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.

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.