It didn’t come home to me how appallingly uncompetitive the Republic of Ireland has become until the Centre for Cross Border Studies interviewed candidates for the job of Deputy Director (Research) last month. Several youngish residents of the Republic working as middle-ranking officials and researchers with state bodies and earning in excess of 70,000 per year appeared before the interview panel. It was striking that their competitors for the job from Northern Ireland were earning not much more than half that extraordinarily high salary.The salary we were offering was £40-45,000 (the equivalent of 46-51,000 at the present rock bottom exchange rate with Sterling): the amount most universities in the UK would offer to somebody taking up a leadership role in a smallish research centre like ours. [It’s not just researchers who are overpaid in the Republic: the Sunday Times ran a story earlier this month about National University of Ireland Galway’s pay scale for a head librarian being an astonishing 123-158,000, around twice what a British university head librarian can expect to earn!]
In the event the 38-year-old offered the Deputy Director’s job decided not to take up the position because he couldn’t face the prospect of moving to Armagh and taking a large salary cut at a time when he also had to pay off a Southern mortgage on a house that was unlikely to be sold for some time. He said he was passionately interested in the Centre’s work and excited at the prospect of becoming our Deputy Director, but in the end for financial reasons he felt he just could not afford to move to the North.
I have to say that overall I found the applications for this job disappointing. It is something we have noticed in several recent recruitment exercises. It seems hard to attract talented and idealistic people – either young and energetic in years, or young and energetic in spirit – to come and lead the Centre’s pioneering work for practical cooperation and mutual understanding on the island of Ireland. The Deputy Director’s job advertisement said this would be “a senior management position with opportunities to shape the policy and practice of a highly innovative and much-praised research, information and training centre which has made a significant contribution to the process of peace and cooperation in Ireland.” Don’t take my word for it: people ranging from President Mary McAleese and Brian Cowen to Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson have paid tribute to the Centre’s work.
So why don’t bright 30 and 40-somethings (and even early 50-somethings) want to work for peace and reconciliation in Ireland? These are people who have some memory of the horrors that were so vivid until a little over a decade ago. Are the ‘Troubles’ now so distant and the present economic crisis so all-encompassing that nobody is interested in Northern Ireland, or mutual understanding between North and South, any more?
We forget the North at our peril. There is a new generation of disadvantaged young people growing up in Northern Ireland who know little or nothing about the ‘Troubles’ but are still consumed by the old hatreds. I listened recently to an alarming BBC radio documentary about teenagers in Ballymena, Belfast and Derry, who genuinely do not remember the years of conflict, sending sectarian hate mail via the Bebo social networking site. The poison is still there close to the surface, and unless the huge potential benefits of a shared society and a shared island start to seep into popular consciousness, another explosion is surely not far away.
In the meantime, in the relatively peaceful here and now, the Centre for Cross Border Studies is still looking for a Deputy Director. New advertisements have appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Guardian (the cost of advertising in the Irish Times twice in two months was beyond my budget) with a deadline for applications of 16 June. Please tell your friends and colleagues to consult our website (www.crossborder.ie) for details. I haven’t got many years to go as Director before retirement catches up with me. I really do need to find a determined, hardworking and idealistic younger person – or an older person with the energy and idealism of youth – who might take over from me before then.
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.