May 29, 2013

My Top 14 cross-border co-operators in Ireland

Since this is my penultimate ‘Note’ before I stand down as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I am going to use it to nominate my personal Top 14 cross-border co-operators, one for every year since the Centre was founded in 1999.

There is no doubt that the pioneers of cross-border cooperation are passing on: some, like the intellectual leader of the movement, Sir George Quigley, and the valiant unionist headmaster from Portadown, Billy Tate, have gone to a better place; others, like pathfinding North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretaries Tim O’Connor and Peter Smyth, have moved into business or retirement.  Now is the right time for the ‘sustainers’ to take over, those more attuned to longer-term strategies and structures and impact assessment.

My 14 nominated pioneers of practical cooperation for mutual benefit in Ireland are, in alphabetical order:

Roger Austin, who has run the Dissolving Boundaries ICT in schools programme (currently with Angela Rickard) for many years and was one of the founders of the all-island European Studies Programme as long ago as the 1980s. Dissolving Boundaries is simply the most outstanding example of cross-border cooperation between schools I have come across anywhere in Europe.

John Bradley, formerly of the Economic and Social Research Institute, and the only senior Irish economist who has done serious, sustained work over nearly 30 years on the economic relationship between North and South.

Aidan Clifford, director of the Curriculum Development Unit of the City of Dublin VEC (and his colleague Mary Gannon). Aidan felt it was a ‘moral imperative’ for Irish people to contribute to the Northern peace process, and he did it personally by setting up the cross-border Education for Reconciliation programme for secondary schools, dealing with the hard topics of peace and conflict resolution in the classroom.

John Coolahan, one of Ireland’s most distinguished educators, who had the vision to establish (with Harry McMahon) the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), which is now widely recognised as probably the most outstanding and sustainable all-island network set up since the Belfast Agreement.

Tom Daly for his leadership, particularly in recent years, of the cross-border region health authorities network, Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), which has been a trail-blazer of practical cooperation leading to concrete improvements in health and social care (including reductions in waiting lists) in the border region.

Will Glendinning, South Armagh farmer and former Alliance politician, whose Diversity Challenges initiative brings together former security force members on both sides of the border and collects the ‘Troubles’ stories of loyalists, republicans and ex-security force members; and who works to bring republican dissidents into the political process.

Breege Lenihan of the County Monaghan Community Network for her leadership of a remarkable link-up between Monaghan’s community groups, community groups in South Armagh and the Orange Order in Monaghan and Armagh. This project is grass-roots peacebuilding at its most imaginative and courageous.

Ann McGeeney, formerly director of the Cross Border Centre for Community Development at Dundalk Institute of Technology, who has been a constant source of practical counsel and wise advice to grass roots community leaders doing cross-border work in the Down-Armagh-Louth-Monaghan region.

Marianne McGill, formerly of Cooperation Ireland. Rather than nominate the obvious people here – chief executive Peter Sheridan or his predecessor Tony Kennedy – I am going for Marianne, who for many years ran the highly innovative North-South Civic Link programme, which involved second level students identifying local community problems and devising an action plan to deal with them

George Newell, East Belfast community worker, who has done sterling work in extremely difficult circumstances to bring large numbers of working class Belfast Protestants – and particularly young people – across the border to experience music and culture and sport and debate in the once feared and hated Irish Republic.

Father Sean Nolan and his colleagues, Mary Devlin and Josie Brady, from Truagh  Development Association in rural North Monaghan close to the Tyrone border. Before there was any EU money for such work, they were involved in an astonishing range of cross-border community development, education, rural regeneration and peace and reconciliation activities (and they are still doing them now that the money has run out).

Tim O’Connor, who as first Southern Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council from 1999 to 2005, was a hugely energetic groundbreaker, whether it was in overseeing the establishment of the North/South bodies or working behind the scenes to set up influential networks like the International Centre for Local and  Regional Development.

Padraic White, former head of the IDA, who is the latest in a long line of business leaders (Sir George Quigley, Liam Connellan, William Poole, Martin Naughton, Liam Nellis, and Laurence Crowley, Stephen Kingon and Michael D’Arcy of the North/South Roundtable Group) who have done vital work in developing cross-border economic and business cooperation.

Mary Yarr of the Antrim-based Inclusion and Diversity Service, which works to meet the needs of the North’s immigrant children. Mary has built strong links with Trinity College Dublin and several Southern education centres to produce highly innovative resources to help develop an inclusive ethos in the classroom which have then been distributed to schools throughout Ireland.


My summer job, before I settle into the hard business of writing a book about cross-border cooperation and the Irish peace process (after a side trip to Moldova), is to direct the 2013 Merriman Summer School from 14-18 August in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, with the title: ‘Ireland, North and South: Two societies growing apart?’ This aims to take a hard look at politics, society and culture in the two Irelands over the past 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Among the speakers will be Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley (reading poetry together); the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Most Rev Richard Clarke; Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin TD; Alliance East Belfast MP Naomi Long; former head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dr Geraldine Smyth, journalists Fintan O’Toole, Dan O’Brien and Susan McKay, and a round table of young politicians from all the main parties on the island discussing the school’s provocative theme. There will be poetry and music and trips to the beautiful Burren countryside.

If anybody is interested in more information about the school, see Queries about registration should be directed to or +353 (0) 86 3820671.

Andy Pollak