My Unsung Cooperation Heroes of 2009

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

Cross-border cooperation in Ireland is not exactly trendy. Much of it involves the painstaking building of trust and relationships, often as a pre-requisite to working on practical joint projects. Almost by definition, such mundane, ‘under the radar’ work rarely gets a mention in the media. It’s probably just as well, since such politically sensitive relationship-building could easily be destroyed by crude tabloid journalism. Maybe we should be relieved that most journalists think of cross-border cooperation as ‘do-goodery’ that is not newsworthy, lacking the elements of clash and controversy which is their usual stock in trade, and believe – almost certainly correctly – that anything to do with Northern Ireland is now deeply boring to the great newspaper-reading and TV-watching public in other parts of these islands. I should know – I was a journalist for 26 years.

However one downside of this is that people doing superb work in this often difficult area usually don’t get the recognition they deserve. So I’m going to try to set the balance straight a little by using this December ‘Note’ to nominate a few people as my ‘Unsung Heroes of Cross Border Cooperation for 2009’. These are genuine border people: they come from south Armagh, north Monaghan and west Cavan.

I’m going to start with the tireless one-man reconciliation industry that is Will Glendinning. Will has been in turn a part-time UDR soldier, an Alliance councillor for the Lower Falls (that must have been a unique and hazardous change of employment back in the 1970s!); an Alliance member for West Belfast in the short-lived Northern Ireland Assembly in the 1980s; director of the NI Community Relations Council; and now a south Armagh farmer and founder of Diversity Challenges, which works to engage people like former combatants, Orange Order members and people who have been directly affected by the conflict in cross-community and cross-border work.

His current project, under the auspices of the Netwell Centre in Dundalk Institute of Technology, involves collecting the stories of loyalists, republicans and members of the security forces from 30 years of the ‘Troubles’. His partner in this enterprise is the former IRA hunger-striker Laurence McKeown. The stories are then adapted to appeal to young people, to show them that the kind of conflict like the one that consumed Northern Ireland for so long is very far from the glorious taking up of arms for a noble cause. His last involvement was with Border Arts, which brought together every conceivable strand of religious and political opinion in Castlederg in west Tyrone – in its day one of the most bitterly divided communities in Northern Ireland – to put on an exhibition to reflect the cultural diversity of that area. Both these projects were funded by the EU Peace Programme.

Crossing the border, I would like to pay a pre-Christmas tribute to the work of two women who work closely with the redoubtable Father Sean Nolan of Truagh in north Monaghan. Mary Devlin, as principal of Knockconan National School, two and a half miles from the Tyrone border, struggled against huge odds for 25 years to build a good school for the children of that impoverished, isolated (because of British Army border closures) and largely forgotten parish. She was also – along with Josephine McMeel and others – one of the pioneers of pre-school education in that rural area. Now, largely due to the work of Mary and an extraordinary group of local activists, the community can boast not only a smart, modern primary school, but, beside it, the wonderful Blackwater Valley Learning, Cultural, ICT and Peace Centre, whose title proclaims the wide range of services it provides to the people of the area. Go and visit it some day – it’s just off the Dublin-Derry road a couple of miles north of Emyvale.

Mary and the second Truagh woman I want to honour, Josie Brady, have also worked as part of a remarkable initiative to build relationships with their Northern Protestant neighbours, many of them staunch members of the Orange Order, across the border in Aughnacloy. Josie has been particularly important in this venture, since from the age of 14 she had crossed that border to work in largely menial jobs in Protestant shops and households. This widow of a small Monaghan farmer has been involved in working for the ‘common good’ in Truagh for more than 40 years – in everything from athletics to heritage centres – and used her contacts and friendships from those early years in Aughnacloy to help open often reluctant doors in the area’s still fearful Protestant communities. I was delighted last month to be able to take part in an award ceremony to Josie and the rest of the Truagh Development Association team who were recognized for their work in the Monaghan Integrated Development Community Achievement Awards.

Finally there is Kathleen Richey from Blacklion, Co Cavan. This extraordinarily energetic woman was named last month as Irish Water Safety’s Volunteer of the Year for her 38 years of work with Blacklion Water Safety Club, which draws its swimmers and instructors from several counties, including Fermanagh. She is also widely known as a champion of community development and cross-border cooperation in west Cavan, north Leitrim and south Fermanagh. Originally from Fermanagh herself, and a teacher by profession, she crossed the border with her late husband when he took up the post of Church of Ireland rector of Blacklion, Kiltyclogher and Drumkeerin in 1963. She and her husband were involved in setting up the West Cavan Community Council as an umbrella body for the community councils of six local villages. She was a founder member of Blacklion Irish Countrywomen’s Association in 1964, which drew a cross-border and cross-community membership from a wide catchment area that never decreased throughout the ‘Troubles’. She is a leading figure in the MacNean Women’s Group, operating out of an old Church of Ireland primary school transformed into a busy community centre, complete with an out-of-school club for local children. For over 20 years she was also a leader in Blacklion Youth Club. In this very rural, very peripheral border area – usually forgotten by governments in faraway Dublin and Belfast, and for many years badly isolated by the violence in the North – Kathleen’s huge energy and commitment breathes real meaning into the clichéd phrase ‘pillar of the community’.

I should emphasise that Will Glendinning, Mary Devlin, Josie Brady and Kathleen Richey are only my personal unsung heroes, the people I or my colleagues know and have worked with (thanks to Caroline Creamer of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development for putting me in touch with Kathleen). There are hundreds of equally deserving peace and cooperation activists out there working hard to bring together Irish and Northern Irish people, estranged for far too long by jurisdictional borders and communal differences, without anybody having to sacrifice their deepest convictions or identities. This Christmas they should all be celebrated.

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.