It is easy to be cynical about the inevitable inefficiencies and occasional examples of waste when well over a billion euros of EU money are spent, as they have been in Northern Ireland and the Irish border region over the past decade. The media in Belfast and Dublin are only too eager to cover this massive effort to support our peace process when something goes wrong and money goes astray. But with their congenital suspicion of anything that smacks of do goodery, they rarely, if ever, write about the unglamorous success stories that are everywhere if one takes the trouble look below the media-created radar.
One outstanding example is the unoriginal-sounding Developing Communities Project in Monaghan and Armagh. The key to this projects uniqueness is in the small print of its partner organisations: County Monaghan Community Network (CMCN), which brings together over 60 community groups; Regeneration of South Armagh (RoSA), which gathers 84 predominantly nationalist rural community groups; and the County Armagh Grand Lodge Development Committee, which to the lay reader means the Orange Order in that most conservative and divided of counties.
This is grassroots peacebuilding at its most imaginative and courageous. It was the brainchild of a small group of far-sighted community leaders in Monaghan who wanted in the first place to find some way to reach out to the Protestant minority who constitute 8% of that countys population, proportionately the largest in the Republic. When they asked a leading local Orangeman what they could do to help, they were told: Help us to refurbish our halls. The Orange Orders halls in Monaghan – a vital community resource in often remote rural areas – were rundown and often lacking basic facilities like proper toilets. Local Orange lodges were reluctant to seek state or EU funding for refurbishment for fear that they would be forced in return to make ownership of them cross-community.
Developing this idea – and seeking cross-border EU INTERREG funding for it – brought County Monaghan Community Network into contact with the Mid Armagh Network based in Markethill, made up largely of members of the County Armagh Orange Order. The result has been an extraordinarily inspiring initiative by people working together to overcome communal, jurisdictional and sectarian barriers in a region previously known mainly for mutual suspicion, deep mistrust and – during the 30 years of the Troubles – outbursts of murderous violence.
The work is necessarily low key and unspectacular. It currently involves 25 small organisations – community groups, Orange lodges and church groups – paying visits to each others halls for table quizzes, dances and bowling events, and going on joint visits to heritage sites. These have often been heavily oversubscribed: a recent social event at a mainly Protestant Young Farmers Club hall near Armagh city, which was attended by a large crowd of visitors from Monaghan, was fit to burst after an extra 60 local people turned up unannounced.
However the hard issues have also not been shirked: Groups from Monaghan have been to hallowed Orange sites like Dan Winters cottage where the Order was founded. Armagh Orangemen and women have visited and talked with residents of Monaghan housing estates and villages traditionally known for their strong republicanism. There have been presentations from the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy and from people who have directly suffered from the conflict, whether republican ex-prisoners or relatives of Protestant victims.
In Monaghan itself the CMCN works with local groups – both Catholic and Protestant in make-up – on religious and multicultural diversity awareness training (as well as training in organisational and ICT skills). They put Catholics and Protestants together to ask the difficult questions they normally never voice: Why does the perception persist that Orangemen hate Catholics? Is the Catholic Churchs rule that children in a mixed marriage must be raised as Catholics still in force? They bring in people from the 11% of the population who are immigrants – again the largest proportion of any Irish county – to talk to locals about their wide range of religious beliefs. Not surprisingly, the reaction among the Monaghan people is often to marvel at how much as Irish Christians they have in common.
This difficult, sensitive work is being done by so-called ordinary people in an often neglected part of the Republic of Ireland. In truth, this is a quite extraordinary group of practical idealists who are building peace and mutual understanding in their towns, villages and rural areas without any fanfare and with little or no support to date from any Irish or Northern Irish public authority or funding agency. Like so many grassroots peacebuilders, they have only been able to do it because of generous EU Peace and INTERREG funding.
That funding is due to run out at the end of June, and because of big reductions in the programmes for Northern Ireland and the Southern Border Counties in the 2008-2013 period, it may not be renewed. President McAleese paid fulsome tribute to their work when she visited their Monaghan town offices last month. If ever there was an opportunity for an Irish government agency to step in and help a group who are pioneering ways towards reconciliation in the border region – and on the island – this surely is it.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.