Why are Irish researchers so uninterested in North-South cooperation?

After more than 12 years of toiling in the field of North-South cooperation in Ireland, one of the real puzzles for me remains the lack of interest shown by our university academics and researchers in this important and innovative aspect of peacemaking and politics, economics and society on this island.

In the past two months the Centre for Cross Border Studies has held two significant conferences attended by over 250 people: the first on cross-border training and impact assessment in Ireland and Europe, and the second on reviving the economy of the Irish border region. The first of these in October was attended by academics and researchers from border regions all over Europe: the Upper Rhine region between France, Germany and Switzerland; the south-eastern Alpine region between Austria, Slovenia and Italy; the Czech-Polish border region; Catalonia and the Basque Country. There was just one academic from an Irish university present. This conference launched a highly innovative ‘impact assessment toolkit for cross-border cooperation’ – researched and developed by the Centre along with a German partner, the Euro-Institute in Kehl  – which has provoked major interest in the EU’s Regional Policy Directorate and elsewhere in Europe.

A month later we held a conference to discuss the conclusions of a pioneering study of the economy of the Irish cross-border region by two economists with an international reputation: Dr John Bradley, formerly of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, and Professor Michael Best of the University of Massachusetts (Lowell), a world authority on industrial development and regional innovation strategies and author of two seminal books on these subjects. Other speakers included leading figures from the business world such as the former head of the IDA, Padraic White – who made a powerful case for a special Border Development Zone – and former IBEC chief Liam Connellan, as well as three outstanding border region entrepreneurs.

The Centre wrote twice to the heads of the economics departments of the two Northern universities and the four Dublin universities, offering free conference places (including accommodation) to any academic or student who would be interested in coming. Not a single academic or student from the six university economics departments took up the offer, although three Irish academics (two political scientists and a sociologist) and two students (of environmental planning) did.

This disappointing lack of Irish academic interest in the vital North-South ‘strand’ of the Northern peace process is not a recent thing. 10 years ago, at the height of that process, the Centre joined Queen’s University Belfast and Dublin City University in trying to start a Masters in Cross Border Studies, but abandoned it in the face of a poor response from potential students. In the past 12 years I can’t recall a single Irish university researcher who bothered to make the short trip to Armagh to talk to my colleagues and myself about our work and insights, although I have had visits from researchers from the US, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain and even Israel, Korea and China. Last year we took on a superb young German postgraduate intern for six months. Since then we have had several requests for internships from French universities. There has not been a single request from a suitably-qualified Irish student for an internship in all my time at the Centre.

There have been three exceptions to this general rule of indifference and disinterest. The Institute for British-Irish Studies at UCD, under Professors John Coakley and Jennifer Todd, has maintained a high level of commitment to and interest in North-South relations. The Centre for International Borders Research at Queen’s University, led by Professor Liam O’Dowd (a member of the CCBS board), has kept alive a small flame of interest in things North-South in Belfast. And Dundalk Institute of Technology ran a lively Cross-Border Centre for Community Development for some years until government funding for it ran out.

Maybe this lack of curiosity about North-South relations is symptomatic of a wider loss of interest among third level students in the other jurisdiction on this island.  A study of North-South undergraduate flows I did for the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council earlier this year showed a steady decline in the number of Southern undergraduates studying in the North (from nearly 10.5% of the total number of students in 1996-1997 to under 4.5% in 2009-2010) and Northern undergraduates studying in the South (from just over 1.25% of the total in 2004-2005 to just over 1% in 2009-2010).  The Centre’s Southern ‘parent’ university, Dublin City University, had precisely one Northern Ireland undergraduate on its books in the latter year!

Or maybe the students are just following their professors’ – and their parents’ – lead. While Universities Ireland, the all-island network of university presidents run by the Centre for Cross Border Studies, struggles against the prevailing indifference, and the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) – also managed by the Centre – is a marvellous outpost of all-Ireland collaboration and energy in teacher training, my general feeling when I meet senior Irish academics is that the Northern peace process, North-South cooperation and all that accompany them are now a bit of a bore. Maybe I have been attending too many Dublin dinner parties recently!

Andy Pollak

N.B.  I have to issue a mea culpa. Although my doubts about fracking have not lessened, I misled readers on one point in last month’s ‘Note’ when I referred to the ‘less than forthcoming attitude of the exploration companies’ about their activities in Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh.  Tamboran, one of those companies, has been in touch to say that they had just spent two months on a public outreach programme during which over 1,000 people had been addressed at public meetings in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ballyconnell and Enniskillen; meetings had been held with a wide range of councillors and council officials; and company spokespersons had taken part in many radio and television programmes. I accept that it was remiss of me not to consult Tamboran’s website (although I still cannot get anything to download from its ‘Local Issues and Concerns’ section) and that the company is working hard to be transparent.

  • FuturePhysicist

    From my own experience there is definitely North-South co-operation in the engineering and physical sciences with regard to research clusters. That really hasn’t been a problem.

    A bigger problem would be the small to medium business communities inability to use research here as well as either the isle of Britain or the Republic of Ireland. This is a brain drain generator in itself.

  • John Ó Néill

    A couple of things worth adding to that, Andy.

    From the 1990s on, the RAE, as an exercise, evaluated the academic output of university departments in the UK with emphasis on aspects such as the ‘international’ dimension of the research. For the purposes of the RAE the south was not considered ‘international’, requiring northern academics to source ‘international’ partners or publication venues elsewhere. That said, as research revenue became a more prominent metric for academic departments in the north in the 2000s, the considerable funding put into fourth level education in the south made collaborative research more attractive.

    Student numbers from the south at the northern universities would be partly explained by the abolition of student fees in the south in 1996 and the euro/sterling exchange rate in the late 1990s and early 2000s (generally €1.40 to €1.50 was worth £1). It would be an area to watch with anticipated rises in the registration costs (i.e. fees via the backdoor) plus a gentler exchange rate of €1.15 to €1.20 for £1.

    Andy, are you specifying particular areas of research collaboration where this is an issue, or do you think it is universal? I’d have thought much of the collaboration no longer required a cross-border match-making service as the individuals on both sides of the border had developed sufficient disciplinary links through earlier initiatives or from academic networks or communities of practice of their own. Also, the highest peaks on the funding landscape these days are the likes of FP7 which require partners across multiple jurisdictions which means that everyone is looking beyond the shores of this island for suitable collaborators.

  • Reader

    Andy Pollack: In the past two months the Centre for Cross Border Studies has held two significant conferences attended by over 250 people: the first on cross-border training and impact assessment in Ireland and Europe,
    I followed the link, which didn’t produce any more information than you listed above. Did the conference produce any conclusions or was it just a platform for people to get an article into the proceedings as an entry in their publications list?
    Confession time. During the mid 1980s, I crossed the border a couple of times with a car load of colleagues for more or less that purpose.
    There is a chance that what might look good in the publication history of Germans or Basques is a bit too easy and close to home these days to offer credibility and prestige to local researchers.
    But if you had run the conference in San Marino you would have been surrounded by Dub professors.

  • Bejasus

    I used to work in PR for an American hospital. We had a newsletter that allowed the medicos to boast of their academic conference procedures, and it was laid out in table form, so if any of the details were missing, I couldn’t include it — there’d be a big white gap. I was just a kid, but I remember when the penny dropped. The docs who “forgot” to fill out the place on the submission form would respond to my queries, and the locations were always Hawaii, San Diego, Nice, Paris — never Scranton or Mobile.

    I did a postgrad degree recently at Trinity, and am now at Queen’s, and I think John is on to something with the RAE. It just drives everything up here. My take (in the humanities area, anyway) was that TCD was Europe oriented in its focus; a clear sense of “prestige” for anything that had continental ties, a sense of been-there/seen-that for Irish/UK/US interests (not dismissed, just no cachet). It’s as if the folks up here think too much of an Irish connection isn’t hip in GB, and the folks down there were fixated on Europe (and, kind of broadening the Becket and Wilde brand into a European science and digital humanities brand). Just my sense of things. Very little overlap in my area, except for a prof who has family up here. In fact, they don’t even seem to know each other’s names/reputations: you’d think there was 1,000 miles or so between the two cities. Lots of generalisations, I know, but that’s been my experience.

  • antamadan

    Third-level education differences are amazing really. In general southern universities come out well ahead of northern in world rankings (I’m surprised at the gap.), Southern papers have shock horror headlines when TCD and UCD fall (just) below the world top 100, but northern media don’t even cover their worse performance at all. Instead northern media will talk about how Queens is part of top UK,…..Southern fees are either €1500 or €2000 p.a. for honours degree courses at all colleges and universities, yet northern media ignore them. It really shows the strength of partitionism (of course deliberate for two generations).

  • FuturePhysicist

    Indeed QUB is fairly much on par with UCC and Maynooth in those rankings.