What the North can teach the South about welcoming refugees

The Irish government seems to be finally and belatedly moving to make its small contribution to tackling the worst humanitarian crisis faced by Europe since the Second World War: the influx of millions of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. 14 months ago – following the international outcry caused by the photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned while crossing the Aegean with his family – it offered to accept up to 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017, with an emphasis on families and unaccompanied children, as part of a coordinated EU response to the crisis. Exactly a year later, at the end of September, it had taken in 300 of that number, of whom just one was an unaccompanied child. Department of Justice spokespersons blamed EU and Greek bureaucracies and legal blockages for the delays. I was one of those people who felt this was a convenient smokescreen for our political and civil service leaders’ shameful lack of interest in what many of us believe is simply the most important ethical/political issue of our generation.

Those numbers are now beginning to rise. Earlier this month the Department of Justice released figures showing that 507 refugees have arrived from  Lebanon and Jordan (with another 13 to come by the end of the year) and 109 have arrived from Greece (with another 215 to come).

I was at an excellent all-island conference earlier this month organised by a recently-formed network, Places of Sanctuary Ireland, which works to create “a culture of welcome and safety” for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Speakers there outlined the refugee reception situation in Portlaoise, Waterford and Belfast. I was particularly struck by the contrasts between the way things are done on either side of the border.

The people in Portlaoise appear to have done a superb job in welcoming and beginning to integrate 54 Syrian refugees who arrived in the town last year. The 12-month contract for their resettlement was put out to tender and was won by Doras Luimni, a voluntary organisation with 15 years experience of working with asylum seekers in direct provision and other migrants in Limerick.

The Portlaoise story is one of significant success, largely due to the enthusiastic engagement of local people and community groups, and some difficulties, caused mainly by the systems put in place (or not put in place) by the Department of Justice. The former consists of a wide range of integration activities: drop-in clinic, cafe befriending, language and homework support, intercultural women’s work, job skills training, family advocacy, cultural events, and the local people and the newcomers celebrating key Muslim festivals together. Laois County Council  and a committee of local statutory agencies were fully engaged, and once local people knew about the arrival of the Syrians, volunteers came forward in large numbers (“there are a lot of fantastic people in Portlaoise”, says one person involved with the project).  There is now a Laois Integration Network – at the moment run entirely by volunteers, since the 12 month resettlement contract ended in June – and a 2017 work programme in place, and EU funding is being sought for a worker. The Syrians have their own local organisation, Saturday language school and mosque.

On the other hand, those running the 2015-2016 resettlement project had to start from scratch with no template or model of good practice to work from. Other places like Monaghan and Carrick on Shannon may have taken earlier groups of refugees, but in true ad hoc Irish fashion, each had followed their own individual path (there is also good practice in Waterford, where a determined religious brother, originally from Pakistan, has brought together the statutory agencies, the churches and other groups into a particularly effective local committee). There is also no national integration strategy in place – it has been out for consultation for the past two years. Some places like Limerick have their own local strategy, while other towns likely to receive refugees have nothing.

The Department of Justice, notoriously reluctant to involve NGOs in its programmes, gave out no advance information to community groups or interested individuals in Portlaoise, even though the local council had been informed for over a year about the refugees’ impending arrival. There was no pre-arrival consultation by the Department with the local community.

The pre-settlement reception and induction period in Ireland sees the refugees from Syria and other conflict zones spending up to 12 weeks – and occasionally as long as eight months – in the entirely unsuitable surroundings of direct provision centres for asylum seekers in Balseskin (near Dublin airport) and Mosney in County Meath.

In Northern Ireland, things have been done very differently – and much better. The numbers are smaller, of course, but not a lot smaller. 284 Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Iraq have been received there in the past 12 months, as part of the 20,000 the British government has promised to accept during the life of the current parliament. Another group of up to 90 will arrive before Christmas.

The system in the North is far faster and more streamlined. The new arrivals spend five days in a well-equipped reception centre in Belfast (in normal times it is a community-run conference centre), where they undergo health screening, get their social benefits applications fast-tracked and learn about everything from their legal entitlements and duties to the cultural norms of their host society. They then are taken in charge by two NGOs – the children’s charity Barnardos and Extern, an all-island charity that works with everyone from young people at risk to homeless families – who provide key workers to accompany the refugees to their new homes in private rental accommodation (which has been vetted by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive) and give them a ‘housing starter pack’ of furniture, bedding and other household goods so they can start their new lives. These key workers also help them find schools and GPs, with English language classes, contacts with the local community and so on. Three groups have so far been settled in Belfast, Derry and the Newry/Armagh/Craigavon/Banbridge area. “Gold standard” is the description of this process by an NGO person involved in it.

The key to the success of the Northern system is threefold, says one person in the Belfast Law Centre who is part of the consortium of NGOs which works to receive and help integrate the refugees. Firstly there was political buy-in at the top of government, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness  making clear at the beginning of October 2015 that the Northern Ireland Executive wanted to play its full part in the process, and then being supported by First Minister Arlene Foster. Secondly, there were committed senior civil servants at the Department of Communities, which is in charge of the refugee programme – notably Deputy Secretary Ian Snowden – who made it clear they wanted it to work. Thirdly, the  civil servants quickly brought on board a consortium of knowledgeable NGOs: Bryson Intercultural, part of the Bryson Group, Northern Ireland’s largest charity, which has been working with asylum seekers for many years; the Red Cross, Barnardos, Extern, Belfast Law Centre, Save the Children and the Refugee and Asylum Forum. There are still problems, of course: one is the extremely strict visa regulations which all but forbid refugees in Northern Ireland crossing the border into the South, even for a visit.

The Northern model seems clear enough: supportive government leaders, committed senior officials and the early involvement of expert NGOs. Do we have any of these factors in the South? Could I suggest a day trip to Belfast by relevant people in the Department of Justice’s Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration to learn all about the not particularly difficult business – if the energies of ordinary citizens are harnessed – of providing a warm and effective welcome to small numbers of refugees. They could also do worse than come to a meeting of the City of Sanctuary Dublin group (dublin.cityofsanctuary.org), with which I am involved: the Red Cross and the Garda Racial Intercultural and Diversity Office have already recognised the value of this welcoming grass-roots organisation.

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

Three positive things to make us feel good about Northern Ireland (and Ireland)

“Be positive, Andy” said the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, when I met him at ‘Amazing the Space’, a splendid Cooperation Ireland event on the old Maze prison site last month, which brought together 3,500 young people to talk, sing and dance about peace-building.

And he’s right. It’s so easy to be negative about Northern Ireland (especially for an old journalistic hack like me), even if it’s not the North’s fault sometimes these days: for example, being forced to accept Brexit when a clear majority there voted against it. So I’m going to pick out three positive, very different Northern Irish and North-South initiatives I have come across in recent weeks and highlight these for a change.

Firstly, there is the continuing quiet work going on behind the scenes in Belfast and elsewhere to sort out the toxic legacies of decades of conflict. At the end of September this led to the resolution of the three year old deadlock over Orangemen marching past Catholic Ardoyne every 12th July, thus effectively ending 21 years of often violent disputes associated with the Orange marching season. With the help of two facilitators, former Methodist president Harold Good and Derry businessman Jim Roddy, agreement was reached along the following lines: the Orangemen would be allowed to complete their evening march home to north Belfast on this occasion, but there would be a moratorium on future such marches unless the Ardoyne residents association agreed;  that association would not object to (or protest at) future 12th July morning marches to join the main Belfast parade (although of course, this being Belfast, there was a smaller, more extreme republican residents group which angrily dissented); and the Twaddell Avenue loyalist camp protesting the blocking of the march would be dismantled. At the same time an inter-community forum would be set up to open a dialogue which would be about more than just parading.

There are other things happening that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. Sinn Fein and the Orange Order shared a platform in Enniskillen recently to discuss the commemoration of 1916. Discussion panels at the West Belfast Festival and Queen’s University have seen PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness and Eibhlin Glenholmes, and leading loyalist Winston Irvine exchanging honest arguments and friendly handshakes.

However the legacy of a violent past is still a major issue blocking moves towards greater mutual understanding and reconciliation. The complex interlocking institutions of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which were meant to begin to deal with that legacy – the Historical Investigations Unit,the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and the Oral History Archive – appear stillborn while the governments and parties try to untangle the Gordian knot between criminal investigation, protecting national security, and uncovering the truth of past violent acts by all sides. Journalist Brian Rowan, who has been involved in several civil society initiatives in this area and has written a book about legacy issues called Unfinished Peace, believes such top-down initiatives may not be what are required and that  “we need to be honest about what is really achievable in terms of the truth”. He thinks a non-political Oral History Archive would be an important initiative to progress on its own, a real opportunity for the families of people who have been killed or injured to tell their stories.

Art and theatre have an important role to play here, Rowan believes. He points to the phenomenal success of the Colin Davidson exhibition of portraits of ordinary people who lost loved ones during the ‘troubles’, which was visited by around 80,000 people in the Ulster Museum and has since transferred to Paris and New York. And to a new play, Green and Blue, by former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown, based on 40 stories of the conflict in the border region taken from serving RUC officers and gardai. “I was trusted with these stories and my goal was to remain faithful to them,” says the former IRA man-turned-playwright.

Secondly – in the economic area – there is a visionary initiative by the two business confederations, Ibec in the South and CBI in the North, which largely slipped under the radar when it was launched in July due to the post-Brexit furore. This is the All-Island Investment Project’s proposal¹ for a comprehensive motorway and dual carriageway network to serve a projected island population of 8.25 million by 2040. The island currently has a population of 6.6 million, 4.76 million of whom live in the Republic. This has grown by 30% in the last 20 years, and Ireland now has the youngest and fastest growing population (bar tiny Luxembourg) in the EU. So we are not far away from the more than eight million people who lived in Ireland before the Great Famine in the 1840s (amazingly, England had a population of less than 15 million in 1841, compared to 53 million today).

If you think about it, planning our roads together to move the rapidly increasing number of people and goods around the island is plain common sense. The Ibec-CBI proposal says the time to begin doing this is now, when the cost of borrowing large amounts of money for major infrastructure projects has never been cheaper. Their paper contains striking maps of the island’s railway network in 1920 when no town was more than 10 miles from a station. The rail network in 2016 is a poor, shrunken thing compared to a century ago, and since replacing even some of those lost lines is simply not viable – due to Irish Rail’s desperate financial situation –  we must plan seriously for a 21st century all-island road network instead.

The Ibec-CBI argument is that if we don’t want the island’s dramatically increased population over the next 25 years to be squeezed into the east coast ‘corridor’, with all the problems of overcrowding and bottlenecks this will lead to, we absolutely must develop the western seaboard from Derry to Cork. The two business confederations’ most radical proposal is for what they call a ‘C ring road’ around the entire coastline, particularly through the north-west, west and south –  from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford – which are not well-served by a radial road network centring on Dublin. They also argue that a new era of ‘low emissions’ road transport is emerging with the development of driverless cars, electric vehicles, car sharing and improved fuel technologies.

“Brexit won’t take away from the need to have this modern infrastructure in both jurisdictions in the future”, says project leader Michael D’Arcy. He believes the Irish government should argue strongly for a relaxation of the EU’s fiscal rules to allow spending on such a strategic project for a uniquely fast-growing population, and this should be part of its special case for Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

The third initiative is much smaller and is already happening. Earlier this month I went to a marvellous conference at which Ireland’s leading historians looked back at how the centennial commemorations of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were carried out over the past year. 240 people turned up at Dublin’s Mansion House to hear the likes of Professors Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter, Gearóid O Tuathaigh,  Fearghal McGarry, John Horne and Lucy McDiarmid talk about the “sober, sensitive and mature way” –  in Horne’s words  – in which those commemorations had been handled. They singled out for special mention the role of the committee of historians set up by the Irish Government to advise on the commemorations, which had allowed for a suitably nuanced retelling of the complicated and contested foundation myths of both states on this island, and about the extraordinary people involved in them.

The event was organised by Universities Ireland, the all-island body which brings together its university presidents and vice-chancellors, and which is administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. This was the fifth annual conference to examine the 1912-1923 period and there are plans for seven more up to 2023.

¹ Connected: A prosperous island of 10 million people. Ibec/CBI

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

Flailing around in the fact free zone that is Brexit

We are now in the phoney war period between the Brexit vote and the British government invoking Article 50 of the European Union Treaty to begin negotiating to leave the EU. And nobody – neither citizens nor governments – knows what’s going to happen next. It was best summed up by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month when he said: “We went on a fact-finding mission to Brussels recently. It was a failure. There are no facts.”

At the same conference an uncharacteristically angry Peter Sutherland, who as former head of the World Trade Organisation should know what he’s talking about, was adamant that if the post-Brexit UK was going to enter into trade agreements with countries outside Europe, a hard British-Irish customs frontier (including along the Irish border) was inevitable.

I don’t know much about international trade but I do know about cooperation across the Irish border. And it is clear that this is in serious jeopardy from Brexit.  EU support has been absolutely central to the implementation of the North-South ‘strand two’ of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This is one of the quiet success stories of that Agreement: Peter Robinson used to say regularly that as a result of it relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have never been better.

By far the most important financial supporter of cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland has been the European Union. Since 1990 the EU has supported the cross-border INTERREG programme to the tune of €810 million (with another €324 million coming in the required matching funding from the Irish, Northern Irish and, in recent years, Scottish governments). Uniquely in Europe Northern Ireland and the Irish border region also have their own cross-community and cross-border PEACE programme. Since 1995 this has received nearly €1.6 billion in EU funds, with an additional €702 million being provided by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. That’s nearly three and a half billion euro provided as a result of EU programmes to Northern Ireland and the Irish border region in 25 years. That is all at risk now from Brexit – for does anybody believe that the British Government is going to step in and replicate such huge sums?

Here is a small flavour of some of what this EU funding has led to: more than 1,300 businesses collaborating across the border as a result of networking projects; over 100 projects to promote cooperation and exchange of best practice between public bodies; 50,000 people taken off hospital waiting lists and benefiting in other ways from cross-border health cooperation; over 150,000 school students involved in cross-border educational exchanges; the building of the Peace Bridge in Derry and the modernisation of the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise train service. One could go on and on.

The then head of the EU Commission, Jacques Delors, explicitly aimed the EU’s funding to support the objectives of ‘strand two’ of the Good Friday Agreement, namely “to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland – including on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest.”  I know as somebody who worked with the relevant policy makers for 14 years up to 2013  that all but a small part of North-South cooperation during that period (in economic development, local authority partnerships, education and health) would simply not have happened without EU funding.

So what about North-South cooperation in the future? All I can say at this point in time is that it is extremely uncertain. The EU’s regulations do allow for cooperation between EU and non-EU countries. Norway, for example, is involved in four INTERREG programmes with Sweden, Denmark and Finland (although there is a long history of cooperation between those countries that predates their membership of the EU). However participation by non-EU countries requires them to follow all the relevant EU policies and regulations, and, most importantly, contribute significant national funding. There are also a few examples of cross-border cooperation initiatives outside EU programmes – for example, along the French-Swiss border – but these are backed by special legal agreements and dedicated governmental funding.

Post-Brexit participation in EU programmes would not be at the discretion of the NI Executive but would need the consent of the UK government. In the post-Brexit environment of political confusion, anti-European sentiment and ever tighter budgets can anybody see Westminister/Whitehall negotiating on Northern Ireland’s behalf for EU cross-border programmes? Or, in the absence of EU funding, deciding whether the required cross-border funding would come from Stormont or Whitehall? Or sanctioning a complex, stand alone, legal agreement to allow cooperation between the peripheral and traditionally neglected counties along the Irish border?  As a recent Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland paper put it: “The crucial question is whether the political will would exist, with accompanying financial resources, to sustain the current levels of cross-border cooperation.”¹ My personal opinion is that this is extremely unlikely. While the North South Ministerial Council, the seven North-South bodies and companies, and the limited areas of inter-ministerial cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement will continue to exist, elsewhere we are likely to be returning to the kind of small-scale, piecemeal cooperation, with little regional impact, that was the situation before the 1990s.

When it comes to trade and business, the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin has concluded that the Republic of Ireland is more important to Northern exporters than vice-versa: €1.8 billion exported from north to south, but only €1.2 million from south to north. Those small and medium enterprises in the North for whom the Republic is their premier export market are going to be hit hardest by the erection of tariffs along the border. These are also the labour-intensive firms which employ the largest proportion of the North’s workforce. And then, of course, there are the North’s farmers, who are 87% dependent on EU single farm payments for their income!

The post-Brexit situation is a real nightmare for the Irish Government, as it struggles to reconcile its new and utterly changed relationships with its closest political and trading partners, the EU and the UK. The government has made the calculation that the Northern Ireland peace process, including North-South relations, is the best weapon it has in its arguments in Brussels that a special case should be made for Northern Ireland in the unhappy post-Brexit future (perhaps including channelling EU funds for the North through Dublin?). Its current row with the European Commission over the €13 billion in unpaid tax it has been told to recoup from Apple isn’t helping that case.

The Taoiseach’s mishandling of the proposal for an all-island forum to discuss Brexit – immediately shot down by Arlene Foster  because she hadn’t been consulted  – indicates that it is not only in London where there is considerable confusion. I expect this eminently sensible suggestion will re-emerge in some form in the near future. Enda Kenny’s echoing of Sinn Fein’s call for a Border Poll because he wants a future united Ireland scenario to be facilitated inside the EU like German re-unification, is another confusing signal, upsetting the unionists unnecessarily for no obvious post-Brexit purpose. It will be interesting to see if provision for a future poll on Irish unity ends up in any eventual UK-EU agreement. This is something the Scottish SNP Government would dearly like to replicate to avoid a lengthy and difficult negotiation to join the EU if one day its people vote for independence.

¹Referendum Briefing Paper 3. The UK Referendum on Membership of the EU: Cross-Border Cooperation, Peace-Building and Regional Development. Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland

Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world | 1 Comment

Can we have a bit of realism about the border, please?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am one of those rare Irish people – outside Sinn Fein – who thinks quite a lot about the border. I don’t talk about it much: there’s nothing more likely to put a dampener on a pub or dinner party conversation in Dublin than somebody going on about the bloody old border. ‘Spare me the North’ in the words of one middle-class Dubliner in Declan Hughes’ play Digging for Fire. Similarly, I note that when I write about the border the readership of this column goes down markedly. However one day I would dearly love to see it gone – for the reasons I outline below – although for the life of me (and in my lifetime) I don’t see how it’s going to happen.

After Sinn Fein in their Pavlovian way demanded a Border Poll following the 56% Northern Ireland vote in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, I phoned around my liberal unionist friends to ask them if they felt that this vote indicated any weakening of unionist determination to remain part of the United Kingdom. I could find not a single one who thought that it did.

Similarly I asked everyone I met on my Belfast to Dublin walk last month (see July blog) whom I identified as being of the unionist persuasion: ‘Do you and your unionist friends and neighbours have any element of fellow-feeling with people in the Republic that might one day provide the basis for a coming together of the people North and South into a closer political relationship on the island?’ Not a single one said ‘yes’.

The most liberal unionist public representative I know puts it like this: “Very few people here nowadays think when you’re going across the border that you’re going to a foreign place you know little about. That has transformed in recent years, and people want that transformation to continue. However Northern Ireland is always going to be a bit different: not as British as Basingstoke, very different from northern England, from Scotland, from West Cork. I’ve always felt that the best place for all of us here in Northern Ireland is to stay in the union, but at the same time I’ve always wanted really good relationships, indeed firm friendships, across the border.  I think we should be building unity between people in that way, rather than focusing on political unity. Once you introduce the idea of a united Ireland, the barriers go up on the unionist side.”

One reason that, in the distant future, I would like to see a coming together of the people on this island into some sort of all-Ireland state is because I fear for the Unionists in that future. I believe that the Northern Protestant and unionist community will begin to find itself increasingly isolated and friendless as the United Kingdom becomes more disunited: as more powers are devolved from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast; as Scotland moves inevitably to a second vote on independence; and as English nationalism becomes an important force in British politics following the exit of the UK from the European Union. I believe it is only a matter of time before politicians and people in England, in particular, begin to question the expensive link with a distant province for which they have little or no affection or fellow-feeling.

In these circumstances I hope that the people of the Republic of Ireland will reconsider a closer constitutional relationship with the people of the North, and vice versa. I stress that this is a personal hope: I see no evidence of it at the moment. One problem is that, whether it is in London or Dublin, nobody is interested in Northern Ireland these days; few people feel any warmth towards the Unionists in particular, and everybody wants to stay well clear of the North’s age-old and unchanging (or changing at a glacial pace) internecine quarrel. Stories about continuing unionist bigotry and stupidity only reinforce this determination. Two recent examples: the non-attendance by unionist political representatives in Derry at the funeral of the much-loved Catholic bishop, Dr Edward Daly; and an account from mid-Ulster of a unionist-minded farmer who explained that he had put an annual EU farm payment of £100,000 in jeopardy by voting Leave in the Brexit referendum because it would ‘consolidate the border.’

The second reason I believe it makes sense for Unionists to begin to reconsider a new and closer relationship with the Republic is because the South is now a modern, liberal, largely well-functioning society – a far cry from the backward, old-fashioned Catholic, near failing state of the 1940s and 1950s. It appears to have dragged itself back from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger to a position where it has one of the highest growth rates in Europe (discounting, of course, the crazy ‘leprechaun economics’ of a 26% rise in GDP); thriving and internationally competitive IT, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors; more than two million people at work and nearly twice as many workers coming into the country as leaving it. Last year’s marriage equality vote seemed to show that it is now one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe. There are, of course, continuing problems of crippling international debt, deep social inequality, housing crises and an almost dysfunctional health service. But these are problems shared by many countries in Europe, not least the UK.

Making sense is one thing. Unionism’s deep feeling of insecurity as a former colonial minority on this island is another. I won’t be holding my breath for any rapid movement on the constitutional front. In any case I believe that the Good Friday Agreement’s marvellous architecture, allowing the Irish-Irish and the British-Irish to begin the painstaking and long drawn-out task of learning to live together, is the only way forward for the next 30 to 40 years at least. Increasing levels of North-South cooperation until we find we have much more in common is what we should be doing, not ill thought-out chatter about Border Polls and Irish unity.

I only ask for a sense of realism from the political leaders of my own state. It is clear that when Enda Kenny last month bizarrely added his voice to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein in calling for a Border Poll in the wake of the Brexit referendum, he was not thinking about Irish unity at all. He was aiming his words at Brussels, where Irish diplomats have been surprised at the strength of feeling in the EU institutions that they have been a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process.

In the words of that shrewd Irish Times political analyst, Pat Leahy, the Irish Government “believes that stressing the importance of Ireland’s trading links with the UK carries much less weight with other EU countries than one that insists upon protecting the peace process.” The Taoiseach is “pursuing a strategy of putting the peace process and the North-South relationship at the forefront of the Government’s negotiating concerns as it faces a period of profound – and possibly lengthy – uncertainty between its two most important external partners, the EU and the UK.”

It is also worth pointing out that when the UK leaves the EU in a couple of years, the only government that will continue to speak up for Northern Ireland’s interests in Brussels (and maybe even in London) will be the Irish Government. Maybe that point is slowly getting through in some political, civil service, business and farming circles in the North. It will be interesting to see if there is any increase in Dublin-bound traffic by forward-thinking Northerners – including Unionists – in the coming months and years. Cross-border realism would dictate that it makes good sense for them to take this road.


Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Between two Irelands: walking and talking from Belfast to Dublin

Earlier this month I walked from Belfast to Dublin, talking to people along the way. I tried as much as possible to avoid main roads, using back roads, green roads, hill paths and beaches. My route took me along the Lagan valley through Lisburn and Dromore; then east and south across Slieve Croob into the Mournes above Hilltown and Rostrevor; over Carlingford lough and through the Cooley mountains; across Slieve Gullion and through South Armagh to Dundalk; and then along the Louth, Meath and north Dublin coasts, via Clogherhead, Drogheda, Laytown, Skerries, Malahide and Howth and into the Irish capital.

Why did I do this? There were three reasons: firstly, I simply love walking through the Irish hills and countryside; secondly, I wanted to raise some money for two charities, BCM and Depaul, working with homeless people in Belfast and Dublin (I raised €5,000); and thirdly, I had the idea that I might write a book about my cross-border journey, which coincidentally began eight days after the UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, with a 56% vote in Northern Ireland for staying in the EU, placed a new question mark over the border.

This blog can only essay a few first thoughts from what turned, with all the zig zags, into a 200 mile walk lasting more than a fortnight. My overriding impression was of a fortunate country: peaceful (despite the violent recent past of its northern quarter), beautiful in the summer showers and sunshine, with friendly and generous people, and some towns and villages with a strong community and even entrepreneurial spirit.

What was the evidence for these initial conclusions? I was greatly cheered on my first morning at the Cenotaph in Belfast to see a possible future Taoiseach – the gay doctor of Indian parentage, Leo Varadkar – walking alongside the DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast at the centennial commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. This ceremony was very much a meeting of the two cultures: the British flag, anthem and Irish regiments of the British Army led by Irish pipers playing Irish airs and an Irish wolfhound, and veterans in the crowd wearing Irish worsted suits and telling me they were “first and foremost Ulsterman, but then Irishmen.”

The generosity was shown by the £200 I collected in Dromore Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church for my two charities; free boat rides across the Rogerstown and Broadmeadow estuaries courtesy of Rush Sailing Club and Malahide marina; and the insistence by three bed and breakfast owners south of the border that I should pay them nothing but should instead give an equivalent amount to the charities.

As our lives become increasingly privatised – lived in and through cars, alarmed and gated houses, mobile phones and PCs – public friendliness and community spirit are a little rarer. One meets very few fellow-walkers along Irish country roads these days – the absence of footpaths and the quizzical looks of fast-driving passing motorists are witness to the deviance of such ambulatory activity. The proliferation of children’s swings, slides and bouncing castles in people’s gardens – in my childhood they were largely confined to public parks – makes one wonder how these small people are going to learn the skills of meeting strangers that are so essential to successful adulthood. Around Hillsborough, in Belfast’s well-heeled commuter belt, the spread of large, almost plutocratic, gated residences is quite astonishing.

But the traditional Irish friendliness and hospitality are still there. People whom I only vaguely knew gave me a bed in their houses in Lisburn and Dromore. An AirBnB owner in Hilltown invited me to join the extended family’s welcoming dinner for his son, home from Australia. A community leader in Forkhill gave me the use of the local women’s centre to wash and change after I had camped out on the site of the former British Army base there: a small symbolic act on my part to show that South Armagh is now peaceful, beautiful and open for tourism.

Local community spirit and entrepreneurship were more evident in the Republic. The North’s divisions are unfortunately conducive to neither. Once bustling mainly unionist mill and market towns like Dromore and Rathfriland have a neglected air, full of boarded up shopfronts and those strange ‘make believe’ window displays that local authorities (or is it estate agents?) put up in a vain attempt to convince residents that classy new shops and restaurants are only a buyer’s call away. Outside Lisburn I passed the derilect hulk of the Hilden linen thread mill, a century ago the largest of its kind in the world, employing over 2,000 people, which finally closed in 2006. A mile further on I came across the spanking new local council offices-cum-arts centre, part-financed, like so many things in Northern Ireland, by the European Union. Regional dependence, whether on the EU or now on London’s declining resources, is what makes the North tick these days.

The contrast with an equivalent Southern town, such as Dundalk or Drogheda, was striking. Dundalk and its region has multinationals like Xerox and PayPal, but also high-achieving indigenous entrepreneurs such as Martin Naughton, the late Edward Haughey and the McCann family. Just across the border from Forkhill I caught a glimpse of the architectural monstrosity that Haughey was building for one of his sons before he died in a helicopter crash two years ago. The unoriginal thought occurred to me that for all their faults – and Haughey had a few of those – a society without driven, risk-taking entrepreneurs is a society that’s going nowhere. The odd vulgar mansion in a place long beggared by poverty, emigration and sectarian division (Haughey opened his first factory in Newry in 1969 as the North descended into near civil war) is a small price to pay for dynamic business leadership that brings in jobs and prosperity. Northern Ireland could do with some of the entrepreneurial spirit which seems to be in the water in Louth, Ireland’s smallest county.

I also noticed more multiculturalism in the Republic. After spending a long evening in South Armagh discussing the ancient, unresolved quarrel between native and planter, it was something of a relief to turn into Dundalk and meet three strapping, handsome Nigerian teenagers on Castletown bridge. The cafe where I stopped for lunch in the town centre was owned by a man with a Panamanian wife and the waitresses were Romanians and Serbs.

Further south again, in Rush in north county Dublin, I came across a suburban shop converted into a venue for a myriad of community activities: from positive parenting to Pilates; from Capoeira to set dancing; from drug awareness to English conversation; from Gaeilge to physical fitness; from ballet to police liaison to youth work to yoga.  A woman instructor in the sailing club said: “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world except Rush.”

However a relatively contented, middle class society tends to breed smugness and a wilful blindness to continuing deep social problems. This is certainly the case in the Republic. On the last afternoon of my journey, walking along Dublin’s North Strand with community workers Mick Rafferty and Brian Treacy, we came across two young homeless couples living in tents  on waste ground within sight of the upmarket offices, apartments and conference centres of the Financial Services Centre and Spencer Dock. In the warm summer sunshine this was just about bearable, but what must it be like in the depths of winter?  The gaping social divides of Southern Irish society – and the unwillingness or inability of the Irish state to do much about them – never ceases to surprise and shock.

Despite this, the strongest impression from my midsummer cross-border trek was that most Irish people, north and south, are plain lucky. During my journey 84 people were mown down by a Tunisian madman in a lorry in Nice and a failed military coup in Turkey sparked a wave of repression by that country’s authoritarian government. The civilian death toll from bloody wars in Syria and Iraq rose relentlessly. In marked contrast, this quiet green island has a lot going for it and we, its fortunate inhabitants, have a lot to be grateful for. I hope to explore this and other themes in a short book  – the hard work starts here!



Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

Post-Brexit confessions of an anglophile Irishman

So Brexit has happened. Fear, lies and stupidity won the day (although these were not only on the Leave side) and dangerous new forces of right-wing populism and English nationalism were unleashed in the British body politic. It was gratifying to see Northern Ireland voting by 56% to 44% to stay in Europe, which meant that a small but significant element of unionism supported Remain. However a large proportion of unionist-minded farmers voting to leave the entity which provides 87% of their income, and the DUP effectively campaigning for the break-up of Britain, defy all logic. But then Ulster Unionists have always had a deep nostalgia for a past of British imperial power, a great nation standing alone with a strong sense of its own identity, one that unionists identified with totally because their existence as a small, beleagured, colonial people depended on it.

The North is now left in a “horrendous bind”, in Fintan O’Toole’s words, “cut off from the rest of the island by a European border and with the UK melting around it. Its future as an unwanted appendage to a shrunken Britain is unsustainable.”¹

Many Irish republicans will rejoice in Britain’s difficulties, hoping in their hearts that the break-up of the United Kingdom will speed up an unlikely transition to Irish unity. If I came from the Bogside or Ballymurphy, which have felt the ruthless edge of British military occupation, I might be one of them. But I don’t and I’m not. I worry that this vote may signal the final end of a British social democratic consensus, now near its last gasp, which is 70 years old. I worry deeply about the rise of opportunistic and toxic figures like Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage, let alone some extremely unpleasant elements further to the right. The old British Labour values of solidarity, equality and decency have never been more in jeopardy.

Because I don’t hate Britain or England. I was born into Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan’s UK welfare state, son of a left-wing Czech refugee father and a Northern Irish mother. I was raised largely in England, cared for by a free health service – the marvel of the Western world – and prepared for adulthood by a free secondary education system. As a teenager I was out canvassing for a Labour Party which promised greater redistribution of income to people of modest means, free third level education for their children and the ‘white heat’ of Tony Benn’s technological revolution. That was in 1964, at a time when universal free second level education had not yet been achieved by the Republic of Ireland, which four decades earlier had opted for an inward-looking, impecunious and church-dominated form of limited independence rather than Connolly’s socialist vision. I believe that British social democracy in the 1940s and then again in the 1960s was as close to the ‘good society’ as these islands have ever come.

In a powerful short address from the stage of the Abbey Theatre in January 2014 at the end of James Plunkett’s play about the 1913 Lock-out, The Risen People, the historian of that emblematic event, Padraig Yeates (himself the son of poor Dublin working class parents who had been forced to emigrate to Britain), called for a return to the values not of 1913 Ireland, not of the 1916 Rising, but of late 1940s Britain and Europe. “I don’t believe we have much of a future unless we make our starting point the sort of social solidarity values that made post-war Europe a better place…Is it being too ambitious to hope that we can at least guarantee our children and grandchildren the same basic rights and opportunities I grew up with in post-war Britain almost 70 years ago? James Plunkett shared those solidarity values: what I suppose we can christen the values of the welfare state. If we are to challenge the rule of Murphyism [called after the 1913 employers leader, which Yeates equated with contemporary neo-liberalism], we have to have the courage to demand the basic requirements of any civilised society: free health care, free education, free childcare, a secure roof over our heads, decent job opportunities and a pension we can live on in old age. We also have to be willing to pay the price to achieve them. This is hardly Larkin’s New Jerusalem, but it would better than life in the cellars of the new Babylon.”²

For despite the large working class vote in England and Wales outside London for Brexit, the likely next prime minister, Boris Johnston and his ilk offer only an intensified version of this new Babylon. To quote O’Toole again:”Those who will take over from David Cameron will be right-wing market fundamentalists whose policies will deepen the very inequalities and alienation that have driven working class voters towards Leave.”³

I love Ireland – that doesn’t mean I have to hate England. I don’t want to see the far right in power in Britain. I don’t want to see the dismantling and privatisation of the National Health Service. I don’t want to see the decline of London as one of the world’s greatest and most successfully multicultural cities. I don’t want to see the British values of fair-mindedness and tolerance savaged by xenophobic nationalism. I don’t want to see these islands divided acrimoniously into a ferret’s hole of squabbling mini-states (ourselves included). In Europe I don’t want to see far right eurosceptic parties in France, Holland and Denmark following the UK’s example and demanding ‘in-out’ referenda. I fear all of these things may on the cards in the next decade following this fateful referendum.

PS  Next month’s blog will be a little different. In the first fortnight of July (1st-16th) I will be walking from Belfast to Dublin, using paths and back roads, and talking to people along the way. Why? Firstly, I hope to write a book about my cross-border journey. Secondly, I want to raise funds for two charities working with homeless people: Depaul in Dublin and Belfast Central Mission(BCM) in Belfast. I will be giving my first impressions of this walk – starting eight days after the Brexit vote – in my July blog.

If you would like to support my walk by donating a small amount to either of these charities, I would be really grateful. If you want to donate to Depaul (in €), please use http://www.everydayhero.com/ie  (find a supporter>andy pollak>give now). If you want to donate to BCM (in £ or €), please use www.justgiving.com (search for a charity, friend or project>andy pollak>donate). Many thanks to people who have already donated.

  1. ‘Brexit is driven by English Nationalism – and it will end in self-rule, Observer, 19 June
  2. https://www.academia.edu/s/a4880226d0
  3. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-brexit-is-an-english-nationalist-revolution-1.2697874
Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Ireland, Europe and the world | 6 Comments

Lessons from Ireland’s great forgotten philosopher: Francis Hutcheson

This August marks the 270th anniversary of the death of one of Ireland’s greatest philosophers: Francis Hutcheson. Who has heard of this County Down-born sage, son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, today? He ran a ‘dissenting academy’ in Drumcondra Lane in Dublin in the 1720s and during his time there wrote two of the most influential philosophy books of the 18th century; as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University (1729-1746) he was called  ‘Father to the Scottish Enlightenment’ and taught the economist Adam Smith and the philosopher David Hume; his ideas about the right to resist enslavement, the desire of human beings to contribute to the ‘public good’ and the centrality of happiness to a good society influenced Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the architects of the US Constitution and the United Irishmen; and he – rather than the English Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham – originated the famous line: “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that is worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery”.

Hutcheson’s core belief was that human nature is inherently prone to sympathy and kindness. In his 1725 book, Enquiry into the Original of Beauty and Virtue, he asserted that “there is universal determination to benevolence in mankind, even towards the most distant of the species”, and that it is this instinctive “moral sense” that stimulates men and women to acts of charity that go beyond mere self-serving affiliation with family and friends. This belief in instinctive human benevolence made him urge political leaders to devise constant opportunities for the individual to “concern himself with the common good.”

The corollary of this was opposition to despotism. “The moral sense of individual men and women must be allowed to function if the virtuous society that flows from the free exercise of this sense is to be given a chance to flourish.” So wherever government takes place without “the universal consent of the people”, there arises “a right to resistance.” This was written over 50 years before the American Revolution and over 70 years before the French Revolution.

In a 2011 essay on Hutcheson¹, the Northern historian and playwright Philip Orr, writes: “Clearly if these arguments about humanity’s innate moral sense possess any modern validity – even in an age where we have witnessed so much war and violence – then the political philosophy that underlies much of 21st century capitalism has questions to answer, given the dominance within that economic philosophy of a model of human beings as consumers and competitors who are motivated by self-interest, and a rigid model of the state as a gigantic and all-pervasive market place.”

Orr says that for Hutcheson “morality was not to be understood as a painful shackle on human desire and aggrandisement, but rather as a guide to the highly pleasurable exercise of man’s capacity for altruism.” He goes on, quoting Hutcheson: “Missing out on the satisfying reality that ‘human nature is formed for universal love and gratitude’, the citizens of an inferior society that does not prize benevolence and reciprocity are in danger of experiencing ‘the misery of excessive selfishness.”  This warning goes to the very heart of the experience in too many countries, including Ireland, during the ‘boom’ years of the late 1990s-early 2000s, which although they brought many material benefits, also “suffused society with the values of conspicuous acquisition and consumption, leaving an aching sense of precious things that have been lost – community, decency, reciprocity and simple trust.”

Hutcheson’s moral teaching about the need to disseminate happiness among the greatest number of people, is also starkly significant, says Orr, “given the huge gap in present-day Ireland, in many other western nations and all across the world, between the physical comfort and educational prospects of a secure minority, and the much more vulnerable and perilous fate of the rest of society.”

Some modern philosophers have dismissed Hutcheson’s philosophy as utopian. However his most famous pupil, Adam Smith, who is held up as the guru of free market capitalism, often agreed with him. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (considered by its author to be superior to his  classic work on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations), Smith argued: “Howsoever selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Another Irish philosopher, the US-based scholar Philip Pettit, has argued in a 2004 book (co-authored with Geoffrey Brennan)² that our economic models are flawed because they do not acknowledge the role played by the psychology of esteem in human behaviour (echoing Hutcheson’s belief that “we measure our own self-esteem by the benefits we bestow on others”). Pettit suggests that a desire for recognition and regard by colleagues, peer groups, family and friends – and even the approval of imagined future generations – often trumps the desire for personal wealth and material gain. Many of our policies in the capitalist world fail to take this into account. And so humanity is often debilitated by being told to strive towards an unnatural norm of material acquisition and ‘success’.

Hutcheson’s teaching at Glasgow University, and the atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry it encouraged among the young Irishmen training for the Presbyterian ministry, served to make them amenable to revolution during the tempestuous Irish decade of the 1790s, argues Orr. “By the time of the 1798 rebellion, over 50 ordained and trainee Presbyterian clerics had decided on an insurrectionary remedy for a country in which the public good was being denied by an Anglo-Irish elite, backed by an exploitative and oppressive British government.” His ideas are most directly evident in one of the founding documents of the Dublin branch of the United Irishmen in 1791: “…there is not an individual whose happiness can be established on any other foundation so rational and so solid as the happiness of the whole community.”

Orr also claims that – through inheritors of his thinking like Archibald Hamilton Rowan in Ireland and William Goodwin (partner of the early feminist Mary Wolstonecraft) in England  – Daniel O’Connell was also greatly influenced by Hutcheson’s ideas. In O’Connell’s case, however, his “peaceful mass campaigns for Repeal of the Union were founded, not on insurrectionary violence, but on the conviction that change could be effected by enlisting public opinion behind a schedule of reform, binding vast groups of citizens together with ties of mutual affection and common purpose.”

We are very far from ties of mutual affection and common purpose either in Ireland or the insecure Western world of neo-liberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy today. We have a right-of-centre government which is almost entirely in thrall to the likes of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Pfizer and Allegran (albeit in return for the provision of high value jobs) and remains mired in unsustainable international debt (although there have been significant improvements on this front). We have a huge housing and homelessness crisis and deeply unfair health and education systems. Our sense of community and equality has been sorely tested by the post 2008 financial meltdown and a very partial post 2011 recovery which does not appear to have reached the majority of poorer people.

Is it time to rediscover the peaceful mass politics of O’Connell backed by the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest numbers’ philosophy of Francis Hutcheson?  Is this what, in their often aggressive and fractious way, the Trotskyists of People before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance are trying to do? (Or are they merely trying to set class against class?)  It would be a happy by-product for this still deeply divided island if in this way we might also marry the militant but peaceful politics of a visionary 19th century Kerry Catholic leader with the radical and benevolent thinking of a wise 18th century County Down Presbyterian philosopher.

¹The Secret Chain: Frances Hutcheson and Irish Dissent – A Political Legacy, by Philip Orr. TASC/The Flourishing Society, October 2011

² The Economy of Esteem: an essay on civil and political society, by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments