September 26, 2004

Sunday Tribune article on Centre’s contribution to the peace process

Breaking the Mould

[article in the Sunday Tribune supplement – Peace and Prosperity: marking the island of Ireland’s progress as a result of the peace process – 26 September 2004]

by Andy Pollak

The Centre for Cross Border Studies has filled an important niche in developing cross-border co-operation across a wide range of subjects.

One of the surprise success stories of the post-1998 implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been the way the North/South bodies have quietly moved into operation, and have been largely accepted by unionists. Nothing in this area should be taken for granted. It was the North/South strand that brought down the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement. Four days before the Good Friday Agreement, Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor was saying he would not touch the large number of North/South bodies proposed by Senator George Mitchell with “a forty foot pole.”

Now DUP leaders like Peter Robinson – and even Rev Ian Paisley himself – seem remarkably comfortable with the idea of North/South co-operation bodies working to improve the economic and social life of the people of both Irish jurisdictions.

And this does not just apply to government bodies. Outside government several significant new organisations have grown up in recent years, notably the Co-operation and Working Together (CAWT) network of health boards and trusts in the border region, and the Armagh-based Centre for Cross Border Studies, which researches and develops practical cross-border co-operation across a wide range of subjects and manages North/South educational and ICT projects.

The Centre for Cross Border Studies has filled an important niche in this latter role. Many cross-border projects are sustained largely through EU funding and the commitment of enthusiastic individuals, and when the money and the enthusiasm runs out, their absence of a proper administrative structure often dooms them to oblivion.

The Centre provides that cross-border structure, particularly in the field of education. It manages a range of EU-funded cross-border programmes in the areas of pre-school research; environmental studies for primary schools; science and citizenship courses for secondary schools, and North/South exchanges for trainee teachers. Its chairman is a prominent Northern businessman, Chris Gibson, and most of its board members are senior academics from Queen’s University Belfast, Dublin City University and other higher education institutions.

With funding from the Department of Education and Science in Dublin and the Department for Employment and Learning in Belfast, it acts as the secretariat for two new North/South higher education organisations: Universities Ireland, which brings together the nine universities on the island for joint research projects and conferences, and the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), which does the same for the colleges of education and other teacher education providers.

The Centre is currently developing Border Ireland [borderireland.info], a sophisticated database of North/South and cross-border information in the areas of education, health, agriculture, transport, environment and tourism (the six areas laid down for co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement). When it is launched next year, this will act as a ‘one stop shop’ for anyone wanting to find out about the fast growing world of cross-border co-operation in Ireland

But the Centre is not just involved in education and ICT. In June it launched its latest research report – on how local authorities and the social partners, North and South, are coping with the challenge of local sustainable development – on an island in Lough Neagh!

It has also published research reports on North/South co-operation – and barriers to co-operation – in health services, adult education, telecoms, local government, European funding, local history societies, mental health and the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. It has organised 28 North/South seminars and conferences on everything from the euro to community development, from tourism to ageing. In the process it has brought together more than 3,000 people – ranging from senior government officials to ordinary people struggling to make their deprived communities work, many of whom have never set foot in the other Irish jurisdiction before – to discuss matters of mutual concern.

The Centre’s work has been highly praised by leading politicians, civil servants and educationalists at home and abroad. President McAleese has called it “mould breaking”. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen, has said the Irish Government is “hugely impressed” by the Centre’s work, noting that “it has in a very short time become a key focal point of analysis and debate for matters which impact on the North/South relationship on the island of Ireland.” One of the world’s leading educationalists, Professor Malcolm Skilbeck from Australia, has called the Centre’s work for North/South inter-university co-operation “an initiative which should lead to a new and important phase in the peace process.”

The Centre’s website, www.crossborder.ie, receives 30,000 ‘hits’ every month from people in 90 countries interested in how Ireland, North and South, has begun to resolve the conflicts and tensions of a long-running territorial dispute through the painstaking work of practical cross-border co-operation for mutual benefit.

A recent independent evaluation concluded that the Centre was “considered to be dynamic, entrepreneurial, value for money, effective, independent, credible and non-partisan. Its work is valuable and recognised as a vital adjunct to the political settlement achieved over the past four years. The Centre has been right to focus on practical issues of co-operation in a pragmatic way and this has brought on board a significant element of unionist thinking. As it moves from experimental phase to maturity, the Centre has a bright future.”

Andy Pollak is the director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies. He is a former education and religious affairs correspondent with The Irish Times.

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