Earlier this month Eamonn McCann wrote a column in the Irish Times debunking the idea that the Northern Ireland peace process had anything to teach other conflict areas in the world. He painted a picture of Northern Irish politicians and officials touring the world’s trouble spots – Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka, the southern Philippines, the Basque country, Thailand – to offer assistance in situations which had few similarities with the North.
He pointed to a May 2012 conference in Dublin of the 57 member Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which examined the Northern Irish process “as a case study of possible relevance to conflict resolution efforts elsewhere.” Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore told the conference: “Exporting the lessons learned in Northern Ireland has been one of the themes underpinning Ireland’s chairmanship [of the OSCE] this year.”
Leaving aside McCann’s overall contention for the moment, the most baffling and disappointing thing for me is that one of the three fundamental ‘strands’ of the Northern peace process in general and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in particular, North-South cooperation, is rarely if ever raised at these international gatherings. I chaired another OSCE seminar on the peace process in April 2012, organised by the Glencree Community and addressed by senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials, at which the success of the North-South ‘strand two’ of the GFA was not even mentioned until I dropped it in at the end of the event.
And it is a success story. Peter Robinson says frequently that North-South relations have never been better in his lifetime. The inter-governmental ‘architecture’ of the North South Ministerial Council, with its biannual meetings of the entire Irish and Northern Irish cabinets and regular bilateral meetings between individual ministers, works well, even if they don’t do a lot together these days (other than oversee the North/South bodies). Cooperation between the PSNI and the gardai has never been closer. Business links are picking up again after the cataclysm of the post-2008 collapse. The border region health network Cooperation and Working Together and the all-island Institute of Public Health in Ireland are going strong. In higher education, the Centre for Cross Border Studies, the Institute for British-Irish Studies, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) and the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) are all flourishing. EU funding, although now a shadow of its former self, has seen a huge increase in cross-border local authority, business, educational and community connections. One could go on and on.
This is a very long way from the paranoia of the Unionists in the run up to the 1998 Agreement about anything to do with greater North-South institutional links, with John Taylor famously saying he would not touch the large number of North-South bodies then being proposed “with a barge pole.”
In my 14 years as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I can’t recall a public event, at home or abroad, where I heard an Irish politician or senior civil servant – with the honourable exceptions of Bertie Ahern, Micheal Martin and Martin Mansergh – praising the contribution of North-South cooperation to the peace process.
Ironically I have found great interest abroad in this aspect of our process. In the past year and a bit I have spoken about the Irish experience at international conferences on cross-border cooperation in Brussels, Jerusalem, Marseille and Martinique in the Caribbean (being knowledgeable about such cooperation in Ireland has its compensations!). There was particular interest in Israel and Palestine in the kind of practical, mutually beneficial cooperation we were promoting in Ireland, although of course I emphasised that political agreement must come first if meaningful cooperation is to follow.
There was also a lot of interest (as there was among senior officials in the European Commission’s regional affairs directorate) in a ‘toolkit’ devised by the Centre to measure the impact of cross-border cooperation in Ireland and elsewhere, which has been developed by my successor as CCBS director, Ruth Taillon, and two German collaborators, Joachim Beck and Sebastian Rihm of the Euro-Institut in the Upper Rhine region. However there was never a scintilla of interest in – let alone attendance at – any of these events from the local Irish embassy (although no fewer than 22 European, Caribbean and Latin American nations were represented at the Martinique event last month).
This lack of official government interest is a pity. Because the audiences I spoke to were particularly interested in the sophisticated inter-governmental and cooperation structures set up by the Good Friday Agreement, which I believe are superior to comparable structures anywhere in the world. And that includes the European Union, whose instruments for cross-border cooperation remain extremely opaque and onerously legalistic.
In late 2012, before Ireland took up the presidency of the EU, I wrote to a range of people from the then Minister for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton, to senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials, suggesting that the Irish experience of cross-border cooperation as part of a peace process involving a contested border was something other European countries might be interested in learning from. Nobody even bothered to reply.
Why is the Irish government so reluctant to ‘blow the trumpet’ of North-South and cross-border cooperation as a highly successful element in our peace process? Senior officials used to say privately it was because they didn’t want to offend the Unionists. Cynics might say that 15 years on this fear has been replaced by embarrassment that the brilliant North-South structures devised at the end of the 1990s and implemented by a remarkable group of civil servants from both jurisdictions now achieve so little – outside organising meetings it is very difficult to say what the North South Ministerial Council actually does these days, although North/South bodies like InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland continue to do excellent work.
Maybe it’s too late to reverse this unfortunate trend, as the attention of both politicians and people at a time of prolonged economic crisis has understandably turned elsewhere. Even so, it would be nice to hear the odd Irish politician extol the virtues of practical, mutually beneficial North-South and cross-border cooperation as an activity in which Ireland, rather amazingly, has come to lead the world over the past decade.