Confessions of a Cross-border Collaborator

The mischievous streak in me likes the word ‘collaboration’: it is a subversive word. I believe in the obvious: that the road to peace out of any conflict, short of outright military victory by one side or the other, lies in eventually collaborating with the old enemy. But in Britain collaboration still has a strongly negative undertone left over from the Second World War: those who worked with the Nazi enemy were collaborators and therefore people to be shunned and punished. And this sentiment was easily adapted by unionism to the fearful instincts of that community in Northern Ireland.

Collaboration also assumes legitimacy and equality between the two sides doing the collaborating.  Irish republicans don’t like the concept for this reason. They insist on believing that Northern Ireland and – to a lesser extent – the independent state of Ireland don’t really exist, that they are unruly half-completed waiting rooms on the journey to the ultimate destination of a proper all-Ireland republic.

In the actual Republic of Ireland collaboration has no such negative undertones. But its nice sister, cooperation, when used in the context of cooperation with Northern Ireland as part of the peace process, has an only slightly less damaging connotation: it reeks of boring ‘do-goodery’, marginal to the real problems of a republic which has been struggling for its very existence as a self-governing state for the past five years.

I have spent the last 14 years – until retirement last month – as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, promoting and developing what many unionists still consider to be collaboration with the ancient enemy in Dublin; what many republicans believe to be irrelevant to the real business of driving towards a united Ireland; and what many people in the South think – when they think about it at all –  is a deeply uninteresting and probably fruitless endeavour to win over the seriously mad, often violent and probably unreformable people north of the border.

Most political leaders in both jurisdictions on this island now devote little thought to North-South cooperation. In the early years after the Good Friday Agreement, Bertie Ahern used to bang the table and tell his Ministers that such cooperation had to be close to the top of their agendas. However since Bertie departed and Western capitalism as we used to know it imploded after 2008, everything has changed. With the depth of the financial crisis facing both Ireland and Britain, it was quite understandable that the dreary and predictable problems of little Northern Ireland would slide rapidly down the agenda.  The 1998 Agreement’s marvellously complex interlocking architecture was always predicated on all three ‘strands’ – within Northern Ireland, North-South and East-West – working together. But in recent years – to this observer at least – this has decreased to the point where there is now a worrying lacuna in Northern Ireland policy-making in both Dublin and London.

Admittedly relations between the two states have never been better, a closeness symbolised by Queen Elizabeth’s hugely successful visit in 2011. I would argue that the East-West institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement have become largely symbolic and the real business between Britain and Ireland is now done on a bilateral basis between the two sovereign governments. But North-South cooperation, which until recent years was much more vibrant – largely because of the Irish Government’s commitment to it – has also fallen way down that government’s agenda.

This falling off in governmental interest is reflected in other key areas of society. The media couldn’t be less interested. In Northern Ireland this is because of a provincial obsession with the goings on at Stormont and the old sectarian issues of flags and parades. In the South it is indicative of the collapse of interest in anything to do with both Northern Ireland and North-South cooperation, along with a deep bout of 26-county introspection caused by our failure as an economically independent entity.

The higher education system is another key sector which is losing its North-South dimension. The number of undergraduates crossing the border to study at universities in the other jurisdiction continues to fall: Southerners going north have dropped significantly from over 10% of the total undergraduate population there in the late 1990s to under 4% now; and Northerners coming south have declined from a much lower base to around 1%.

So why is this important? Why shouldn’t Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland retreat into their silos – one orientated almost exclusively towards London and the other increasingly towards Brussels – and have relatively little do with each other? After all, that is how the two Irelands behaved for half-a-century up to the outbreak of the ‘Troubles.’

The first answer to this question is obvious. It lies in what 50 years of discriminatory self-rule in the North and wilful ignorance in London and Dublin led to: 30 years of political violence, 3,600 deaths, and a society whose deepened wounds and divisions will take many generations to heal.  In Dublin the North was ignored for most of the first 30 years after independence and then briefly became the subject of a futile international campaign against partition – until finally Sean Lemass and Ken Whitaker embarked on an initiative in the 1960s to make friends across the border through the first fragile attempts at practical cross-border cooperation.

So practical cross-border cooperation as a tool for helping to remove fear and suspicion between the two parts of this island is nothing new. And remove fear and suspicion is precisely what it has done over the past 15 years. As the late Sir George Quigley said in 2008:

“The negative attitudes to the South, which have historically reinforced internal differences, have steadily weakened. The development of surprisingly widespread acceptance of the North-South economic project demonstrates that the straitjacket within which people mistakenly seek to preserve their identity can be exchanged for more comfortable clothing in situations where positive relationships, which are able to replace negative stereotypes, can develop.”

The economy also provides the second answer. All but a minority of unionists now agree that in a fiercely competitive, globalised environment, it makes total sense for this small English-speaking island to present a united face to the investing outside world, to cooperate where possible in developing new export markets and to capitalise on an all-island ‘domestic’ market of more than six million people.

Unfortunately Northern Ireland’s politics and society are not yet mature enough to solve their problems of division and violence by themselves. Sectarianism and  its ugly outworkings remain a constant. The sovereign governments must stay engaged: London in particular by supporting the cause of cross-community cooperation; Dublin the cause of cross-border cooperation. For the two are as intertwined as when John Hume first articulated his ideas on the tangled ‘strands’ of Northern Irish politics and identity 40 years ago.

PS  I am this year’s director of the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, from 14-18 August with the title: ‘Ireland, North and South: two societies growing apart?’ Further details from http://www.merriman.ie

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