Knitting the island’s relationships back together again

I’ve been thinking about knitting recently. It seems a good image for what those of us in the Centre for Cross Border Studies, Cooperation Ireland and other North-South ‘reconciliation’ bodies are trying to do: knitting damaged relationships between people and communities on this island back together again. Knitting is an activity usually done by women: it is slow, painstaking, meticulous, unglamorous and utterly unthreatening. When done well it produces articles of great beauty, which are at the same time useful, warm and comfortable. And more often than not it is done to produce gifts for people – husbands, children and other family members – whom the knitter loves.

The Centre continues to work away quietly and steadily at its knitting, like an old granny in the corner of the parlour. It undertakes practical cross-border research, training, networking and information provision for teachers and health employees and civil servants and people moving across the border to live and work. Some of the initiatives we think are most important and innovative – for example, training public officials in North-South cooperation or bringing children together to learn about the dangers of racism and sectarianism – are always in danger of disappearing with the expiry of EU funding and the failure of cash-starved governments to step in and fill the gap.

But after 10 years we have become used to living on our wits and moving on to new areas – new knitting patterns, if you like. In 2009 we are moving into five areas, three of them extensions of existing work and two brand new. The EU INTERREG IVA programme has funded the Centre to undertake research, information and training projects during the period 2009-2011 in cross-border mobility information, spatial planning, hospital services and impact assessment, along with reviving the cross-border regional economy.

The cross-border mobility information project is an extension of the acclaimed Border People public information website (www.borderpeople.info) , which provides practical information on things like taxation, social security, job seeking, qualifications, health, education, housing and banking for people moving across the border to live, work, study or retire. People living in border areas may have seen our publicity campaign last summer with its motif of question marks in the form of footsteps. A new campaign, with a signposting motif, will start in Enniskillen, Letterkenny and Bundoran (on buses and bus shelters) next month, and will run in various border region towns until Christmas 2011.

The CroSPlaN (Cross-border Spatial Planning and training Network) is being led by our sister organisation, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD). It will train local councillors, officials, business and community leaders in the border region to deal with the new planning powers being returned to them under the reform of public administration in the North, and help them work with their colleagues in the South to use the new non-statutory cross-border planning framework which is currently waiting for final approval from the Northern Ireland Executive.

We are also undertaking a research project – in partnership with the Institute of Public Health in Ireland – to explore what hospital services in the border region might look like if you ignored the border and provided those services on the basis purely of the health needs of the region’s population, the availability of hospital beds and specialities, and the transport network. The start of this study has been held back for a few months because of the departure of the Centre’s versatile and knowledgeable research manager (and health specialist), Patricia Clarke, who, after more than nine years in Armagh, has moved to a senior job in the Health Research Board in Dublin. We wish her well – she will be a hard act to follow.

The final two areas are new ones for the Centre. In the autumn we will be starting a big study (in collaboration with InterTradeIreland) on how the economy of the cross-border region – from Derry and Letterkenny at one end to Newry and Dundalk at the other, and all the largely rural bits in between – might be revived in this new era of peace but also of prolonged economic recession. The study will look in particular at the roles of cross-border shopping (and how the crazy, seesawing distortions caused by currency and price differentials might be offset in some way), micro-enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) and tourism in developing a region that is almost certainly never going to find another major multinational company to put its people to work in large numbers again.

Finally we are going to attempt to put together a ‘pilot impact assessment toolkit’ which (we hope) will for the first time help politicians, civil servants and others to measure the impact and cost-effectiveness of cross-border cooperation in Ireland. This project – one of the first of its kind anywhere in Europe – will use techniques developed in health and environmental impact assessment to understand this complex process. This project will begin in the middle of next year.

So there you have it: the Centre’s knitting programme for the next two and a half years. Here’s hoping that we can produce some things that are, if not beautiful, at least useful in helping to find new and practical ways in which governments and people in the two Irish jurisdictions can learn to work together for mutual benefit.

Andy Pollak

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.