav Havel’s words: “I think the skill of waiting has to be learned in the same way as the skills of creating. The seeds must be patiently planted. The soil must be watered and the plants must be allowed the time to grow that they themselves determine. History will not be outwitted in the same way that plants will not be outwitted. But history too may be watered, every day and with patience. Not only with understanding, not only with humility, but also with love.”