Some 35 years ago I went to work in Dublin for a large British company and over the next two decades witnessed the remarkable changes which the Republic of Ireland underwent during that period. Returning to work in Northern Ireland for an Irish company in 1993, I have been privileged once again to participate in and witness the remarkable changes of a society learning to live with itself and in the changing world around it. The past year has seen a great leap forward in that ongoing change. Even 12 short months ago, who would have believed that in that period Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would sit down in government together and within a few months would be getting on so famously that they would be dubbed the ‘chuckle brothers’? Or that First Minister Ian Paisley would greet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin, and then at the Battle of the Boyne site, with a warm handshake? Or that the North/South Ministerial Council would have resumed with 11 out of the 12 sectoral meetings planned since last July having taken place in an atmosphere of cordiality and pragmatism?
The Centre for Cross Border Studies has and is continuing to play its part in these moves towards good neighbourliness and cooperation for mutual benefit. Whether it is training civil servants in cross-border cooperation; creating a website with information for cross-border commuters for the North/South Ministerial Council (BorderPeople); teaching schoolchildren in the border region how to live harmoniously with the immigrant ‘newcomers’ who have enriched both our societies; joining with the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council to provide cross-border postgraduate scholarships, or bringing the universities on the island together to work on development cooperation in Africa, the Centre is at the forefront of new ideas and innovative ways of doing things on a North-South basis. The plaudits for its work have continued to flow from the British and Irish Governments, and from Ministers of the new Executive. Its appropriately-named Note from the Next Door Neighbours monthly e-bulletin is now received by over 6,000 subscribers.
For in many ways the neighbourly and businesslike ethos of the past year had been anticipated by the Centre. In the words emblazoned across its www.crossborder.ie website (one of three major websites it now runs), it is about ‘generating real benefits through practical cross-border cooperation in Ireland.’ In his introduction to a recent book of essays from the North/South Public Sector Training Programme – which the Centre organises along with Cooperation Ireland and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy – the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, said: ‘Practical North-South cooperation for mutual benefit is one of the cornerstones of both the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. In this context, what these young public servants are doing is truly pioneering. Here is the pith and substance of what good government is meant to be about. These essays all outline fresh new ideas, clearly laid out, about how practical cross-border and all-island cooperation can make a real difference to improving the lives of the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland.’
Over the past year members of the Centre’s staff have been commissioned to do research in areas as different as cross-border GP out of hours services, trade unions’ involvement in North-South cooperation, the cross-border exchange of student teachers and cross-border postgraduate flows. In February the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, launched a book on cross border cooperation in the past decade – Crossing the Border: New Relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – three of whose 13 chapters had been contributed by CCBS or former CCBS staff members.
In addition, the Centre has started to develop a wider, European dimension. Relationships are being built with two of the most important cross-border organisations in the EU, the French government’s cross-border co-operation agency Mission Opérationelle Transfrontalière (MOT) and the continent’s longest-established and exemplary cross-border regional network, the Dutch-German EUREGIO. Last November director Andy Pollak spoke alongside former French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy (now chairman of MOT) at an 850-delegate conference in Lille to launch EUROMOT, an ambitious network of pan-European local authorities stretching from Portugal to Russia.
A leading official from EUREGIO (along with the Spanish Secretary-General of the Association of European Border Regions) will speak at a conference being organised by the Centre (along with Cooperation Ireland) in Dundalk on 12-13 June on lessons other European border regions can learn from the North-South ‘Strand Two’ of the Northern Irish peace process.
There is a new Scottish dimension as well. On 15 May the Centre will join with the University of Stirling to organise a conference in Belfast (to be opened by Minister for Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson) for senior politicians, bankers, investment specialists, economists and others on financial services in the ‘Celtic Rim’ countries: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Truly it can be said that the Centre for Cross Border Studies has never been busier.
This is an edited version of the introduction by Dr Chris Gibson, Chairman of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, to the 2008 edition of ‘The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland’ (available price £10/€14, including postage and packing, from the Centre in Armagh).