‘The week that Anglophobia died’ was the headline on the Irish Times article by that splendid columnist Fintan O’Toole(1) at the end of the Queen’s hugely successful visit to Ireland. Citing Frank O’Connor’s poignant story of Irish volunteers in the war of independence executing captured British soldiers who a few days earlier they had been addressing as ‘chum’, O’Toole said O’Connor’s story suggested that ‘left to themselves, without the interventions of violence and power, Irish people and English people get on rather well. It is cruel circumstance that has blighted a naturally decent relationship. Queen Elizabeth’s visit was essentially about bringing home the reality that those circumstances have changed for good.’
O’Toole concluded that we, citizens of Ireland, had now been freed from the ‘crippling insecurities of false choices. Before the choice was to hate England or to be a West Brit. Now there’s the healthy option of simply getting on with the neighbours’.
He said this would have two long-term effects: firstly, to free Irish energies to concentrate on our real problems, starting with getting back the sovereignty that was won from the British but lost to the European Central Bank. Secondly, to redefine what it is to be Irish. ‘That new identity has to be positive rather than negative. But it also has to find a way to include Britishness. Those on the island who value the British part of their identity have to know that, for everyone else, British is not a dirty word.’
Pointing out how little public sympathy there had been for the hard-line republican protesters against the visit, former Fianna Fail Minister Martin Mansergh (one of the main architects of the peace process) observed: ‘The truth is that the old ideology of ‘Brits Out’, timetable for withdrawal, occupied Ireland etc has been made obsolete by the success of the Good Friday Agreement.’(2)
May was a good month for contemporary Irish history in other ways. The Northern Ireland Assembly election was positively boring in its ordinariness, lack of incident, and preoccupation with bread-and-butter issues. The only serious outburst of bigotry, by new Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott against Sinn Feiners at the Fermanagh-South Tyrone count, was roundly condemned by all sides, including his own. Even though the DUP and Sinn Fein consolidated their hold on their respective tribes, Alliance also did well.
In Scotland the Scottish National Party won a famous victory partly by not over-emphasising their separatist credentials, which was compared by commentators to the way that Sinn Fein had hardly mentioned the North in their Southern election campaign in February. Moderation and common sense and an emphasis on cooperation and partnership seem to be breaking out everywhere.
In this atmosphere of friendship and pragmatism between Britain and Ireland, unionist and nationalist, the rather immobile concept of North-South cooperation for mutual benefit needs to be taken out again, dusted down and injected with a badly needed infusion of new energy.
Can I suggest that one way forward could be in the unlikely-sounding area of ‘impact assessment’? Over the past year my CCBS colleague Ruth Taillon has been doing some highly innovative work – along with partners in the Euro Institute in Kehl in Germany – in developing a method to help policy makers and project promoters to decide whether or not a cross-border approach to tackling a particular problem in Northern Ireland and the Irish border region would bring ‘added value’ beyond what might be achieved in a single jurisdiction. This has been funded, as is so much of the Centre’s work, by the EU INTERREG programme through the Special EU Programmes Body, and is also part of the work we are doing with colleagues in the TEIN network of cross-border universities and institutes in 10 European border regions.
This is cross-border cooperation at its most sensible, practical and mutually beneficial. It works on the basis that you only do cross-border cooperation where it brings real added value to assist governments, businesses, local authorities, health and education bodies and ‘grass roots’ communities who want to solve a common problem or exploit a common potential. Examples of this kind of cooperation are building cross-border roads; upgrading the Belfast-Dublin railway; doing certain health specialties, such as radiotherapy and ENT, on a joint basis; undertaking cross-border university research; providing information for people crossing the border to live and work; local authorities treating adjoining border areas as one region for tourism promotion (as Louth and Newry and Mourne are about to do); and working together to dispose of waste.
These are good examples of North-South cooperation that has worked over the past decade. We in the Centre for Cross Border Studies, and in our ‘sister’ organisation, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development, believe there are many other areas where it makes plain common sense to come together to solve mutual problems, particularly in the delivery of public services. We make no apology for beating this drum over and over again. I will return to it in a future ‘Note’.
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.